Here in NYC I keep hearing how difficult it is to find technical cofounders.
I'm a technical person looking to join someone as a CTO, so I've thought about this a fair bit recently: What should a non-technical cofounder bring to the table to have a shot at finding a CTO?
I'd love the group's opinion on this. To get started here's mine:
I look for one of these criteria in a potential cofounder.
1. Has built and launched a prototype and (hopefully) gotten a little bit of traction. Shows they're serious, able to speak my language to a small degree, and able to move forward (hustle).
2. Has raised seed money. (getting paid is a huge motivator)
3. Has already founded a startup before.
4. I know (or have gotten to know) the person or they have been recommended by a friend that knows them well.
The reason for this is simple: it's trivial to determine if a technical person has the skill set necessary to be CTO. Just look at their resume. They generally have experience in full time jobs whose skills relate directly to the job you want them to do.
Contrast that with a non-techical cofounder. Running a startup isn't something the typical non-technical cofounder has done. I personally feel that they should bring something equally valuable to the table.
I hope this doesn't come off as too harsh... if you are or know someone who is looking for a tech cofounder I'd still love to talk to them. :)
I love this question because I\'m dealing with it right now. If I heard you
correctly, you\'re a technical cofounder looking to join up with a CEO-type
who\'s working on something already. I\'ve been around this block a couple
of times and here\'s my list:
- Likeable. Life is too short to work with assholes. Best case you\'re
living with this guy for five years before exit and you\'ll be together a
- First impression. Meet him in a professional environment (not a
coffeeshop) and check the vibe. Does this guy make a good first impression?
Any off vibe you get on first impression will only get stronger the longer
you spend with someone.
- You can picture this guy commanding a room full of people all of whom
know as much as can be known about your product space. I tell this story
all the time: one of my CEOs went into a room full of professionals at a
major bank and started his pitch with "This is is what you do" and
proceeded to describe their jobs to them in a way that was not at all how
they\'d describe it. Ninety minutes later as we file out I hear one guy
whisper to another "You know he\'s right, that IS what we do".
- Is someone you can picture yourself taking orders from. There\'s only
one final decision maker. There has to be one, and the CEO is it. If
you\'re CTO, you\'re not it and it\'s best to confront that issue upfront.
- Powerpoint. This is stupid and trivial but you have no idea how much
time is spent on the goddamned powerpoint. Non-negotiable.
- Drive, energy, persistence. Both founders need this, but the CEO
more than CTO. You\'re gonna hit the rocks and have to throw out weeks
worth of work at some point. A guy who falls into a funk and starts
looking for another job at that point is useless.
- Totally devoted, 100%, to the venture you\'re doing together. A guy
who admits to having, or is committed to keeping, more than one iron in the
fire is waving a big red flag in your face.
Nice to haves:
- Has raised money, but not necessarily for this venture. This is a
nice-to-have because one of the risks you need to take to justify the huge
rewards in a startup is the risk of working with people who haven\'t done it
- Top college. This also sucks but money respects this way more than I
- Self-sufficiency. Nothing sucks more than having to teach a guy
Excel, Word, Powerpoint, basic HTML, Photoshop ... On the flip side, a CEO
who can make his own prototypes/wireframes is money.
I haven\'t thought all the way through this so this list is kinda
As a non-technical founder myself looking for a CTO/ tech co-founder in
Boston, I think John nailed it.
I\'m a former VC, so I know that the top things angel investors / small VCs
look for are market size, product traction, and team quality. You should
honestly be more interested in an impressive person that has a prototype
and beta customers lined up in a big market, than someone with funding.
The technical cofounder is the third piece to the puzzle that will help a
founding team raise money at an attractive valuation. Otherwise, you get
caught in a situation where a non-technical team has no fully invested tech
talent, and investors aren\'t as interested.
A non-tech founder that raises before landing a baller technical co-founder
probably gives up more of the company than needed and hurts your future
upside in the process.
