Cofounder · Team Building

How to find a non technical cofounder?

Steven Schkolne Computer Scientist on a Mission

February 24th, 2015

Hi - so there's plenty of discussion on this site, re: finding a technical cofounder (TCF). My question is the opposite -- I am building a prototype, and looking for the extra stuff that will take this thing off the ground (so i can continue to focus on product).

Any advice here?

Clearly it would be great to have someone with several successful exits under their belt. Proven ability to steer a startup's operations and relationships. Where do you find such people?

Short of that - how do you vet people, how do you define the role for early stage, etc etc. Inquiring minds want to know.

Jessica Alter Entrepreneur & Advisor

Last updated on December 3rd, 2018

I actually wrote a long article about this on ONSTARTUPS called A Tech CoFounder's Guide to Picking a Non-Technical Cofounder - here's the key parts...

1. Expert in the field you’re interested in - I guess this is nice if there is no chance that the idea will change industries (read: almost never). But some of the most successful companies were started by people that had no experience in their industry, and that’s precisely why they were able to change it. Kevin Hartz didn’t have a background in ticketing nor did Max Levchin in payments. Often times having spent a career in an industry means you can’t re-think it.

2. Top schools or top companies on their resume - It’s nice to tout, but if you joined Facebook as the 4000th employee this just doesn’t tell you much - good or bad.

3. Built a prototype - This is helpful but only in that it shows they can DO and not just talk. But it’s unlikely you’ll want to inherit that code or that the idea will remain the same.

What To Look For and How

As a non-technical cofounder your job ranges from product to hiring to taking out the trash. There isn’t one test or one white board problem to give, but here are the characteristics you should be looking for:

1. High FSO (Figure.Sh*t.Out) quotient - When you start a company or a side project there are few guarantees. Pretty much the only one I can make is that there will be a large body of work that comes your way that neither you nor your cofounder(s) have ever faced before. This heap of work will far outnumber the portion you have actually encountered. Can your cofounder figure sh*t out? And can they do it quickly? Being amazing at one thing is nice, but honestly not what you should optimize for in a cofounder. Founders are typically just “good enough” at a slew of things: fundraising, product, partnerships, etc. You can hire for the very specific positions later, right now you need an all around athlete -calls plays and executes at different positions

2. His GSD (Get.Sh*t.Done) quotient - The sheer volume of work that needs to get done when you start a company is, well, never ending. It’s great to be able to talk to crowds and VCs but given a list of 20 things that you need to do, can they prioritize and knock them off at an impressive rate (especially the ones they haven’t done before - see #1)? You should feel totally confident that when they say they are going to do something it will get done -- and done exceptionally well.

3. High Determination Quotient - OK, so I lied: There are two guarantees I can make about starting a company - the second is that you will get rejected (over and over again). Can this person handle that kind of negative feedback? How long does it take them to get back up? This is the reason having previously been a cofounder or joined a startup as an early employee is important. It shows that they’ve been to battle, have scars and are opting back in. It’s less the industry and more the psychological experience that matters. Paul Graham has a famous essay on Determination. Cliff notes version: “We learned quickly that the most important predictor of success is determination.” This means you need to work on something together long enough to hit a road block (or four) and see how they react.

4. High Communication Quotient - There are actually two parts to this requirement.

i) Can they speak your language? You can’t expect them to know as much about engineering as you do. But do they make an effort to understand? Have they worked with engineers before and comprehend the questions to ask? If you don’t know the answer, ask to talk some of these previous co-workers. A non-technical cofounder learning to code is an encouraging sign - not necessarily because they’ll be contributing meaningfully on the engineering side, but more as a helpful signal that this person is curious and wants to understand your language.

ii) Can they communicate with others effectively? This means investors, potential employees, customers. If you have a SaaS product, can they sell the first customer? If you have a consumer-focused product, can they go get an alpha group to test and then gather their feedback and work off of it? Can they present to a crowd and get them excited? That could mean a startup weekend crowd or a group of students; you don’t have to wait until you’re pitching investors to figure this out.

You may have noticed that you can’t figure out #s 1-4 in just a few meetings. The best way to figure all of this out is -- to work together first. Start a side-project. These quotients are exponentially easier to calculate when you’re working on something real together. It doesn’t matter if it’s the idea you actually end up working on, you’ll see far more revealed doing this than you will over 10 coffees or hypothetical white board sessions. Yes, that also means you can’t find the right partner in just a few weeks. So be constantly putting yourself out there.

Andrew Steele Executive. Entrepreneur. Builder of Things.

February 24th, 2015

Finding a co-founder to help you launch your idea (i.e., your baby) is one of the trickiest parts of being an entrepreneur. It's like marriage - you will be in the trenches every day together, and how well you can communicate, work together, disagree and debate is as important - if not more so - than the specific skills any prospective co-founder might bring to the party. Co-founder 'divorces' can often be as fatal to the company as they are to the relationships. Think about that for a minute.

Here's my advice - take your time. Do everything you can to get the wheels rolling yourself. Talk to people you know & trust for advice on your shortcomings. Find advisors willing to give you the benefit of their experience. Do your best to convince people you already know and trust to go to battle with you - especially if you already know from experience that you can weather a disagreement and come out stronger on the other end.

