Our most recent event with Rochester Tech Startups was all about how to find a technical cofounder.
For this event we had a panel presentation with five really smart people covering five different views of the topic. Here is my take on the highlights of what they said along with the slides they used.
Adam Cornwell and Michael Murphy were both kind enough to get video of the event, so be sure to check out Adam’s which came out a bit better at the end of this post for the full experience! It’s a long video, but it’s packed full of great information both from the talks and the questions/discussion! Definitely worth watching the whole thing!
Craig Cypher - “…or do without”
Craig has so far been unable to find a suitable technical cofounder. He says he’ll get the response, “Great idea, but I’m working on my own stuff,” which illustrates one of the challenges of getting a technical founder on board – you have to not only overcome doubts about you and your project, but also the other options the person has like creating their own great idea.
In typical founder fashion Craig didn’t want to wait to get his vision built. He ended up outsourcing his project. Here is some of his advice:
Get Connected: Craig says it’s important to get your idea out there: present/pitch your vision, go to events, and connect to community groups.
Get Informed: Read (Craig pointed out App Savvy and the new classic Four Steps to the Epiphany), get on NextPlex (shameless plug), and Twitter. Craig also mentioned the local group App Rochester (http://approchester.com) as a great resource for learning about the app development process.
Get in Interpreted: Do what you can to outline your app/idea by creating user stories, and wireframes. Craig recommended Keynotopia as a great mockup tool for those already familiar with using Keynote for presentations.
Get it Made: As in Craig’s case, sometimes you just need to get your idea made. Craig recommended outsourcing sites like crowspring, 99 designs, odesk and elance as well as looking to local university’s for co-op students, local and national dev shops, and outsourcing in general.
In the end Craig ended up having his app built by a U.S. based project manager who outsourced the development to Pakistan which seems to have worked fairly well. It’s important to note, however, that Craig is still looking for a technical cofounder, and ultimately thinks that’s the way to long term success.
I think the key takeaway from Craig’s talk is that finding cofounders is hard (as we all know), and sometimes you just have to move your vision forward in whatever way you can until you find the right person.
Adam Lindsay - the tech guy
Adam founded a web hosting company, is a very technical guy and has been working for and with startups for a long time. From his talk it’s pretty clear that he’s “seen it all” when it comes to what we technical people hear from the “idea guys”
Adam broke his talk into a series of “dos” and “don’ts” when approaching a potential technical cofounder. Except for what is in the slides (below) these are paraphrased based on my notes from the talk.
- Tell me what you bring to the table: Tech people are skeptical and arrogant. They think they can build the world. A non-technical cofounder needs to show that they offer value.
- Share goals and directions: Where will this idea be in 1 year? In 5 years? Show that you’ve got a well thought out plan
- Talk to me about competitors: “We have no competitors” is a big red flag. It shows you don’t know your market. Everyone has competitors. *Discuss potential problems: Do the research! You need to show the potential technical cofounder that you have really thought about this and know what you’re doing
- Show me you have more than just an idea: Ideas are cheap. It’s all about execution.
- Discuss legal: Have you at least thought about legal structure? Tax codes/laws? Legal problems and issues with the idea?
- Tell me how wealthy we’re going to be. I won’t believe you if you tell me “we’re going to be millionaires in 3 months”
- Make me sign an overly complex NDA: An NDA only helps if all you have is an idea. You’d better be able to execute or I don’t want to work with you.
- Dictate technical requirements unless it really matters: You’re coming to me for technical advice, don’t tell me how to do my job
- Spec time and cost: “We know this is only going to take you an hour.” No you don’t!
In the end, Adam says it’s all about communication. All of it is solved by the technical and non-technical founder talking about the business. He says the people he’s said “no” to were too secretive.
Mark Lucas - find a technical and design cofounder
He talked about the challenges he overcame in finding co-founders and his advice to those who want to do what he did.
- Potential technical cofounders are highly paid and already have jobs and side projects
- It’s hard to validate concepts, business models, and product market fit without a product, which is exactly what you’re missing when you’re trying to convince a potential technical cofounder of all those those things. It’s a chicken and egg problem.
- The best talent is attracted to strong teams, which again is what you don’t have at this stage.
- Ideas have no real value, so all you have to offer is ownership/equity in a valueless business
- Be passionate
- Do what you know well:
- Sell the idea and your long term vision
- Build a solid business plan
- Create detailed use cases: Analytical/tech people want well thought out ideas
- Network, talk, learn, validate, repeat. And keep improving.
- Treat ideas like projects, not businesses: it helps you avoid getting emotionally attached and will let you accept feedback from potential founders and even scrap an idea if it’s no good.
