Finding cofounders · Software Engineering

How to determine possible tech co-founder capability if you don't code?

Christopher Wilson Tech product manager, Infusionsoft expert, process automation fanatic, veteran startup exec, & seasoned pitch man.

February 4th, 2015

We are a team of 2 business co-founders looking for a technical co-founder and we think we found one... however how do you determine if the person is worth their salt technically?  They are a good cultural fit and we have worked out a vesting deal that only begins if they can complete the beta version and it works well, however if we make the wrong choice, we are set back many months. 

We have an MVP built by low cost contractors to show viability, so next step is a private beta to build and get out to users by utilizing this person's tech skills. 

  • Do you hire someone who has a deep background in the technology stack to interview?
  • Do you allow them a trial to see if they can pull it off (like we have arranged)?
  • Any other suggestions?

We have all the business and contract side covered, but the tech side is our biggest hole in the team and we want to fill it well the first time if possible. 

Oswaldo Alvarez Experienced CTO. Helping startups build engineering teams

February 4th, 2015

Is very common this problem. Many people find a friend with IT background and together interview candidates. I recommend create a 1 month experiment and if you are happy you can continue. Other very good thing is try to find an Technological entrepreneur more than a simple software developer, there are a lot software developer without passion about being an entrepreneur and that can be a problem later.

Corey Blaser Sailor. Mormon. Entrepreneur.

February 4th, 2015

Do you know any other senior devs personally?

If not, then yeah, my suggestion is to find a CTO or senior dev with domain experience from another non-competing company that your respect and ask them if they would help you determine their skills. Most startup founders are willing to lend the occasional hand. (Someone helped them at some point too.)

But regardless, you need to have a trial period. Our policy is at least 12 weeks, but I know some companies do 6 months or more. We believe that we can judge someone within 12 weeks to determine if they are the right person in the right job. They may not work out in the position you need filled, they may not fit the culture like you expect, etc. etc. Just be upfront about the trial and have reviews of both performance and code every few weeks by someone you trust.

Sridhar Rajagopal

February 4th, 2015

> Unsuccessful Beta or late delivery of milestones = 0% equity and no future opportunity

I would be cautious about this - there is a difference between late delivery of milestones because of ineptitude vs. because of the uncertainties involved with a startup endeavor.

As a non-technical founder, there is a tendency to not appreciate the amount of effort involved in getting the coding and other work done.

I second the points made by Corey Blaser - it would be helpful for you to get some technical advisor (or advisors) who can help with the interview/hiring process, as well as reality checks with regards to the development efforts themselves.

Kendrick Taylor Founder at Curious Inc.

February 4th, 2015

Find a CTO / Director of Engineering in your network and ask them to interview the candidate. The interviewer should be technically competent, and people competent, because they'll be checking for technical chops as well as technical culture chops. I do this a few times a year for people in my networks. I usually do it for free, it's good karma, not to mention it's not worth the hassle of billing the 30/60 minutes. It's how all the nontechnical people I know have vetted their first technical hires. Everyone I know that's handled it this way has been happy. This piece of advice isn't relevant to you, but since others may read it: anyone you would want to interview your candidate is going to be very busy, don't waste their time, and make sure you're going to hire this person if they give the ok. They should be the last check in your hiring process. The person you hire should be able to take over these responsibilities for all your future technical hires, so you should only have to ask once if it goes well.

Christopher Wilson Tech product manager, Infusionsoft expert, process automation fanatic, veteran startup exec, & seasoned pitch man.

February 4th, 2015

He has agreed to work on the project for 25-30 hours a week after his "regular" job to finish a beta dev. 

Here is what we worked out as a win/win regardless of what happens: 
  • Equity = Possible 20% as a Co-Founder

  • Successful Beta = 25% vesting of his agreed upon equity, 4 year vesting thereafter

  • Unsuccessful Beta  or late delivery of milestones = 0% equity and no future opportunity

  • Cultural Fit + Successful Beta = Yes - We as founders will invite him as a full Co-Founder to the team

  • Not a Good Cultural Fit + Successful Beta = Founders will pay for code based on hours worked and pre-determined rate.  0% equity

  • Code Ownership - He retains code while on trial basis as we build trust (non compete and NDA signed)  If accepted (see above cultural + functional code ) he moves forward with equity and company owns code.  If founders pay for functional code, he walks with cash and no equity. 