At the earliest stages you\'ll also need someone who is fun to work with,
relentless, and has exceptional sales skills - with both customers and
recruits in order to build an "A" team. Although sometimes it takes a
grounded COO to balance the "dreamer" CEO, it\'s a definite benefit if that
non-tech founder can balance a big long-term vision with realistic
As a technical co-founder, I wouldn't join a company if I did not feel that I would have freedom to make the technology decisions whether it is to rewrite the code, choose a different platform or hire different developers. I think this is true of all good CTOs. These days a good CTO person can easily find a job in a big company paying a lot of money. The reason we are willing to give up those high paying jobs is usually because we hate the company politics and enjoy having freedom to make technical decisions and build something. So my advice would be that once you find a rock-start CTO, be sure to give him freedom and your trust. Don't worry about losing control because a good CTO will himself/herself talk to the CEO about any decisions that may influence the business side.
Another common mistake I see CEOs making when trying to pitch a CTO to join their startup is to talk about the loads of money the startup will make. Don't get me wrong - CTOs would like to be rich too. But that does not drive any CTO I know. Pitch us on the freedom we'll have to make decisions and the flexibility in how we can work. If we want to get a MacBook Pro don't ask us to justify why a desktop PC won't suffice. If we want to buy a software framework instead of trying to cobble it together from open source to save a few bucks don't ask us to justify it. Trust us to make those decisions - we know enough about business to do the cost vs. benefit analysis ourselves.
Sell us on how this startup will influence the world. I don't necessarily mean in a "this will eliminate poverty" kind of grandiose way but more in the "this will improve how quickly stock brokers can make decisions so they can make their trades before the other stock brokers can" way. Remember that CTOs are not just technical people we're business savvy too - we are comfortable with pitching to VCs, end user benefits, contracts and business plans. So you don't need to tell us "this will be so cool because we will use the latest version of node.js technology" (You can sell a developer like this but not a CTO).
Convince us that you have some "secret sauce" that will make this company succeed compared to the hundreds of other ones out there. We know every founder thinks their company will be a wild success but convince us why - you'll eventually have to convince investors or customers anyway. Convince us that the product will be of great use to its customers and we will have the freedom to make technical decisions and you will have a good chance of getting that great CTO.
If you\'re the technical cofounder and you don\'t build the prototype then
you\'re X% less valuable and worth X% less equity. A CEO who can manage the
prototype development by beg/borrow/outsource is way ahead of the game and
should be thinking "how much further can I get without bringing in the
bearded cave troll?"
On Tue, Dec 18, 2012 at 9:48 PM, Cynthia Schames
For me personally, an existing codebase is a negative factor. It\'s often
decisive. Existing codebase goes from wireframes to full blown MVP. And
the negativity is proportional to where you are on that scale. As a for
instance, I talked to a guy (about a thing!) who had a working V1 that was
all Rails. I loved what he was doing, but that was pretty much a
non-starter because the technology direction was set. I talked to some
other guys (about some other things) who had a V.5 that was all .NET and
they were married to it. I\'m fine doing .NET but I\'d never hook up with an
operation that was committed to Microsoft stack because there\'s a huge
percentage of money people who won\'t fund a Microsoft stack and as a CTO I
don\'t want to have to defend it. Loved their idea, but passed.
Actually, someone coming in to a situation with code is usually delighted
to scrap anything that\'s already there. In fact, I think the best bit of
wisdom I can pass along from the tech co-founder perspective is that if you
want a true tech cofounder and you have some amount of product already, you
should go into the conversation comfortable with the notion that your new
guy will have the authority to rewrite everything from scratch. You can
put parameters around it like "I have to have something with these X
features to show on Feb 1" but let your new gal rewrite it and own the
As for the shared vision, I think Fred Wilson or one of the VC bloggers had
a post on this. The vision is never shared equally and that\'s a good thing
because it prevents the company from marrying the vision. It\'s easier to
dump an idea that you\'re just engaged-to than it is to divorce an idea that
you\'ve married. The tech guy has to be juiced about doing the idea, but
skeptical cofounders keep you honest.
On Wed, Dec 19, 2012 at 8:31 AM, Cynthia Schames