What's the bar for a non-technical cofounder?

Cedric Dussud coding

December 18th, 2012

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. :) 

John Rodley

December 18th, 2012

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:

Must haves:

- 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
all before.
- 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

John Rodley


December 18th, 2012

That was pretty awesome, John! I am actually saving it to share with
friends (and refer back to on my own as needed).

One small quibble: as a CEO-type myself, I simply would like to submit the
feminine pronoun for everyone\'s consideration as well! ;)



John Rodley

December 19th, 2012

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

Imran Qureshi

March 28th, 2013

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.

Ryan Selkis

December 18th, 2012

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
operating milestones.

-Ryan Selkis

Rob Mathewson

March 28th, 2013

This is indeed and interesting thread. I started one just like it over on the F6s site for an upcoming (unnamed) accelerator. Here's what I posted at the time. It offers my take on the dilema of non-techies like us!

As far as finding that co-founder CTO. I'm still looking.

Top 7 ways to survive as a non-tech founder

My own hard-earned lessons…
1. Double the time and budget that any outside technology vendor gives you. Triple it for solo contractors. Always remember that they are not part of your team. They’re working to deliver on a scope of work and then get paid. Don’t expect an outside vendor to iterate for free. 

2. Never trust anyone who replies, “that’s easy to do” when discussing technology features unless they can show you examples of how they did it before. If they have done it before, you can at least keep talking, but don’t take it for granted that yours will be “easy.” Every time you give somebody the benefit of a doubt, it will come back to bite you in the ass.

3. Learn about design and to appreciate good UX. I may not know how to do a tune-up on a Ferrari, but you can bet I can appreciate everything about driving one. Pay attention to the details behind the design wins and losses of other companies, big and small. 

4. Develop a demo story with details, lots of details. Write it down and be able to verbalize it on-demand. Sharing your story with someone should elicit head nods, not blank stares. Update it often.

5. Build demos. If you’re committing to starting a tech company, then you better have the chops to learn what’s necessary to build a demonstration of what you expect your product to do. Use PowerPoint and clipart if you must, but Axure and Photoshop are better.

6. Buy two copies of Running Lean. A paper one to write in, dog-ear and lovingly abuse. And an electronic one to review whenever and wherever time allows. (You should buy a copy of The Lean Startup too, but read it once and then leave it on the shelf until after you have internal tech resources.)

7. Learn to be a tech alpha dog. Don’t let your ignorance about ones and zeros get in the way of making good decisions about who gets to create your ones and zeros and how they go about it. Allowing a contractor to build in Ruby because it’s awesome isn’t going to help you in 8 months when you realize that it’s impossible to recruit enough Ruby talent and that your product would have been 98% as awesome and your staffing complete if you had built in Ajax instead. 

Imran Qureshi

March 28th, 2013

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.


March 29th, 2013

I just want to chime back in on this thread for a few minutes and share some actual recent experience that's been directed in part by the comments shared by so many of you. This is my way of saying thanks--and also, I hope it's helpful for any non-technical peeps who might come across it. In August I started chewing on an idea and just couldn't stop thinking about it. I'm a salesperson. I'm non-technical, unless you count basic HTML, CSS and some very rudimentary PHP and JS. But I have very strong sales/biz skills, having both successfully sold large-scale enterprise software to Fortune 1000 companies for over a decade, and also built/operated my own ecommerce startup with a consistent $2M revenue run and legit profits for 6 years. From reading every single comment on this thread--and talking with a few of you offline as well--I knew that trying to court a cofounder aggressively without having put any skin in the game would just be a waste of time. Since I knew I couldn't code my thing from the ground up, and I'm not a patient person, I bought a clone script that did most of what I had in mind, and then hacked up the front end as much as I could by myself. Where I ran into technical issues I couldn't solve, I outsourced that bit to a very inexpensive offshore developer. Which was a mighty pain in the ass, by the way. By December, I had a working MVP (not just a prototype, but an actual working site) that provided all the basic functionality that I had envisioned, albeit in a very ugly set of clothes that didn't work all that well. Fast forward to today. I have a few thousand active users, they're actively transacting on the site, and I'm iterating and refining the business model every day. NOW I'm ready to find the right co-founder. I've got investors who are at least initially interested, I've proven a significant number of hypotheses, disproven a few others, and have a much better understanding of what this target market really cares about. So I quit my (cushy, six figure salary) job about two weeks ago, got myself a shared desk at WeWork, and I'm doubling down. Had one fantastic meeting this morning with a potential co-founder, and am actively reaching out to a few others who may be a good fit. I'm pretty confident that our team will come together sooner than later. I'm writing this as a message in a bottle to all the "non-technical founders" out there who have an idea, a vision, a dream. It's up to YOU to make it happen. If you don't know HTML, or Javascript, or whatever...learn it. There are resources out there. You just have to find the time. If it means not seeing your kids for a while (I have two of those, if memory serves correctly...), and foregoing a lot of happy hours, movies with friends, and nights out, well...ask yourself what your idea is worth. I know I'm building a $100M business; I wouldn't have quit my job if I weren't. If you expect to get someone else on board with "your" idea, you better be willing to commit fully to it and make sacrifices before even approaching them. So, that's my $0.02. I hope it's helpful for anyone pondering doing the startup thing. Cheers, love and light-- Cynthia Cynthia Schames Founder, AbbeyPost

