Cofounder · Finding cofounders

Why is it so difficult to find a technical co-founder for your start-up?

Ankit Khanna Founder & CEO @EnrouteCo, Accomplished Product Manager, MBA @HEC Paris

Last updated on September 22nd, 2017

I am working on an idea and have an MVP ready by using freelance developers. However, with feedback coming in fast now, there is a need for someone technical to take ownership. I have used various sources, including personal network, to find a full stack web and mobile developer based in/around London ready to invest about 15-20 hours a week. But it has been mighty difficult finding this technical co-founder. Can people who had a similar challenge share their experience?

Steve Lieberman

September 22nd, 2017

Hi,

I am going to answer your question from the other angle so you can hear it directly from the horse's mouth so to speak:) I normally don't answer these questions, though felt on this one I actually have some knowledge. Over the years I have been consistently asked to join startups as a co-founder. Instead, decided to start my own. Here is why.


My hesitation has always been that to build something that is actually sellable takes a lot of work. To build something that is good, barely complex, and is market ready, will take at least a 1000 hours. That is only for a beta that fits a niche market.


Remember it is not only coding. You have to test it, when you do there will be bugs, you will fix those bugs and guess what they created a new bug, and so the cycle begins. Having worked as a consultant/developer for 25 years, I have learned you need to deliver as clean a code as possible to your clients. Though guaranteed that once they start using it for real, guess what they are going to find. That all happens before you even begin thinking about deployment, which will create another morass of issues.


My point being is that it never is I just need 20 hours of time for 3 months then we are going to sell this like hot cakes.


Thus, as a technical co-founder I would have to put in all the upfront effort of building it, with the promise on the back end that maybe someone would sell it. This gets worst when the co-founder has a job and says don't worry I will work on this in all my spare time. Oh and he has two kids and a wife...what spare time?


It takes a lot of work to get a good product out the door. All that work fall on the developers shoulders upfront, where as the business/sales partner does not share the upfront work load. If this thing fails the technical co-founder has put in most of the sweat equity. ie you need something to sell before you can sell it...


With that being said I am in the opposite position of you, I built the software, we are starting to show real signs of life, and my marketing and sales plan is "Build it and they will come" :)


I do believe there is value in both sides of the co-founder equation. The issue is the technical co-founder take the brunt of the work upfront, though if the company actually does great, it is probably more do to the company builder co-founder.


I believe if you can convince a technical co-founder that you have a great idea and are ready to share the risk with them you will find it much easier to find a great partner.


Hope that gives you some insight :)


Sameer Sirdeshpande Finalyzed LLC: Impactful Revenue Growth

Last updated on September 22nd, 2017

You're right - finding the "right" technical co-founder for you is really hard to do, for a number of reasons.


I'm a technical co-founder (CTO) of one IoT startup, where I design key parts of the architecture, manage an outsourced software development team and face off to top management and investors.


I'm also the CEO of a different startup in a different space, with my own (separate) CTO and (separate) software development team. In my CEO role, I created the business, wrote the core product code and found all the customers. I create and close the sales, direct the marketing effort, set the pricing, negotiate deals with channel partners, do business development, recruit and pay all staff, collect the money, manage P&L (profit and loss). Not to mention being head janitor and cheerleader.


Wearing the different hats, gave me some perspective. Some reasons that finding a tech co-founder is hard:

