Startups · Programming

Learning to code vs. finding a true tech cofounder?

Mike Shields Founder at Startup

March 26th, 2015

I'm an (arguably) smart, motivated "entrepreneur" with a first class (Finance) education and great sales skills. I've tried hiring programmers, local development firms and outsourcing (oDesk) all without success. In frustration I've taken to learning enough programming to personally do mockup to database schema to site architecture . . . but I now fear building out a (amateurish) minimal viable product myself only slightly less than sending cheques out into the void (again).

Obviously there are myriad variables but is (my hope) of finding a passionate, capable techie realistic -- or is it still such a sellers market for their services?

Dan Rubenfield Chief Technical Officer at VREAL

March 26th, 2015

Don't treat it like a service. The techie is a partner. That's a very different relationship.

Get out and about with your local developer community. Hell, use this community to start discussions with similar folks. 

It really is akin to dating. You're creating the core of a new company. It's a team, and a team is more than just ticking the boxes for complementary skills. It's a mixture of personality, work styles, ethics, goals, etc. 

So yeah. Quit treating the tech portion like a single problem to be shipped off, solved and then returned.  If it were that easy everyone would do it. 

Howard Postley Advisor / Investor / Designer / Entrepreneur

March 26th, 2015

Please take this in the spirit of trying to be helpful. To be blunt, you sound like you have a chip on your shoulder. You've tried some things that haven't worked out and gravitated toward the world of, "if you want something done right you have to do it yourself." I feel for you. However, just because what you've tried hasn't worked doesn't mean those things can't work. More important than that they haven't worked is why.

Hiring programmers, contracting local development firms or using oDesk are, to the first order, essentially the same thing: paying someone else to implement your vision. Here's a bit of a secret about programmers: nobody *wants* to build what someone else wants the way someone else wants it. People do that, but they don't really want to. Everyone wants to be pointed in the right direction and given the opportunity to shine. The absolute worst case is when you pay someone to do what you want, your way, and there is no evidence that the end-user wants that.

Unless you are targeting a design-heavy business/problem, if your MVP address the issue, the look of it, however amateurish, won't kill you. If it does, I would question whether you've actually solved the problem and if it is sufficiently important. At some level, you should be able to do a single use case version in PowerPoint, or any number of other "code-free" tools, and you should. Whether or not you ever show that to a potential user, it will still be a good exercise and communication tool.

So, to address your actual question, "is your hope of finding a passionate and capable techie realistic?" The short answer is yes. The longer answer is that, "passionate," means that he or she will have strong opinions that you may or may not agree with. "Capable" would not be a word I use in this context as it sounds like it means, "the bare minimum." You want a passionate rockstar and, essentially, by definition, you can't hire those. What you can do is refine your problem solution concept to the point where some passionate rockstars will feel that the best use of their passion and rockstar skills is to make that concept a reality. In other words, those are your first customers.

Dick Hardt

March 26th, 2015

Perhaps you should look to join a tech founder that needs a sales / finance guy?

Grant Sernick Co-Founder at LoyolyPRO

March 26th, 2015

Hi Mike,

Finding a tech partner is kind of like finding somebody to fund your project.  Everyone knows how it's done, but it's almost impossible to find.

I had been trying to find a tech co-founder for a couple years, with no success.  We had hired one person and it didn't work out.  We tried a second person, and that too failed.  We finally tried working with an offshore team and it has worked out really well.  They are not part of the Loyoly team, they are third party contractors (and don't have equity - but I will give them a small chunk because they are so good).  But they act like they are part of our team, and the relationship has worked really well.  They are cheap, which is the biggest benefit, but they are also good.  Good...not great.  If what you are doing is an MVP, or even a working beta, and your goal is to get funded, then this is one way to go that costs not very much, allows you to retain your equity, and minimize risk.  Once you have gotten far enough to raise money, then you can hire local talent.  Once you are paying them, then you can give up less equity. 

Finding great guys overseas is a real challenge.  If you are interested, I'm happy to put you in touch with my guys.  Just PM me.  I can fill you in on the pros/cons, and you can make a decision as to how you want to proceed.

Michael ★ Vice President, User Experience at RingCentral

March 27th, 2015

I see variations on this thread just about every day on FD. Someone has a Big Idea, that just needs a little bit of engineering to show everyone how great it's going to be. But there is no money, so maybe a Tech Cofounder is the best path.