John Rodley

December 19th, 2012

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

Rob G

March 29th, 2013

John, thanks for your first comment back on 12-18 - no need for me to write so many words....comes pretty close to nailing it in my book.  Number 1 is most definitely likability/CanWorkWithAbility assuming that s/he has some proven business skills too.  My tweaks would be (this is based on my experience in the B2B world and would need to be tweaked further if you are going direct to consumers):

1. Look for comparable experience rather than the super heavy hitter: this  is important to avoid the biggest source of co-founder divorce " i bring more to the table than you...". 

2. At the early stage look more for selling skills than "commanding a room" skills.  Often a really good B2B sales person will have the skills to command a room, but not always.  On the flip side, there are good presenters who can't sell their way out of a wet paper bag.  Finding a true, long-tail CEO who has great public speaking skills and can command a room full of experts and can make your first x sales AND take the company from founding to exit is ideal and just as rare as finding that MIT/Stanford CS PhD tech co-founder right out of the shoot.  Early on you need focus on gorilla skills - gorilla coding and gorilla selling.   I still argue that MVC (min viable co) is 1 technical and 1 sales - gotta have a product and gotta be able to sell it.  Once you've proven those two things can happen you've accomplished a ton and will be miles ahead of 3 technical guys who have coded this really cool thing... that they can't sell.  You can then fill the voids in skills with others who fit your company culture. CULTURE IS KEY.

3. If the 'biz guy' has run his/her own business or at least had P&L responsibility in a larger co. that speaks volumes, but again will seriously trim the field of candidates.  There's just a ton of balls to juggle to successfully make payroll, count the beans, pay the taxes, keep from getting sued, negotiate contracts (customers, employees, vendors, partners, IP, ...).  No substitute for OJT and if they don't have this experience (and most won't) then it just takes more time and error.  The non-tech co-founder should then expect comparable experience from the tech co-founder (have you designed, architected and built products that are running in the real world at scale? in our industry? recruited and hired and managed and fired dev test and ops teams? Have you done build/buy analysis, do you have experience on multiple technology stacks so we can make informed decisions re basic architecture...   
Cedric, i think it is good to aim high and maintain high standards, but you will likely unnecessarily compromise speed/TTM with the criteria you have currently - my $0.000002 worth below: in general i would say look for experience that is on par with your own -  

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).  this would be unusual unless they've paid to have the prototype built.  If they are really talented then they will have taken this prototype and sold some customers and thus funding further dev....and less need for a tech co-founder.
2. Has raised seed money. (getting paid is a huge motivator).  If you are talking about paying the tech co-founder then the tech co-founder should expect a significantly lower equity share as the 'CEO/Biz guy' (sorry Cynthia) has already taken huge risk, funded the MVP, validated market, sold customers, figured out competitive landscape/advantage, market analysis, identified customers, pricing, built PPT (John's right), corp formation, IP protection?, taken much of the risk off the table for the tech  co-founder, raised money with which s/he can continue paying contractors (not ideal admittedly, but is still moving the ball forward which is worth  a boat load). 
3. Has already founded a startup before. Nice to have, but then s/he should expect the same experience from the tech co-founder.  founding a startup is easy - founding a successful startup is hard, but starting even a failed startup is valuable experience. 
4. I know (or have gotten to know) the person or they have been recommended by a friend that knows them well.  i would move this to the top of the list.   and i started this by saying i didn't need to write so many words!~