Technical Co-founders: A Guide
So you have an idea. Not just any idea, mind you. A great idea. The kind of earth-shattering idea that disrupts established companies — nay, entire industries.
You birthed your idea into this cold, merciless start-up world. You nursed it to adolescence through sheer force of will, carefully plotting its path to greatness. And now, at long last, you’re ready to give it the final push it needs to get out there and make something of itself!
Only one thing stands in your way. Just one flimsy detail between you and the cover of Fast Company magazine. Such a minor detail, really: just writing the code. You already know exactly what it should do, all you need is someone to put the finishing touches on it by developing, launching, and maintaining the technology.
Now, you know how easy that is. I certainly know it. The problem is that venture capitalists don’t think like you and I. They still cling to an antiquated paradigm that fails to recognize your potential. Rather than funding you on the merit (the exquisite merit, I might add) of your idea, they demand code, designs, prototypes and more before they’ll turn the ivory handle on their money spigot.
The devil himself could scarcely devise a more infernal paradox. To get your VC money you need a fleshed out product. But to build that product, you need money to pay the code monkeys who can cobble it all together like so many bricks in a wall. How do you escape this catch 22? You, my friend, need a technical co-founder.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Aren’t I technical? And of course you are. You know what the Internet is. You’re perfectly well aware of several websites, including at least one that you’re about to disrupt right off the face of the planet. But when investors use the word “technical,” they mean it in a more esoteric sense, referring specifically to programmers, IT professionals, and other workers familiar with the kinds of nitty-gritty technical details that you can’t afford to let yourself be distracted by.
What you need at this critical juncture is a technical co-founder in that jargon sense of the word. You need someone, preferably a programmer, who can put together the prototypes you need to get investors on your side. And critically, you need to avoid paying them. Because once again, that VC money hasn’t come through yet. What else are you going to do, fund this thing yourself? Don’t be silly.
So how do you go about finding such a co-founder? I’m glad you asked.
The first step in any relationship is finding a person to be in a relationship with. And much like romantic partners, technical co-founders may be reluctant to make contact with such a no-nonsense, hard-hitting go-getter as yourself. So you’ll need to find them.
Where can you find programmers? Why, the Internet is practically built for them! As much time as the average programmer spends glued to their screen, Internet forums are positively crawling with them. If your city has a subreddit, try making your pitch there. For more specific targeting, search Google for “[your city] programmers forum” or “[your city] developers slack.”
Some programming forums will include disclaimers that they’re only meant for programmers and don’t welcome pitches from recruiters or founders (that’s you!). If you see such a disclaimer, you have hit the mother lode. You might think the disclaimer precludes you from using the forum as a resource, but what it really does is keep your more timid competitors at bay. Like a straight man pushing his way into lady’s night at the gym, if you can only persevere through the pervading sense of scorn you will undoubtedly be rewarded with a fistful of phone numbers and fawning compliments on your well-toned physique. Fortune favors the bold!
Keep it Vague
Now you’ve found your audience. First you survey it from afar, like a mighty lion sizing up a herd of gazelle. You take the lay of the land, and now you’re ready to strike. How do you make your first move?
Well, you have to keep in mind that programmers, much like gazelle, are a naturally skittish species. They dash furtively from one job to the next — the watering holes of their kind — seldom staying out in the open for long. The key here is not to spook your prospective co-founders.
What spooks a programmer? More than anything else, the notion that they may not be getting paid. Unfortunately for you, they’re not getting paid. So in lieu of actual money, which is expensive, use the idea of money to lure your quarry in.
Your initial posting should studiously avoid any mention whatsoever of compensation. If you’re lucky, they may never bring it up at all! However, someone may ask you,
“Are you paying?”
