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Stop Looking For A Technical Co-founder

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Editor’s Note: Alexey Komissarouk is a CS senior at the University of Pennsylvania and founder of the PennApps Hackathon. This article is based on an earlier talk to the Wharton MBA Entrepreneurship Club.

“How many of you want to start a company?” David Tisch asked. All hundred hands went up. That’s why we were there, crowded into a Wharton classroom to seek startup advice from an industry luminary.

“Keep your hand up if you are technical.” Five hands remained. Maybe six.

“Keep your hand up if you are looking for co-founders.” The only remaining hand belonged to a CS freshman in the corner.

Most quality software engineers today have offers of amazing work environments and 6-figure salaries from the likes of Google and Facebook. Few are crazy enough to say no to that. Those that do typically have their own ideas, aren’t sure they need you, and have heard enough cliche pitches to ignore you by default.

Your odds are bad. If you don’t have a strong track record, your odds are terrible. Not a startup-is-a- mosquito terrible, ‘waste of your time’ terrible. So stop looking for a technical co-founder.

Focus on building your company instead.

1) Learn to code

Pre-dodgeball I went thru 3-4 years thinking I was going to meet some magical engineer who would build all the stuff I was thinking about. [...] I’m still a really shitty programmer [...] but I know enough to hack a prototype together.[1]

– Dennis Crowley, Foursquare

Pick up coding. It’s not that hard, and it pays off. How are you hoping to manage a technical team if you don’t understand what they do? Codecademy is the hip starting point for would-be coders these days, and there are more than enough resources available for picking up something like Ruby on Rails afterwards.

Really don’t want to learn to code? Hire an engineering team that has experience working with first-time non-technical founders.

2) Hire an external team.

In the fall of 2004, Rose withdrew $1,000 — nearly one-tenth of his life savings — and paid a freelance coder $12 an hour to mock up a Web page. He got a deal on server space over the Web for $99 a month.
BusinessWeek story on Digg founder Kevin Rose

There’s a cottage industry out there of freelancers and development shops that take some combination of equity and capital to help you get to MVP.

Warnings:

That’s not the same thing as outsourcing. Many first-time entrepreneurs naturally gravitate to ~$15/hour outsourced labor, cheap as they can get.

“The problem with outsourcers is that to get a good job done, the level of detail you need in the spec often seems so high that you’re basically writing pseudocode. You can’t just give somebody a feature and say ‘make it awesome’. At that level of detail, you might as well write the code yourself.”
– John Collison, Stripe

Or, as James Goldsmith put it,

If you do pursue an external team, keep in mind:

  • “Should this really take 15 hours, or am I getting ripped off?” is a common question you’ll have. Learn to code or find a technical friend willing to advise.
  • Software is infamously difficult to estimate. Instead of trying to set a hard deadline for ‘do everything in this spec’, it’s better to meet/chat on a weekly basis, review newly built features, give feedback and prioritize next tasks. This is what engineers talk about when they say ‘agile’.

External teams can be expensive. Want to get started faster and quicker?

3) Simplify your MVP.

At the start, we were running the site off WordPress, getting new users to subscribe via Wufoo and emailing the list into MailChimp. For the longest time, we held the thing together through duct tape and CSVs.

– Christopher McCann, Startup Digest

What existing infrastructure can you lean on to avoid having to write any custom code early on? There’s a lot out there: Weebly or Squarespace for attractive websites, Shopify for online storefronts and Mailchimp for mailing lists. DailyDealWorks even lets you start your own Groupon clone (inflated valuation not included).

If you can’t find a way to satisfy your MVP requirements with existing tools, stop and think about the kind of company you are trying to start. I’ve seen too many ex-Wall Street Wharton MBAs try to start something social-local-mobile, instead of playing to their strengths in finance and sales.

Bonus: once you are ready to start talking to potential co-founders…

  • No NDAs to “tell you my idea”. That’s not how things work here.
  • Be conservative with your equity. One of the easiest ways to scare off a technical co-founder is to offer 50% of your company in an initial email or meeting. Freelancers in particular take this as a sign of your trying to get free labor. 50% of nothing is still nothing.
  • No settling for a mediocre team. It makes a world of difference.
  • Early on, ask for advice rather than employment. You’re better off getting your foot in the door with good people than alienating them with a hard-sell approach. Share your progress, ask good questions and keep in touch.