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.

Ben Winters

March 30th, 2015

I also have a business background and in January I started teaching myself how to code iOS apps so that I could bring my ideas to market without financial investment. JavaScript is next and I imagine has a similar level of complexity. I'm using Parse as the backend because it's scalable, has an SDK for web/iOS/Android, and frankly, because I don't think my products need a custom backend. At any rate, it's the best option I have for moving forward. I'm planning to launch my MVP iOS app in a few weeks and once there is significant cash flow, I will hire an experienced developer to audit my code and fill in gaps, then I'll approach others to join me. That's my story and hopefully it will give you some ideas.

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.