How To Recruit A Technical Co-Founder For Your Startup

This post first appeared on my blog on Startup Engine blog. You can view the original post here.

Being a startup founder is certainly in vogue. Over the past few years the idea of being an entrepreneur has gained more and more mainstream appeal. And it now seems as if most people are willing to accept this as a legitimate career path.

In addition to this increase in entrepreneurship and startups, there has also been a corresponding increase in the number of people seeking technical cofounders. That is to say, they are the business person, the marketing guru or the sales gun who has an idea, but no way of building it without the help of someone else.

This is an interesting place to be in. And it is perhaps one of the most commonly asked questions I get when I meet with and talk to potential startup founders. The question therefore is how do you recruit a technical co-founder? And what do you have to do to make sure that you are not one of the tens of thousands of other non technical cofounders who never get their idea beyond the stage of being a few pen strokes on a piece of paper.

there are thousands of people with ideas who are seeking technical co-founders, so there needs to be a compelling reason for why they would choose you.

I hate to be blunt. But it is going to be hard! Extremely hard to find a technical co-founder for your startup! Why? Because all you have is an idea. And there are thousands of people with ideas who are seeking technical co-founders, so there needs to be a compelling reason for why they would choose you.

Compelling reasons including bringing a lot of money to the table, valuable industry connections and a successful exit from your previous company. But if you are reading this post, then I presume that is not you! So where do you start? And what do you do?

First of all let’s start with what you shouldn’t do. You shouldn’t create a listing on a founder dating site, nor should you post a job ad on Angellist seeking a cofounder for 10% equity and no ongoing salary. Neither of these approaches are going to get you quality candidates, or potentially any candidate at all!

Not only are founder dating sites heavily outweighed by non-technical founders, probably by a factor of 100 to 1 or greater, but pitching an investor and saying that you only met your cofounder a month or two ago is hardly going to instill confidence in your ability to weather the bad times that inevitably come at some point in your startup journey. If you are interested in some more opinions on this, then check out this thread on Hacker News.

Angellist has more promise, but the real issue is non-technical founders shooting out multiple low ball offers and hoping for a miracle. Take a look at the listings and you wonder what some people must have been thinking. Is someone really going to join your company, that is nothing more than a landing page, for $0 cash and sub 10% equity?

This highlights one of the main issues I see in non-technical founders. They think that because they have the idea, that they should keep the lion’s share of the company. They ignore the fact that they don’t have the skills to get it off the ground themselves and just think that because they are the one “starting” the company that they are entitled to 80%+ of the equity. The only time I believe such a stance is warranted is if the one of the founders is contributing significant cash into the company and will essentially be paying everyone’s wage until further investment can be bought on board. And in that case the relationship would be more employer/employee than cofounder anyway.

So if we are excluding founder dating sites, and would prefer to use a method other than a job ad what options are available to find a technical co-founder? Like most things in life, there is a process. And that process involves work. There are essentially three ways I recommend finding a technical co-founder. Two take time, and the other involves money. Seeing as I presume that most founders reading this are trying to minimise their cash burn I will focus on option one and two first.

How To Recruit A Technical Cofounder — Option One — Develop Relationships

One of the best ways to find a co-founder is to develop relationships with people in the startup ecosystem. To do this you have to get out and involve yourself in the community. Attend events, go to hackathons and hang out at coworking spaces and drinks nights.

Take every opportunity you can to introduce yourself to other people and show genuine interest in whatever they are doing. Most importantly though, don’t “go out looking” for a co-founder. Much like dating in real life, if you are trying to “find” a girlfriend/boyfriend/partner it normally doesn’t work. But if you just be you, and introduce yourself to people you never know who you will meet.

What this really means is that you want to develop relationships naturally. Hopefully a handful of these people you meet become acquaintances and then potentially friends. And much like real friends these relationships need to be built and then strengthened offline. Through this process you will hopefully bump into and create friendships with software developers. And when the time comes to mention your idea they are going to be much more receptive to it, than if you just sent them a cold outreach request via Linkedin.

Yes, yes, yes I realise this takes time and that you want to work on your startup idea now. But even if you consider one of the other options outlined below you need to be working on your relationships and network today, not tomorrow!

Going back to our example of introducing yourself to an investor and saying you met on a cofounder on a dating site and how weak that story is. Contrast that with saying that you met at a startup event, developed a relationship over a 3 to 6 month period and then pitched the idea to one of your new friends who was a developer. They loved the concept and decided to join the team as an equal share co-founder. It’s much more compelling and is more likely to instill the investor with confidence, not worry about your relationship.