A couple of thoughts:
1. Do you really need a technical implementation to get to your next step?
What is your next step? Are you trying to get funding from someone? F&F? Angel(s)? VC? Are you trying to validate the idea with prospects? Doing some price sensitivity testing? Do any of these audiences really need to see what limited implementation you could put together yourself? Or would a prototype put together in Powerpoint / Presi / Balsamiq / Axure / UXPin get the job done at much less cost? Unless your Big Idea needs to prove that it can actually be built, a tech POC is possibly not useful.

2. What sort of person is likely to want to work for no cash?
The idea of a Tech Cofounder is that someone is going to like your idea so much, and believe in your ability to execute so much, that they are going to be willing to jump on board with you for no money up front. There are only two people this could be: 1) someone with deep tech skills who has already been through a successful venture and is now independently wealthy enough to invest in your Big Idea by trading time for equity, or 2) someone who lives with their parents and can't find any other work. The first guy already has a great network, access to other Big Ideas, probably some Big ideas of his own, and already knows how hard the execution of a Big Idea actually is, the second guy is useless to you.

3. A Tech Cofounder is unlikely to be useful
A co founder should be someone who is going to help you lead and evolve and prove the business model, not just write some code. A real cofounder is pretty much going to want to hire a bunch of people with the various specific skill sets to build out the entire stack, from UI, to the services layer, the the back end. And, you're probably building a cloud app, and so you need CloudOps/DevOps to keep the whole thing running and make sure it doesn't fall over in the middle of presenting your Big Idea. Really, nobody has that complete skill set with any depth. So, the Tech Cofounder doesn't actually solve your problem.

If your Big Idea has merit, it will show in your non-functional prototype testing, and someone will get so excited about the user/buyer feedback you've received that they will give you money to hire good talent.

So, now that I've talked you out of finding free tech talent, let's talk about what you really need. And the good news is that it is easily found for free. You need an Interaction Designer. This is the partner to your Big Idea. This is the person who will get your prototype both designed and built, and validated, and will help you evolve it based on feedback from prospects and investors. And, there are a ton of them out there now, fresh out of school, and looking for work. And, they are not finding jobs because they don't have a portfolio of "real" work. See where I'm going?

Good luck.


Alejandro Carrasco

March 26th, 2015

I've been able to outsource the wireframes and MVP to a team overseas but definitely know  that to take it to the next level you have to get a partner just as Dan said. Both need to challenge each other. Treat it like a marriage. Don't jump on any offer. Do your due diligence.  

Andy Tsen Startups

March 26th, 2015

Well, I can tell you that as a tech cofounder, it's also extremely hard to find a tech cofounder (even though I have an SE background). At the end of the day, it's not really about you not having tech skills as it is so much about knowing what makes techies tick.

I would say it's the following
  • An amazingly cool idea that will change the world.
  • Challenging technical problems to solve
  • A holistic understanding of tech as it pertains to development principles, project management, and product management
After that, it's knowing where to find these guys. You won't find the best guys on here or at recruiting meetups, you need to find them at hackathons, partner up with them with a great idea, and show them how smart you are.

After that, it's just about showing them the vision for the world that you have. Without a SUPER compelling vision you won't have much of a chance. At least that's my experience.

Michael Barnathan Adaptable, efficient, and motivated

March 26th, 2015

It's easy to find *a* tech cofounder if you're in the right circles (e.g. meetups, hackathons, startup weekends). But it's very hard to find the *right* tech cofounder regardless. And finding the wrong one will most likely pose an existential threat to your business.

The part about expressing the vision is key. Anyone with a halfway decent tech background hears a zillion people building a zillion photo sharing and chat apps, and they all think it'll be the next Facebook. If you have a unique vision that's audacious, meaningful, and fun, you're already ahead of 99% of the pack.

Michael Barnathan Adaptable, efficient, and motivated

March 30th, 2015

You don't need someone who has (cloud + mobile + big data + saas + ruby + ...) experience to start out. It's called an MVP because you start off by reducing features :) - the ones that you target first will be at the intersection of the demands from your market research and what your tech team has the skills to build. A good tech person will be willing to learn new skills as the business grows, cofounder or otherwise, and the MVP, should it be a compelling offering, should attract the sort of interest that will let you start hiring out a proper dev team for v2.