Joshua Greenwald

February 4th, 2015

Great question. I recommend getting a tech advisor whose salt you already know - and having them input on the interviewing and check of their work routinely to see what they think. It's ok you yourself might not have the qualification, but find someone who incontrovertibly does. Also, curious, how did you solve the contract side? What kinds of vesting legal markers do you use? Curious to talk more if you can share those aspects, as I am trying to workout similar right now in a different space.

Corey Blaser Sailor. Mormon. Entrepreneur.

February 4th, 2015

Yeah, don't waste your time and money on tests. As a non-tech person, you would not really be able to read what you need to from them anyway. And having general knowledge about coding is completely different than the ability to architect and execute like an entrepreneur. Only a real person with foresight and experience can help you with that.

Kent Hamilton Lead UI / Angular Developer (AngularJS Architect) at AT&T - (eHire)

February 5th, 2015

Being a developer for 15 years and a CIO of a startup I would say their are 2 sides to this. First you as the idea/business person have to find a developer/CTO that is willing to commit to your business and to usually work for equity in place of their hourly rate. The CTO/developer is trusting you as a business partner (sometimes even with zero sales) to sell and launch the product into the wild.

As a tech co-founder sometimes it is easy to be taken for granted. An idea without execution is just an idea. That goes for coding it as well as the business model execution and launching. 

When trying to bring in a tech co-founder, respect them for their background but don't just look at them as a coder. As tech co-founders we don't ask the "business person" to prove they are worth it by making a sale or two before we work with them. We just have to trust them.

Another words, there is only one way to find out if it will work out and that is working together. You are not going to be able to understand his/her code most likely and shouldn't have to. I would start out with something to gain a little traction and see some results in a fairly short amount of time. Let the CTO help you figure out what that is. Don't come up with the most complex problem just to try and get these solved for free :) 

Most developers are not going to be able to code the entire stack anyway and will have to lean on friends and contacts to help them out or seek out another tech person to help (bring into the company). Eventually a team will build out the product. The first CTO/developer should be doing anything and everything to get the MVP up and running and not code the monolithic entire webapp.

From my experience 1 developer is not enough even in a startup. 

Here is how I would structure it:
I would have 2 developers. One as CTO and one as CIO or VP of Engineering or no title at all at this point.. Give them 20% each. Take 50% yourself and have 10% for equity pool.
If you have to bring in a CMO or whatever you could give them 15% - 20%.
When/if you get funding, everyone dilutes equally.

Setup a small piece for the developers to work on for 3 weeks. If they achieve it give them 5% equity immediately and then have them earn the 15% remaining over the next 3 years to vest increments monthly. The 5% will show them you are serious and they will be motivated to earn the remaining. I don't know any developer at my level that would take the 5% and run as the 15% of a company with a working MVP and some sort of client traction is where the most valuation would come in.

This is assuming you are doing 100% sweat equity. If you don't give any equity to motivate and say they have to earn all of it over a long period of time that would not work in my opinion as they are essentially doing this in lieu of their normal hourly rate. In my case that would be around $100/hr - $200/hr.

Hope this helps,


February 4th, 2015

So, a couple things:
1. I strongly suggest you find a technical advisor asap - it's much easier than finding a technical cofounder (NOT a replacement) they will help with big decisions, help you avoid mistakes and be a great resource for whomever you do eventually find. If you haven't search on FounderDating there are tons of really awesome technical advisors. You should 1M% start there. Even the best technical people have great tech advisors.
2. Remember you're not "hiring" you're looking for a partner. Just the way you tagged this discussion is a with "hiring" and it's different. 
3. With #2 in mind read this

Brian York Founder/CEO at Bliss

February 5th, 2015

This problem we are solving at Bliss:

We give real-time visibility into the code for business-side founders so you don't waste time & money on engineering resources that aren't going to work out.
Our tool provides automated audits to review code quality, code value, and technical debt -- all easily digestible for the non-technical entrepreneur.

Also, we have a blog about best practices for non-technical entrepreneurs:
It's a new blog (last week) and our second topic covered 'code tests' as a simple step for a non-techie to evaluate a potential CTO/tech lead.

Feel free to message me if you need additional help.