How To Recruit A Technical Cofounder — Option Two — Work At A Startup

The second option probably isn’t going to put a smile on many want-to-be-entrepreneurs. But getting a job in a startup is a sure fire way of meeting people who can execute on your dream. Yes, it may be somewhat unethical to join a startup knowing that you will eventually leave. So don’t be selfish and have the resignation letter in your draw from day one. Commit to staying for a reasonable period of time. At least a year. And use that time to develop your network and expertise.

If you are not technical you will be looking to join a startup in a sales, marketing, operations based role. Look at your skill set and past experience and identify what you can leverage to add value and secure a role in a fast growing company. Then use this opportunity to develop relationships with people on the software development team. Go out to drinks after work on a Friday and meet their other software engineering friends. Hang out with them at lunch and ask what they are working on. Showing interest in what someone else is doing, is a great way of striking up conversation and getting on their radar.

By working at a startup, you are also much more likely to bump into other startups and their employees. Maybe it’s at the coworking space you share or in a joint office you sublease with another startup or two. Whatever the case being in the startup ecosystem is going to be 10x more valuable than being outside it. The focus is of course on developing real relationships, so don’t just try and become friends with someone because they have the skill set you need!

The focus is of course on developing real relationships, so don’t just try and become friends with someone because they have the skill set you need!

I know what you are thinking. You want to work on this idea today, not in one year’s time. This is why it’s important to be developing your network in the startup community from day one. While this means that you might not be building your startup right now, the alternative is most likely a 3 to 6 month fruitless journey searching for a co-founder who knows nothing about you or what you aim to achieve. This also doesn’t mean it will take a year. Who knows, after 6 months you might have struck up a really strong friendship with developer who is passionate about launching a startup in the same space as you!

Essentially what I am saying is, is that the time spent working for another startup and then finding a cofounder through your network is likely to be shorter than any other cold outreach approach you may think of. So really it’s not going to take you any “extra” time.

How To Recruit A Technical Cofounder — Option Three — Hire Someone

I kept the shortest solution until the end. But it is also the most expensive. I’m not writing this for the people who have hundreds of thousands of dollar in their bank account and can hire someone indefinitely. I’m writing this for the hustler who can scrape together enough for a 3 to 6 month contract role.

What you are essentially doing is looking to hire a web developer on a contract basis for a period of three to six months. This could cost between $30,000 and $60,000 (and potentially more) depending on the skill set you require and length of the project.

First of all you DON’T want a full time freelancer. They won’t be interested in joining your company full time after the 3–6 month period

There are a couple of things to keep in mind with this approach. First of all you DON’T want a full time freelancer. They won’t be interested in joining your company full time after the 3–6 month period. You also don’t want someone on the other side of the world, or even the country. You are looking for a developer who is bored with their current job/project, has recently left another startup (maybe one that didn’t quite work out) and is looking for something to keep them busy for an extended period of time.

This allows you to be upfront during the hiring process. Tell them that you are looking for a developer for a short term role and to build your MVP. If at the end of this process you think there is a good working relationship, and they also believe in the vision of the company, you would be willing to offer them co-founder status and a percentage of the company. It’s important to be upfront because you want a developer who is open to this idea. There is no point finding someone who only wants a job for 2–3 months because they will be heading off to travel the world, or have another job lined up that isn’t quite ready yet.

Out of all of the approaches listed this is certainly going to be the shortest road to getting someone to start working on your idea. It is also the most expensive. So you need to weigh up your current position and see what works best for your (and your company). For instance, even if you have $30,000 is it better to spend six months developing relationships in the startup community and then find a cofounder, so that you have that money for marketing, rather than pay for someone out of the gate? No one can really answer that question expect you. As with most things in life their is a trade off between cost, time and how you view risk.

Unfortunately, as you can see, there is no silver bullet. Building relationships is really the key and I know some people will be disappointed to read how long it may take to develop enough relationships to find a cofounder. But at the end of the day you want to be building a company that will last a decade, plus. So really an extra 6 or even 12 months isn’t that great a time sink. And if it means you find someone who is 2 or 3x the engineer or anyone else you may have found previously, the you will be able to execute at a faster level and make up most of that time anyway.

In addition there are the added benefits of having gained additional experience yourself (if you take the job route), building other relationships within the community that may assist in other areas such as sales and marketing. And you ensure that the cofounder relationship you have is more likely to survive the up’s and down’s of startup life more easily, and therefore give potential investors confidence that you are the right team to get this company off the ground.

Paul Towers is a 3 x Entrepreneur and current Founder & CEO of Task Pigeon, a simple solution to create, assign and manage the tasks you and your team work on each day. Paul also supports the startup community via his daily newsletter, Startup Soda and early stage startup advice via Startup Engine.