A few months ago I started a series of articles that provide an honest approach to starting a technology startup. I covered some of the basics of vetting your idea and figuring out how to do your initial homework. Assuming you’ve got your whole company figured out and are ready to get going, it’s time to embark on one of the most difficult aspects of building a technology company: finding awesome technical talent.
Where the f#%$ are the developers?
Finding someone to build your product can be one of the most challenging aspects of starting a company (maybe the most challenging). Even if you are a builder yourself, you’ll still want to bring on additional talent. Getting a “unicorn” developer is the ultimate goal. But, guess what? Everyone else wants that mythical unicorn and that unicorn knows it. So, here’s my quick guide on unicorn hunting.
A “unicorn” in this case can be defined as a unique breed of developer — someone with a broad set of skills who will be able to help you navigate the unknown perils ahead. Unicorns are tough to find, temperamental, and extremely difficult to tame. “Unicorn” can also refer to top-tier tech companies. People in the tech world love calling things by weird names (e.g. ninjas, wizards <queue eye rolling>).
Facts about the elusive unicorn developer:
- Unicorns like other unicorns — if you are expecting your developer to “just build it” or go “get shit done” please stop. People are inherently social and better products are built by teams that collaborate. Don’t put your unicorn in a cage and expect it to crap out rainbows for you.
- Unicorns like to change the world — the most important thing you need to do is sell the developer on your idea. Why should they be interested? Why should they choose to work with you? They are giving up a huge salary at Google so you better dazzle them with inspiration.
- Unicorns love shiny objects — it’s hard to find a developer these days who doesn’t have a social/local/mobile side project. This stems from two main issues: people love to build things that they and their friends might use and everyone dreams of building the next Facebook. You aren’t the next Facebook. Find ways to make your product appealing.
Keep in mind that you don’t want to kill your precious unicorn. I strongly believe there are three main reasons for talent to gravitate toward and stick around top companies — growth, freedom and compensation.
The smartest people out there weren’t born that way. They got that way because they are obsessed with learning and growing. If you want to hire top talent, be sure that you are allowing them to continue to grow. This provides a great explanation for why failure is such a big focus at companies like Facebook. We learn best by trying hard things and failing at them.
We’ve already established that you are insane. (Why else would you defy your parents, quit your job, and start a tech startup?) Guess who else is insane: your developer. They did join you to work on this crazy idea after all. Crazy people have crazy ideas. You need to foster an environment where your crazy engineers can implement some of their ideas and feel some level of control and pride over the product. Give them space to play and you’ll ultimately have a better product (or quickly learn they aren’t a unicorn, just a mule with a toilet paper roll glued to their forehead). Fire them.
Lastly, you need to provide compensation. Unless you have a fat savings account or early investors (lucky you), you likely don’t have much leverage for salary. However, there are many other forms of compensation. Providing your developer with an excuse to move to an exciting city, introductions to awesome new friends, and a shot at Silicon Valley fame can be even better than cash and percentages. Get creative. Equity isn’t always the solution.
If you haven’t read Julie Zhuo’s posts on Medium, you should. She has written some incredibly insightful articles regarding hiring and retaining talent. I’d read “How to get a Designer” right after you finish here. (It applies very well to technical hires too.)
OK, now go get ‘em!
Good question! Here are some options, listed by effectiveness (in my humble opinion at least):
- Your network. You might be surprised by how many of your friends are unhappy at their current jobs. Get aggressive and see if anyone is ready to jump ship. Dig into your closer connections and work your way out from there. These people are pre-vetted and likely your best bet.
- Your network. Seriously, this is by far the best way. If your network sucks, make it bigger. There’s a lot of literature on how to do that. Scott Britton has some awesome tips on this (and many other things). Follow his blog.
- College. If you are still in college, awesome. You are surrounded by thousands of bright young people without a clue about what they want to do. Find one you get along with and start selling them on your vision.
- Networking events. OK, so your network came up dry and you still have no co-founder. Time to explore your local tech scene. I have yet to hear of a major city that doesn’t claim to have a “thriving” or “up and coming” tech scene. Go to Meetup.com and search local groups. There are some wonderful groups for tech in general as well as specific products and technologies. Find one with a developer bias and go. It will be awkward but there’s usually beer for that.
- Talent sites. Honestly this can be a real toss up. You are going to run into a lot of people who offer to join part-time, take your money and never commit. I’m sure there are plenty of times this has worked out, but it’s a little like finding someone to marry on Tinder.
At the end of the day just be sure to ask. Don’t expect anyone to automatically join you on your quixotic quest. No one will ever be more excited about your idea than you are. Don’t beat around the bush! Make them say “yes” or “no.” You’ll be hearing plenty of no’s as you build your company, trust me. You might even grow to enjoy it.
Wait, aren’t there other options?
If you are building a technology-driven startup, you need a unicorn. In many cases, you can put this off for a while. But, eventually, you are going to need to get someone on your team who can build quality, scalable code and serve as an anchor for your technical team.
Many investors will not be willing to make an investment in a company that does not have the team to execute long-term technical goals. Mark Suster believes, “every great technology startup has the technology visionary inside the company.”
Let me repeat that.
“Every great technology startup has the technology visionary inside the company”
Want to read more on finding tech help? Here’s a great in-depth article about the importance and difficulty of finding a technical co-founder. If you still don’t believe me, you try searching for the term “developer” on this Quora question.
I’ve only really scraped the surface with this essay - but, it’s a start. There’s a lot of deeper, more insightful articles about all of the specifics of starting a company and finding technical talent. There’s a lot of BS out there too. I’ve done my best to throw in some useful links.
Before you make any big decisions, start paying $150/hour for some hotshot developer, or waste your evenings hacking in node.js, figure out if you really even need a full application to start providing your service. There’s a lot of “smoke and mirrors” tricks that can delight your first users/customers. In my next essay I’ll go over more of these techniques as well as how to stay focused and quickly push out an MVP to test with users. See what Ryan Hoover did with Product Hunt.
Thanks for reading! Feel free to reach out to me to strike up a discussion or if you are interested in trading startup stories.
Coming up next: “Hey Crazy, Let’s Build an MVP”
Then: “Hey Crazy, Let’s Launch”
About the author
Matt Kandler is a designer/developer living in Brooklyn after spending a few years in Silicon Valley. He’s currently doing freelance work by day while spending nights and weekends on his next idea. He might be crazy, and if you got this far, you might be too.
Follow me on Twitter @mattkandler