It’s probably the most common question I hear from young entrepreneurs. They’re looking for that elusive developer who doesn’t just know how to scale a code base — they can also scale a team. All while balancing the business priorities.
So how did I find my co-founder Tomas?
Finding a technical co-founder was not easy. Not only do you have to share ideas about how to grow a company, you also need to agree on what you want from your particular company. Do you want the pressures (and potential payoffs) of venture funding, or would you prefer to build a lifestyle business? What kind of culture do you want to create? What’s the end-game? Those are deep questions that relate to your values, life stage, and prior experience.
So here goes. My thoughts on finding a technical co-founder.
Step 1: Learn the language
If you move to Spain and want to make friendly with the locals, what’s the very first thing you need to know? Spanish. Otherwise, they won’t understand a thing you’re saying. Likewise, a developer speaks a different language from you. They use words like EC2, client and server, iterations, ruby on rails and refactoring. You use words like product discovery, revenue, inbound generation and pricing strategy.
Now you want to get married for the next 7 years and make an exit of $100 million? Comprendo? No entiendo.
Learning their language isn’t hard, but it’s not something you can do in an hour. I don’t mean look these words up on Google. I mean really know them. Spend a few months in your evenings learning how to code. You will get to know the basics, but more importantly appreciate what a developer does. I spent five years in product management, which gave me a shoe in the door and a lot of empathy for the development process.
Step 2: Errr, dating?
Great, you’ve now missed a bunch of weekend socials because you were trying to hit level 3 on code academy.
At this moment of time you realized you (and me!) picked the wrong degree in university. Oops. If you’re lucky enough to still be in school, stop reading this and find the class schedule for computer science. Go and meet people and start making friends.
But what if you’re past that phase in life?
You might find yourself on co-founder dating sites. I will save you the trouble: it’s a big waste of time. I interviewed over 50 developers, whether it was online or in person, and none of them had put in the time to understand what a startup actually involves in terms of the dedication and hard work required over the course of 7 to 10 years. Most were also very green when it came to coding and building a product company.
Next you might try going to local networking events. I recommend Next36, where they curate a list of potential founders and matches based on preferences. Many successful startups have been born out of this organization.
So get your idea out. Tell people about your challenges and see if they can connect you with someone they recommend. Heck, build a small demo and show it off to developers. (You did finish level 3, right?) This will show them you understand code and that there are fun technical challenges ahead. That’s what they want to work on. Give them a little rope to pull on. Now you’ve got the ball rolling.
Step 3: Sure, “date” one!
At this point your relentless resourcefulness should start paying off. You’ll find yourself having intellectual conversations with developers and motivating them towards a project you’ve been stewing on. (If you can’t get to this step, perhaps this isn’t the road for you.)
Before getting overly excited, here is a short and brutally honest list of things to find out early on. Keep in mind you’re effectively looking to “marry” this person for the years to come.
- Do they want to earn a salary or are they willing to work for free for a period of time?
- Do you share a worldview when it comes to work ethic? If you want to go all-in on business, while they want to start a family, how will that jive?
- Are they able to move if you got into an incubator for 3 months?
- Are they excellent communicators? (They need to manage a huge team when your idea scales.)
- Do they have a sense of design? (Ask them what websites and products they admire from a UX/UI perspective.)
- Do they understand agile development?
- Can they manage all aspects of the tech infrastructure early on?
- What are their values and ambitions?
Lastly, are they reliable? This is by far the most important one. They may seem perfect, but the only way to know their true colors is to actually start working together.
So how do you mitigate the risk that they’ll build your code base then run off to Australia because the surf waves are looking mighty high? You do a pilot project with them. Something that shows you can stick out a few weeks of late nights with mac and cheese (sharp cheddar flavor). After that, build your flagship product.
In many cases, it doesn’t work out with a particular developer. That’s when a lot of people end up giving up on entrepreneurship altogether. The cycle of finding and working with a developer can take months. And when it crashes and burns, it fucking sucks.
So what’s the best way?
It’s rather obvious. In my opinion, the best technical co-founder is a friend you’ve had a relationship with for some time and worked on a project with. Heck, it doesn’t even have to be software-related.
I met Tomas in November 2008 when we were early-stage employees at a startup called Miovision. We sat next to each other, and before long we were automating complex financial revenue recognition workflows and onboarding sales and marketing into an ERP that we championed. Between him and Colin (another engineer who now works at Roadmunk), I learned so much. I was incredibly hungry to understand how engineering teams think about problems, operate their teams, and scale software. Over countless projects, we built a mutual respect and enjoyment for solving problems together. It was on that foundation that we launched Roadmunk.
The main reason Tomas wanted to do a startup with me came from our working experience together. We could build and launch FAST. We also shared wisdom from our domains of expertise which made it even more fun. So we knew it was our time.
No silver bullet (as Tomas would say)
There are many paths to finding a technical co-founder, none of which are easy. And none of which are quick.
Finding a job in product management or at a software startup, building relationships with developers (and learning from them), applying to programs that connect smart people — these initiatives all take a serious commitment, focus, investment in learning, and perseverance.
Because Tomas and I worked together at a previous company, it may have looked like I “stole” him. The truth is that as startups turn into real businesses, early-stage employees want to go back to the start. Young startups are all about speed, control and luck — it’s exhilarating. And it’s why we try so damn hard to find that right person to build a business with.