002 Finding a Technical Co-founder
In the spring of 2012, my co-founders Mike, Tammy, and I were riding an amazing high -- we had just validated the need for nonprofits that were not tech savvy to easily and quickly create email newsletters for their donors. Almost every small- to medium-sized nonprofit we reached out to told us they wanted to buy or beta test this platform, and we had taken home second prize in our local Startup Weekend hackathon.
Unfortunately, there were two problems standing in our way: the platform didn't exist yet, and we didn't have anybody on our team with the technical skills to build it.
You know, minor details.
The inability to find a technical co-founder to help you execute on your big idea is one of the most common questions I get. This is especially true of student entrepreneurs.
I chalk this up to a reason that is very simple but critical to understand: opportunity cost. If I'm a decent developer, I either 1) am already being recruited by or working at a firm with great comp, stability, and benefits, 2) have some great projects I'm already working on, or 3) am tired and annoyed by these damn "business" people pitching me on their ideas all the time. If you're a student, it's no wonder you'll have an even harder time convincing a full-time developer to join you since you can only dedicate yourself part-time.
If you're having difficulty finding a technical co-founder, you need to reread and internalize this.
So, what can you do?
Create a compelling case
If opportunity cost is the main reason technical co-founders are not flocking to you, then the best way to solve that issue is to make your opportunity even more compelling.
If the only thing you have is a great idea for a business, the only thing you can hope for is that a certain developer falls in love with your idea and thinks you are the right person to work with. Otherwise, you have just as much and just as little traction as any idea out there.
Instead of sitting back paralyzed and hoping a technical co-founder will find you, you need to actively create a more compelling case. You should...
A. Get customer validation
Talk to as many unaffiliated potential customers as you can, validate that the problem you're solving is a real one, and that they'd be willing to pay (money, time, or attention) to solve it. Better yet, get some of these customers to pre-pay or give you some kind of commitment. Document these conversations so you can show anyone you're trying to recruit.
Both quantity and quality matter. Sorry--talking to your relatives and getting enthusiastic yes's from them doesn't count.
For our nonprofit newsletter idea, we were speaking to at least 5 nonprofits a week about their pain points, and saw a clear pattern of interest emerging.
B. Recruit trusted advisors
Bring on advisors who are respected and have actual experience with the problem you're trying to solve. This is especially helpful if you're young and/or jumping into an industry you have no experience with--it shows whoever you're recruiting that this is the right team to be joining forces with.
Early on, we had engaged with at least a dozen advisors who had deep experience in the software, nonprofit, and venture capital sectors that we were able to email/call anytime. To this day, I'm confounded by how generous they were with their time and advice for some silly kids, but their guidance and credibility helped tremendously.
C. Create mockups and prototypes
As the old cliche goes, "show, don't tell." Based on your skill, you can create something as easy as low-fidelity wireframes or as advanced as a working prototype. Just show you've thought about your solution and considered potential problems/objections.
This is where we invested a lot of time and energy, even without a technical co-founder. First, Tammy used her ninja design skills to create high-fidelity mockups we threw into a clickable powerpoint format--we actually used this to give our award-winning demo at the hackathon! (Still don't know how we pulled that one off.)
When we revisited some of the nonprofits who had expressed their need for this product, we brought along revised mockups on a laptop to collect their honest feedback. And when we finally felt comfortable with the solution we were proposing (but still didn't have anyone on the damn team to code it), we borrowed a couple thousand dollars from anyone foolish enough to give it to us and hired a contractor in Argentina, Nicolas, to build a prototype for us. We squeezed every dollar we could out of that engagement and got to a point where we could deliver a basic product to our initial customers, earning us a few local awards that helped us further our case.
Increase your luck surface area
The serial entrepreneur Jason Roberts talks about this great concept of the "luck surface area," which I'll borrow here. Simply put, it's great if you do all of things above, but if you don't spread the word about it, you'll never the increase the likelihood of finding a great technical co-founder.
Tactically, this means starting your recruitment efforts from your personal network (either developers you know or developers your friends can introduce you to) and closer circles. But it also means not being afraid to put out job ads, join co-founder discovery sites, or even put up physical flyers if you're at a place like a college campus (seriously, I've done this). Go attend local meetups where technical people with shared interests congregate (i.e. "Sports Tech Meetup," "Big Data Meetup," etc.) and reach out to people who are influential in your tech community to see if they have any ideas.
Every conversation and every referral you ask for is a new at-bat. Get out there.
As our team was creating a more compelling opportunity (now we were a socially-conscious venture with lots of customer research, a handful of paying customers, a working prototype to build off of, and some local awards), we spread the word everywhere. What finally worked for us was putting up a job ad on AngelList for a technical co-founder (with high equity but no pay) that detailed all these achievements and even included a demo video.
One of the applicants was Felipe, a highly talented and experienced developer in Brazil who had just quit his full-time job. Felipe was looking for an interesting startup opportunity in the United States (even though he had never visited) and was drawn by our profile. We chatted with Felipe (along with some other candidates) and saw an immediate culture fit, asked a technical advisor (thanks Anton!) to review the quality of code in his Github, and began a trial period with him. The rest is history--we've been working together for the last four years and become really close friends.
The Roman philosopher Seneca said “Luck Is what happens when preparation meets opportunity." Finding a technical co-founder requires luck, but fortunately for grinders like us, it's luck you can work toward creating.