  • As mentioned elsewhere in this thread, the tech co-founder has to work really, really hard in the first 6-12 months of the startup's life. 20 hours per week very quickly doesn't cut it, even when managing a team of freelancers. It rapidly starts to become a full-time job for the tech co-founder unless you can really limit your expectations for business growth (or find real money to pay them to go full time).
  • A person skilled and motivated enough to succeed in a tech management role, has significant opportunity cost. At least $200k-$350k for each 12 months of full time work in the areas mentioned (NYC, London) when including risk premium (risk of startup failure).
  • Very few business founders are ready to give tech co-founders a worthwhile part of the company (10-30% depending on level of contribution) over time based on results and their real opportunity cost.
  • Few business co-founders are able to articulate their product requirements, and few technical co-founders are able to articulate their delivery challenges. Over time, this creates serious communication issues and missed deadlines.
  • It's similar to finding the right long term amorous relationship. You need to find and nurture someone who you can still communicate and work with during the worst times.
  • ** TRUST matters more than anything **. If people trust your leadership and you honor that trust, even the world's most expensive people will gladly work for you all night, for zero money down. If trust breaks, it all falls apart right away.
  • For trust to sustain over years, you need a common vision for what will become, and each person's needs have to be identified and sincerely met. You have to understand and agree on each others' needs and honor those needs over time.
  • Most founding equity split agreements are done badly and greed quickly takes over, which leads to trust being broken within 12-18 months.
  • Most talented, experienced technical people have lived at least one of these bad breakups before, which makes them reluctant the next time round.

To address the above points takes a great deal of skilled strategizing, persuasion and long-term self-control. You have to know people, know yourself, know what you're ready to lose and keep your promises. Above all, you must demonstrably tame the twin monsters named GREED and EGO.


Can it be done? Of course it can.

Kim Kaiser Cofounder & CEO

October 5th, 2017

I have exactly the same problem in Mexico City. Programmers are scarce... Im still looking for a technical Co-Founder.

Sam McAfee Building Popup Incubators for Corporate Innovation Programs

September 22nd, 2017

OK, I'll bite. I liked Steve's answer a lot. But I will come at it from another angle.


Let's reverse engineer from what we've seen that works.


I rarely see companies that are well past their very early stages, where the co-founders originally met specifically to do the startup, and never where the tech founder was recruited to work on someone else's idea. Nearly always, instead, there was a pre-existing friendship or past co-working experience.


It's going to be hard for you to shop around an existing idea that you've already started on to a developer, and expect them to get excited about it. And frankly, ideas aren't what make good companies. Teams are. The chemistry between the founding members is (I'd unscientifically guess) 5x more important than the validity of any idea. Ideas are cheap. Execution is not. And good execution takes focus, passion, trust, and teamwork.


I am not saying it's impossible for you to find a developer who'll come on board. I am just saying it's an uphill battle to convince them to work on your idea. You would be better served forming a relationship first with a developer, maybe work on their ideas for a while, and if you find you want to start a company together, start it equally where you both brainstorm ideas and see which one resonates with both of you.


One more thing.


Engineers are not motivated by equity. They aren't motivated by salary (beyond the basics). They are motivated to work on interesting, challenging problems, in a meaningful space that they care about, and (here's the kicker) with other smart engineering types they can learn from. Yes, that's a chicken and egg problem. But the reality is that good engineers know other engineers, and can quickly recruit them to join their team if there is really something worth joining. You want to start something with that guy/girl from the beginning.


So, I would suggest you go where the engineers are first, and find ways you can be helpful on their projects. Maybe they need project management. Maybe they need sales help. Find a project they are already passionate about, and prove that you're interested in them more than just treating them as a contractor resource. Then when you've got that spark with someone, pitch them on doing a startup together.


Not what you wanna hear, I know. But it's more likely to work.

Lisa Retief Experienced software engineering leader and entrepreneur.

Last updated on September 22nd, 2017

This is a very common problem. The chances of finding someone with the appropriate skills and resources (time and in some cases, financial freedom) that you actually work well with are not high.


I have been spending time talking to many people in your situation as a I try to understand ways in which I can help them:

  • Keep momentum on moving their idea forward
  • Take iterative steps toward an MVP (and beyond) with which to gather feedback and show tractions
  • Lower the risk of making technical decisions that will disadvantage them in the future
  • Continue to improve their chances of attracting both a tech partner and funding (if desired) along the way

There are best practices for navigation the situation you are in.


