So… you have a great idea for a tech-oriented business and maybe an MBA to go along with it. But if you don’t have strong technical skills, then you’re going to need to fill that gap. That’s where a technical co-founder comes in.
The fact is, no responsible investor will back a tech startup that lacks tech talent. It’s simply too risky. And even if you’re not looking for funding right now, you’re going to need in-house technical expertise sooner rather than later. No doubt about it: Having a CTO type as part of your founding team is essential.
The challenge is that qualified candidates — experienced developers and software engineers with strong project management skills — are in high demand and have their pick of career opportunities. So what does it take to find and successfully recruit a technical co-founder?
What not to do
First of all, let’s dispel the notion that you can take shortcuts rather than bring on a technical co-founder. Learning to code yourself? If you even have the stomach for that, it would take you years and prevent you from focusing on your business. Outsourcing development to India or hiring a freelancer or college kid? That might be fine for developing a minimum viable product (MVP), but not nearly enough for the long term.
Sell the opportunity
A potential technical cofounder will want to know why joining your startup is such a great opportunity. Having an MVP to share can help. So can the perspective that comes with “talking to potential customers, gathering requirements, researching competition and comparable companies in adjacent areas, testing your assumptions, gathering market feedback, and drumming up interest and momentum around what you are trying to do,” writes RunKeeper founder Jason Jacobs. Ultimately, you have to prove there’s demand for what you’re offering — and that the market is willing to pay for it.
Potential technical cofounders will be evaluating you, too. What exactly do you bring to the table? You must make a compelling case that your experience, skills, connections, and vision will help make your startup a success. Also, even though you’re not a professional coder, you should be tech-savvy enough to be able to ask good questions and engage in a reasonably intelligent conversation.
Conduct the search
When it comes to finding qualified candidates, the possibilities are endless. You can use sites that match entrepreneurs and technical talent (e.g. Founder2be or CoFoundersLab) or leverage your LinkedIn network. But you should also get out there and meet people through community events, hackathons, startup weekends, industry conferences, etc.
There’s a lot to consider when evaluating candidates. Are they a good fit in terms of work ethic, vision, and commitment? Do you trust them? How strong are their technical skills? Hiring a recruiter can help you sort it all out, but can also be cost-prohibitive. Instead, find a technical advisor — someone with the right experience who is willing to work for a small piece of equity — to help with initial interviews and make recommendations.
Define roles & compensation
Before you commit to a candidate — and a candidate commits to you — everyone’s roles must be clearly defined. As Marty Zwilling wrote on our blog in 2011, “Agree on role assignments early. The last thing you need after all this work is partners stepping on your toes. Make sure you all agree on what you know, what you are good at, and what responsibilities are assigned to each. Get this in writing as a standard prenuptial.”
As for compensation, remember that you’re bringing on a partner, not a salaried employee. Compensation must reflect the high demand for his or her services, so be prepared to make a reasonable offer that includes equity. Yes, you need to keep costs under control — but making a lowball offer isn’t going to land you a rock-star cofounder.
Do you have any lessons to share about finding and recruiting a technical co-founder? Please chime in below.