A straight answer here could scuttle the entire endeavor. By no means should you discuss any kind of numbers in a public forum, as this will establish a floor beneath which no other candidate will subsequently venture. Instead, offer contact information. Of course you’re offering compensation, you’ll just need them to get in touch with you, meet up for coffee, and sign an NDA before you discuss what type and how much compensation you’re offering. This should satisfy your immediate interlocutor while keeping the possibility of compensation-free work open for the forum’s other members.
In the absolute worst case, forum-dwellers may not accept contact information as an adequate substitute for compensation details. At this point the situation may look bleak, but you have one option left: equity! Simply explain that you’re prepared to offer equity for your technical co-founder. As long as you keep that equity below, say, 1% when the time comes for actual negotiations, you can still get what you need at minimal expense to yourself.
The key here is not, under any circumstances, to discuss the amount of equity in the offing before an NDA is signed. If you conduct that discussion out in the open, the ignorant brutes will egg each other on. Before you know it, your candidate pool has been poisoned with the notion that they could deserve as much as half of your company just for coming along at the last minute and handling the implementation details!
Talk a Big Game
Do you know why a lion has a mane? I don’t, but to keep this African plain analogy going let’s say the lion’s mane is there for intimidation. He uses it to cow his prey into helpless submission at the mere sight of his awesome visage. You, brave founder, need a mane.
Your mane is the sheer splendor of your idea. What you need to do here is talk it up to the greatest extent possible. Is your company going to create a market niche? No. Your company is going to redefine the market as we know it. Are you going to co-exist in a sustainable fashion with existing industry leaders? Absolutely not. You’re going to drive today’s weak-wristed market leaders out of business.
On some instinctual level, like a gazelle a moment before the takedown, the programmer knows they’re not getting paid. To push them past this reservation, you need to help them understand that you’re offering the chance to be part of something great. After all, what’s a little money compared to the glory of building the next Youtube?
This also offers you a prime opportunity to showcase your own mental prowess. Without revealing too much of your confidential business plan (see: Keep it Vague), portion out some of the ground-breaking product ideas you’re preparing to spring on those dopey, unsuspecting market leaders. This will show the programmers that you, as a person coming up with these brilliant ideas that the brainiacs at Twitter and Google haven’t been able to implement thus far, must really know what you’re doing.
Manage the Herd
So far we’ve covered the basics of finding and hooking a programmer, but I’ve left you blissfully unaware of the greatest risk in this endeavor. If the herd senses danger, it may turn on you. When one programmer smells a lack of compensation in the air, they may emit a stream of textual pheromones signalling comrades to come to their aid. Vicious trolling may ensue.
How you handle yourself at this critical turning point will determine your success — or lack thereof. The defining feature of your response must be unapologetic bravado. If you’re considering a turn towards humility, don’t. If humility bred wealth, the programmers would already be rich.
What you need to do is to make this about them. Question the wisdom of anyone who doubts your idea. Insult their lack of imagination. Ponder aloud whether their sexual prowess could satisfy any human lover. You’re never going to win over a gang of helpless nerds by descending to their level of technical detail and product vision, but you can certainly beat them into submission on your level of brash vitriol and red-hot fury.
Rather than trying to make a positive case for your company, make the case against spurning your offer. Make sure they understand the future they’re throwing away by choosing not to contact you. Grind their noses in the soul-sucking malaise of wage-labor that awaits them unless they promptly hitch their wagon to yours. Overwhelmed by your superior wit and now questioning their own self-worth, they will eat out of your hand.
Seal the Deal
A programmer has emailed you. Success! What do you do from here? Why, dear founder, that scarcely needs writing. At this point, all you need to do is get your co-founder-to-be in a room with you. Try inviting them to your local coffee shop — programmers love coffee!
Once you have them face-to-face, pitch your company and ask them to sign on. If they say no, talk some more and ask again. Repeat this process as many times as necessary. The programmer’s natural social awkwardness will keep them from breaking off the conversation directly, and eventually they’ll be forced to accept your offer simply to make you stop.
Good job fellow founder, that VC money is practically yours now!