In term of finding your co-founder, you need to put yourself in situations where you might work with candidates.


I believe that most of the typical venues, forums and meetups that aim at introducing founders to CTO-types are unlikely to lead anywhere. These places tend to be filled with founders with existing ideas looking for partners and perhaps some consultants looking for clients. The possibility of connecting with someone with the interest and skills you are after at these places are really remote.


I would suggest a different approach - here are some suggestions:

  • Find hackathons where tech and non-tech folk gather to build things in teams in a short space of time. This exposes you to working with others in a team and you may connect with someone you work well with.
  • Become a member of a co-working space and spending time working there and also attending some of their events. Here you would interact with people in meaningful ways which could lead to teaming up.
  • Practice your pitch at events and through promoting your idea you may attract a technical partner.

Todor Velev Managing Partner, EEI Network

September 22nd, 2017

I am having the same problem, but I am not directly offering co-founder position. I even published a discussion topic here (today) just to see it removed as it does not relate to the purpose of the discussion. I think there are several problems:


1. The first and most important problem is the existance of senior CTO professionals that are not occupied at another place. The freelancers websites I visited are full of people that develop mobiles apps, produce websites on Wordpress, etc., but if you need a person that knows how to manage the design, development and implementation of a fairly complicated project, it is very difficult to find one. Obviously Steve Lieberman here knows what he is talking about, but these guys are rare :(.


2. The second problem is that you do not offer salary or other form of payment. The co-founder option is a promise of 100% of nothing. It does not matter how attractive your idea looks like. I am constantly advising startups on preparing for fundraising or on growth startegies and go-to-market approaches, and I can tell that one can rarely see a really interesting idea and team capable of implementing it. For example, I am not offering direct equity - if we get funded, the CTO will get paid, and there will be options for shares. The question is - why you do not get funded to pay for the development? How much do you need for getting to MVP? I guess, if you ask the future CTO to give you an estimate of cost and time for getting to MVP, you can try to fundraise. And if it works, you can both work on the project.


Hope this helps.



Hugh Proctor Hard working, dedicated and innovative CEO / CTO

September 22nd, 2017

Hi,

Steve Lieberman has said it eloquently...

My personal experience has been that I quit my job, paying £100k a year, to develop a software that actually would solve most of your problem. It's software that writes 60-70% of the software. It took years to build and everything was going perfectly.

I then met a potential CEO, who equally had his own startup idea, so the deal was that I'd use my LayrCake product to build his Ante project. Everything was going well on the development side and it was all pretty quick to build, though complex an application.

I had used up all my savings from my £100k a year job, having invested approx £300k to build my project from loss of earnings (2 years + the savings from the £100k wage). I had to scrape by eating and living very very cheaply.


The CEO guy, started moaning after the first month, his £40k a year savings had pretty much run out and he and his girl friend still enjoyed Sunday beers and nice dinners. He moaned and moaned and finally, he himself took a paid job (only to get fired after 2 months)


I took on 100% of the risk, hard work and all the effort, even trying to mentor him about how to do his job as CEO.


The partnership ended after he started calling me names, insults and being damn right rude mainly because he'd been fired and pressures from his girlfriend.


To add insult to injury, and I really don't understand this, but he wanted to be major share holder offering me only 20%, which I rejected to 40% and finally raised to 50%. CEOs think that they make the business!? and CTO is just the hired slave labour... I'd much rather my £100k job over his £40k one anyday.


Well, all in all, we split, and I got screwed, okay legally I still own the business, but now, because I've been 'entrepreneurial' I am finding almost impossible to get another job. Recruiters won't touch me! A failed startup. I'm now super super flat broke, my girl friend scraping by paying the bills, major depression, both businesses down the drain.


I'm desperately trying to find funding, everyone loves my software, business plan and pitch deck but I still can't find a serious investor (actually, I don't think I've ever met one).