Mike Rowe had a fantastic post recently that's relevant here - the gist is basically that you shouldn't confuse 'qualifications' with 'capabilities. Along the lines of Thomas' post above about not hiring by keywords. I can't think of a scenario where this is more critical than co-founding a company together, and that extends to the personal level as well between founders.

Another bit of advice - don't assume you need a co-founder out of the gate. Teach yourself about the things you think you need co founders to do for you. If you're a business guy like me, spend some time on codeacademy, or take some online product management courses. If you're the tech guru, go to hubspot and read about inbound marketing or read up on how to start to build customer/market validation for your idea (Steve Blank & the lean startup community are great resources for this).  Get yourself as far down the path as possible before introducing a co-founder into the equation.  You'll probably have a better grasp on the problem you're trying to solve, a sense of the market opportunity you're chasing and have a lot more ammunition to use when it's time to convince your #1 choice to drop everything and join forces with you.

Once you think you've found the perfect co-founder and you're ready to consummate the partnership, read this: It's a primer on equity distribution for co-founders, kind of like a marriage pre-nup for a startup. Since co-founder divorces are probably the rule more than the exception, you have to think about protecting your ownership, the access to equity for your team and future investors, and important governance/control issues in the event things go sideways.

There's no silver bullet here, but like many things, being considerate and deliberate about this decision will pay off multiples down the road, regardless of whether your startup craters (like most) or is the next Facebook or Salesforce.

Good luck!

Rachel Zheng Business Development Manager at Honyee Media

February 24th, 2015

Hi Steven:

There are actually a lot of relevant discussions on the pervious discussion forum, feel free to check what others say here: Make sure to browse and search on discussion forum before you post!

John Arroyo Delivering ecommerce and cloud applications, CEO of Arroyo Labs

February 24th, 2015

Hi Steve,

Could be worth deciding early on which bucket they most likely would fit in, CEO, CIO, COO, or something else.  Many early employees wear many hats of course, but which high level skill set most matches what you are looking for?  For instance, some CEOs are good at operations, others stink at it...but a COO better be good at it.

After that, I'm curious to hear what folks think is the best way to attract/vet CXX co-founder.

Benji Hyam

February 24th, 2015

You'll probably want to look for someone with early stage startup experience that has had a hands on role in either sales or marketing, as well as someone who has had experience scaling and growing a team. 

Beyond product, what aspects of the company do you want to be involved in? Once you figure that out, look for someone who can fill the gaps. Are you looking for someone to help you gain early traction? Grow and hire a team? Make sales? Raise funding? All of the above? It kind of depends on how you plan on dividing your roles as cofounders.

With vetting people, you can look at past experience as an indicator... It will also be important that they share your same passion and vision for what you're building. You can have them outline a go-to market strategy to see how they think about growing your product, and ask them how they would execute on that plan. 

Thomas Vrba Global Program Manager at Novartis

February 24th, 2015

Hi Steven,
just today I found this article

I know you are not hiring but I think there is a lot of truth in it. My most successful hires were always the ones that did not have the most knowledge but were hungry and had the drive.

If you have anything to show in terms of product I am happy to show it to my kids 9 and 12 year old and addicted to minecraft.

Good luck

Wayne Dinzey CEO DPD Software Ltd.

February 24th, 2015

Hi Steve,  Without reading much of the other forums and what they say, my first instinct would be to sit down and build a list of the things you need addressed in order to be successful.

Not knowing the actual business plan I am unable to judge what is relevant but for example. 
Marketing - Social media, web site, Business Networking etc.
Sales - cold calling, Outside reps, inside reps.
and so on and on and on...

Then take out your areas of expertise and see what is left.  From here vet the people based on the ability of that person to pick up the slack you need picked up.  The prospects with the most or the team that covers all the bases is where you would probably want to start.  However, as Andrew suggests you really need to figure out what you can contribute and you should try to be involved with all aspects to at least understand what is being done. (I can give you a  really good example of how this attitude saved my butt only this last week but I will have to take it off-line for that one).

You probably already know if you are hiring or if you are looking for co-founders etc to take on certain tasks. So you structure your search with those parameters as well.  Between this and Andrew's advice I think you should be able to get somewhere.   

One warning and I am sure its in many of the forums on finding co-founders but make sure the first thing you discuss with any potential partner is their vision for the business.  You have to ensure that visions match as people invest for many reasons and if reasons is not cohesive you may be setting yourself up for a rough ride later on.   Good luck.

Zvi Epner

February 24th, 2015

Great post.
What are the communications methods and the valuation factors?

Syed Bukhari FinTech SME & Digital Business Innovation Strategist @ Gartner

February 24th, 2015

Steve - you appear to be a good fit as a TCF for what I'm working on. Are committed to your concept or willing to start something with me?

Brian Hwang COO, Q-Vision Optics

February 24th, 2015

Network and get exposed to investors, other business startup business executives.  That will open up many doors.  I would start from getting exposure to the local startup community if you haven't already.