- Accept that not every idea is a good one and don’t be afraid to start over
- Don’t give up! Be persistent and keep looking
- Don’t come on too heavy. Take the relationship in phases with little projects to get the person invested in the project.
- Design cofounders are becoming more and more important. Having a product that just works isn’t enough any more. You need a well rounded team.
- Investors invest in teams they believe in - finding cofounders that are good is especially important.
The thing I found most interesting about Mark’s talk was his “soft sales” approach to finding a founder by gradually engaging them. At first this sounded kind of shady. Almost like he tricked them into joining with his sales judo to slowly get them emotionally invested in the project.
Ultimately I know Mark wasn’t being sleazy, and if you think about it, it makes sense. You don’t marry someone on the first date (I hope!). If you can both slowly get used to working together and see if your ideas, values, and working style mesh, that’s a much better way to create a cofounder relationship.
I don’t think it was as intentional or well thought out, but that’s how Lail and I ended up as cofounders. We spent quite a while bouncing ideas around and talking about the product, business, and vision before Lail asked me to come on.
Nathan Henderson - the designer
Nate is a designer and front-end guy. Like Adam he has heard his share of cofounder pick up lines.
Nate started by addressing why you should find a design cofounder.
- Design is how it works, not just a veneer you slap on at the end
- If you don’t have a designer, you are the designer (so hopefully you’re good).
- Companies with a design focus win … BIG
- Design is how it works (yes, he said that twice!)
Who are you?
Nate says something that I think we can all agree with - That a startup or product is made up of 3 roles: design, engineering, and business. What I think was especially interesting about this section was his point that these roles can, and probably will overlap (think of the classic venn diagram which you can see in the slides). You need all three, and that might be an overlapping team of 10, or it might be a team of two or even one.
Red Flags (aka things not to say to a design cofounder)
- “I just need somebody to build it” - Unless it really is a super well thought out plan
- “I need someone who knows XYZ technology and uses XYZ software” - unless you already have something built that the person you’re talking to will be taking over.
- “Lets get to MVP, and we can figure out design later” - If design is how it works, then design is a big part of MVP
- “It’s like gamified social etsy bootstrap for cats!” - Buzzword bingo is not going to cut it.
Designers are hard to find
- They often have or want steady employment with benefits
- Some employed designers may have non-compete or non-moonlighting clauses. They may not even know it, so ask them to check.
- Set yourself apart by taking action, having a plan, and being willing to listen.
Are you really looking for a cofounder?
Nate made an interesting point that the others didn’t: maybe you’re not even looking for a cofounder? Maybe what you really want/need is an employee or freelancer. Some question you can ask yourself to find this out include:
- Are you open to accepting input? Will you let your product/service change as it’s built?
- Are you willing to share success?
- Can you excite and entice people with your vision? Can you inspire? Will it become a shared vision?
Kevan MacGee - become your own technical cofounder
Kevan is a sales guy who has been teaching himself to code over the last year and a half. In addition to a fantastic list of resources he’s collected on learning to code, he shared some general advice on becoming your own technical cofounder:
- Any reasonably smart person can become a technical person, so don’t be afraid to try
- If you can dedicate the time, you can become a beginner level technical person within a year
- HTML frameworks like Twitter Bootstrap or HTML Kickstart offer an easy way to jump right in and figure things out as you go
- Build it, break it, fix it, repeat. This is a great point that Kevan kept coming back to throughout his talk! Just get in there and start hacking away and see how things work, break them, and figure out what happened.
- Don’t start by building a house, remodel a house. This gets back to the bit about frameworks. You don’t need to build an app from scratch, you can just use some starting point and tweak it.
- Follow developers on twitter and see what they’re reading and learning about.
- Just go and try things. Ruby or Python? Django or Rails? Just try them and see what sticks.
Like Craig, it’s important to note that Kevan would still value the experience and expertise of a purely technical cofounder. He describes his ideal role as a “junior technical cofounder” who would also bring his sale experience to the startup.
I think this is a very healthy approach to the path of becoming a technical person. Kevan realizes that he probably couldn’t yet be solely responsible for a product, so he wants to bring his other (extremely valuable) skills to the table while continuing to learn and make himself more valuable in a startup.
Jim Bullock asked the panel a great question about what they thought the common threads of their advice were. Craig mentioned finding common ground and communication. Mark thought passion and perseverance was really important. Kevan expressed a belief that your best work comes from working with others. Adam brought up the idea of networking - both online and off.
Be sure to check out the video for the all the information. What I’ve included here are the highlights I made notes on, but there is a huge amount of great content in the video in both the talks and the following discussion!
What do you think? What advice would you give someone looking for a technical cofounder? Do you have any questions you would have asked the panel?