By the way, tech recruiting is an often-overlooked skill that your tech person should possess. The first technical person on your team will likely be the one vetting everyone else who comes in the door! Plan accordingly, or find an advisor who's willing to take that on.

David Schwartz Multi-Platform (Desktop+Mobile) Rapid Prototyping + Dev, Tool Dev

April 2nd, 2015

It's always amusing to read posts like this. I have a degree in Math / Computer Science and have been working as a software developer since 1979. If I had a dollar for everybody who approached me saying, "Hey, I've got this great idea! If you'd like to partner with me and program it for me, I'll give you have of the profits!", then I'd be pretty rich by now.

The other thing that I get an even bigger chuckle out of is the people who do this and then don't want to describe exactly what they want because they're afraid I'll steal their idea.

At the risk of over-generalizing, programmers come in two flavors: "coders" and "creative innovators".

The "coders" work to pay the rent, put food on the table, and build a stable financial future for themselves and their families. They want a paycheck. They may think your idea is interesting, but don't expect them to jump on board and scream "Show me the money!" to keep you motivated. I would venture to say that 90% of the people you find on oDesk, Freelancer, RentACoder, and similar sites fall into this category. They see their skills as a way to trade time for money, and aren't interested in working for free. They won't steal your ideas simply because they are too risk-averse, and have no stomach for building a business. (Nor do they have the slightest idea where to start.) That said, I'm sad to say that there are unscrupulous outsourcing firms in certain Asian countries that will charge you a pretty penny to build your software, then turn around and tweak it a little and resell it as a "white-label" solution to whomever they can. So be advised ... never give more than 50% of your programming to any single outsourcing company overseas. Split it into two or three pieces in such a way that none of them knows the whole picture and cannot figure it out from the pieces they're given.

The "creative innovators" are people like me who have far more ideas floating around in our heads than we could implement in five lifetimes. Why would I work for free for you with a very low likelihood of ever earning a penny when I've got dozens of my own ideas I can spend my free time working on with what I perceive as a far better chance of making me money someday? We won't steal your ideas because we think ours are far better!

Speaking from my own experience, the most dangerous character in any startup is the guy who's paying the bills. I've worked at half a dozen startups, and every single one was either driven into the ground by the investors, or barely survived such an attempt. So offering me straight equity for something that's extremely unlikely to ever pay off is tilting at windmills.

Here's the scenario you need to overcome: given, say, $20,000 and/or 1000 hours of time to invest, would I prefer to: (a) invest in implementing YOUR idea, over which I have zero control and a very low likelihood of ever earning a penny; or (b) invest it in MY OWN idea over which I have 100% control and what seems like a far better chance of making a return on that investment someday?

That is the most fundamental equation you need to overcome when you're talking to a software developer about joining your team. Because either they're only interested in working for cash, or they're going to think you're nuts if you believe they'll be as passionate about your idea as they'd be if it was their own idea.

If you look at startups that involve software, what typically happens is there are some friends who started kicking around an idea and decided to pursue it, and one or more of them is a software developer. They didn't hire someone as a partner, and they didn't go around begging someone to join the team for straight equity.

The startups I've worked for paid me to work for them. I also got stock. And in exactly ONE instance did that stock ever translate into further cash. Once. Out of more than a dozen. With a history like that, there's no way in hell I'd ever work for straight equity when I have no control over the product definition or direction of the company. And nobody with half a brain on their head would either. At least, not unless it was equity in our own companies, implementing our own ideas.

That's not to say it's impossible to find a kid earning $100k+ who's got some extra time on his hands and might throw you a bone by cutting some code for you. But in the back of his mind, he's just doing it for the fun of it, and isn't really expecting anything much to come of it. And if some kind of diversion comes along (like a pretty girl, a nice vacation, or his boss needs him to go into crunch-mode for a month) you won't hear from him for a while.

THE SOLUTION: raise some capital and hire someone local. Period. End of story.

PS: I once worked for a guy who's a leading researcher in the field of genetics and genomics. When he was trying to hire me, I asked him, "I don't have the first clue about genetics or genomics. Why do you want to hire me?" His response was instructive: "I've found it's much easier to teach a programmer about genetics and genomics than to teach a biologist how to program."