So, other than what Steve and Sameer have said, which I totally agree with, here, I am, screwed by another looser 'CEO'. You'd have to pay me to get involved again + 50% equity share + 100% ownership of the source code, because, most if not all of you wannabe CEOs out there are talentless con artists looking for slave labour. Take it from the examples of the greats: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, both CEOs who conned their CTOs.


Enough from me, I need to go back to the job boards and search still longer for a paying job, thanks.

Musab Rehman Digital Marketer | Growth Hacker | Tech Entrepreneur

Last updated on September 22nd, 2017

Hey

I‘d been in a similar situation and from my experience it is quite hard to find a technical cofounder especially someone who believes in your vision and complements your skills. And you should not be in a hurry to find one,its a process and takes time!


With that said there are definitely ways in which you can increase your chances of finding the right one. What I’ve learned from networking with lot of people in gatherings of wanna-be entrepreneurs, startup events and meet ups is that to get even slightest interest you have to have a clear vision and product roadmap. Additionally you must have at least basic understanding of how technology works to be able to communicate your vision and goals effectively and have a plan of how you’re going to get. Now this definitely going to change as you make mistakes and pivot but it shows that you’re not only passionate, you’ve done the homework too.


Lastly what completely changed things for me was instead of approaching people tirelessly, I created a landing page and started a blog about how I came with the idea, describing the problem and existing solutions and how it would really add value .From there onwards people started approaching me and offered to join in building the product. Hope this helps :)


Sameer Sirdeshpande Finalyzed LLC: Impactful Revenue Growth

Last updated on September 22nd, 2017

To any technical person who's ever been burned by their business startup partner: I sympathize deeply. It happened to me too.


To get back on your feet following a startup failure: try contracting out the skills you developed while working on your product at the startup. Especially into a high paying vertical such as banking, or any other fast moving / evolving industry.


The lessons that technical people should learn out of all that is (my having been both a CEO as well as CTO):

  • Learn to judge people's characters and size them up early. Especially the "CEO". A few are great, awesome people. But the majority are just great talkers who are full of it, have never done it before and have absolutely no idea what they're prattling on about (even if they made a lot of money doing something else).
  • When people indicate their true character to you (like betraying or being unfair to some unrelated person), know they will eventually do that to you as well.
  • Limit your risk by working an arrangement where you get more equity as you deliver more.
  • You need to make enough (cash) money to always pay your basic expenses, whether from the startup, or on the side.
  • Insist on the fledgling startup reducing your risk by finding ways to get revenue early, for instance --
  • Either keep your day job while working the startup, or sell consulting services on the side, even at the expense of the business plan.
  • Before the cashflow breakeven point: if you're the one keeping the CEO's business funded by delivering consulting services on the side (e.g. by contracting out your tech skills to another paying customer), at least 80% of those side revenues belong to you, not to the CEO's company no matter what they say.
  • Always manage your risk. Be ruthless about getting your core expenses covered, one way or the other.
  • Always be professional, cordial and upbeat, but never sentimental.
  • If your CEO partner doesn't have the money to cover your core living expenses, you're in control, not that person. Insist on getting what you agreed, or leave.
  • If the CEO insists on you spending unreasonable hours outside of your day job or whatever you need to do to reduce your risk, just ask for more cash, or say no.
  • Insist on your CEO delivering his/her milestones (real customers, real sales, real money), just like s/he expects you to deliver yours.
  • If they violate trust, keep the keys to the code and walk out (if they failed to keep their side of the deal, you don't owe them any working code or infrastucture).
  • If your "CEO" doesn't like these terms, find another "CEO". S/he'll just move on to find another kind-hearted technical schmuck to burn out.
  • Make sure you put all this into a tight legal document which is firm but not antagonistic.

Yes, it takes preparation, strategy, decisiveness. And, unfortunately, hard experience to understand how important these things are.

Jason NG A Left-handed Digital Marketer

September 23rd, 2017

You may go to AngelList and WHub and look for people by posting a job looking for co-founder :) Best