You have a great idea for an app. Something monumental. However, the cost of building it is more than you expected. If only you knew an app developer who understands your vision. Someone with the right programming chops to join you. A foresighted technical co-founder to help you build this unicorn. That lucky soul to share the spoils of excessive venture capital funding with.
The truth is the technical co-founder above is THE unicorn.
We’ve all been there. In fact, I’ve been there many times myself. I’ve run three start-ups and attempted to start countless more over the past decade. After 10 years of searching, I’m proud to say I have an awesome technical co-founder and a great friend. My search is finally over.
That all being said, I’ve had my fair share of shitty experiences with tech people. In this process I’ve discovered a bunch of “pain in the ass” problems you have to deal with when you work with the wrong tech partners. Essentially, I’ve invested a lot of time and money learning the types of tech people to avoid. Here’s my attempt to spare you the pain. Stay away from the ten types of technical “talents” below:
The Consultant Type
The “consultant” type is in my opinion the worst of the lot. They know that they have bargaining power because of their technical expertise. There’s of course nothing wrong with this. What I have an issue with is their insistence you pay them for an initial technical consultancy to assess the viability of your idea before they consider working with you. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this approach if you’re looking for a technical service provider. However, if you’re looking for a long term equity partner, you’re probably in for disappointment.
Technically, you’re paying for the time it takes for you to convince your co-founder of your start-up idea. Don’t get me wrong. I do believe that selling in the vision and working on the feasibility of an idea is critical to the success of any start-up. However, if one party is charging to hear you out, your interests are misaligned from the start. A good technical co-founder would listen to your idea. If he or she is not convinced, they will let you know their reasons and gracefully bow out. They won’t send you an invoice.
The Salary Demander
The start-up life is not for everyone. The financial certainty of a stable monthly pay-check is far from guaranteed. Every founder knows this. This is why if your potential technical co-founder is expecting a big paycheck from the start you’re probably looking at an employee rather than a co-founder. I’ve had the misfortune of having an extremely lengthy conversation with a potential technical co-founder before he sprung on me his requirement of matching his income before making any further commitments.
Look, I get that everyone needs to make a living. Nonetheless, if you need to pay your technical co-founder a hefty wage, you might want to consider ditching the whole idea of having a co-founder and just use a service provider. This is why you need to be honest about your start-up’s financials early in your conversations but also be clear about your co-founder’s financial expectations. A sound-minded and interested technical co-founder would work with you to come up with an arrangement that does not completely jeopardise their financial security but also the start-up’s. This usually involves keeping their day job while firmly setting time aside to get things done.
The Hostile Partner
Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham once said that the thing that many new start-up founders often realise was how much their relationship with their co-founders resembled a marriage. You spend a lot of time together. Everyone has strongly aligned goals but different responsibilities. You need a lot of trust to settle arguments quickly and establish resolution for this “marriage” to continue.
This is why personality compatibility matters. To me this is one of the most critical aspects of choosing any co-founder. No amount of technical capability is going to bring a start-up to the next level if there’s no respect between the co-founders.
The hostile partner is a co-founder who spends a disproportionate amount of time arguing with other co-founders. They frequently question the vision of the start-up and usually in a very aggressive manner. Thoughtful communication is a pillar of any successful start-up just like it is in a good marriage. Don’t choose your potential technical co-founder purely based on his or her technical credentials. It’s not easy working with an asshole and the truth is even assholes hate other assholes.
The Convenient Choice
Do you believe in serendipity? Finding something valuable by simply being at the right place at the right time? Well I’ve stopped believing in this BS for sometime now. Finding a good technical co-founder is not easy. If it sounds too good to be true, it fucking is too good to be true.
Working with the “convenient” choice technical co-founder is very similar to the proverbial “boiling frog” situation. Like most people, we tend to fail to react to problems that arise gradually rather than those that appear suddenly. We’re blinded by how convenient and smooth the whole process is that we forget to dig into some of the potential problems that will come up further down the line.
I’ve gotten myself involved with a few “convenient” choice technical co-founders before. Most of our conversations lasted between 6 months to a year before I realised that they were not suitable candidates. These guys shared the following traits. They were in between jobs or recently unemployed. Many of them had fantastic technical credentials and held senior or managerial positions in their last employment. There were plenty of red flags but I was blinded by their initial burst of enthusiasm to learn about my ideas. Little did I know that their enthusiasm was fuelled mostly by the extra free time they had. I would later find out that it was short-lived. It was time for the frog to jump out of the rapidly boiling water. No time to lose.
I’ve had my fair share of trying to win over this kind of tech talent. They are incredibly sweet natured, talented but unfortunately too shy to tell you that they’re not interested. To be honest, I don’t think we should avoid these guys at all. You can really learn a lot from them but what you probably want to do is to reset your expectations when it comes to getting them onboard as a technical co-founder.
The idea-bouncer type usually works for a big tech company. They don’t appear to hate their life and often speak fondly of their job. The word to describe them is “content”. However, they’re also very helpful and are genuinely interested to hear about your start-up ideas. This is where you may get confused. It’s fairly easy to mistake their friendly willingness to bounce ideas with you as an indication of their interest to pursue a more entrepreneurial life. My suggestion is to be open about your interest and if they bite, you’re in luck. If not, ask them to introduce you to other tech talents who might be.
We all have that friend. The one who routinely double or triple books appointments or get togethers in a single night. There is a tech talent equivalent to this type of person. I call them the “over-committer”. The kind of guy or gal that has not only a regular day job but is involved in more than one other side hustle. I must admit that I have myself been that guy in the past albeit not in a technical capacity.
I think it’s great to be involved in different projects. I’m currently moving between writing for this blog and also my other creative endeavour, making STEM comics for kids. Because they’re both different, it helps me to stay mentally excited for both everytime I move from one to the other. Yet, there are days where I can get overwhelmed by deadlines and the occasional writer’s block.
If you’re looking for a technical co-founder, I think it’s probably best you have a frank discussion about the scope of work and also the level of time commitment you’re expecting from each other. I once worked with a tech person who was involved in multiple projects and our project collapsed as he decided midway that he could not complete it due to other commitments. It was an utter waste of my time as no other developer wanted to work on his uncompleted code. We had to start all over. Bottomline is always understand your technical co-founder’s current commitments before starting.
There’s no job beneath any bootstrapping founder, especially in the early days. Everyone is expected to roll up their sleeves and get the work done. It’s a critical mindset that pushes the team to put together minimum viable products with as little financial and external resources as possible. It helps to extend your start-up’s runway and develop the right financial discipline to impress the shit out of your future angel investors.
I’ve met a few “delegator” types in my time. Delegators are most often senior people who have managed mid to large size tech teams in big companies. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important to have a co-founder who has the experience of hiring and managing tech teams. However, at the initial start-up stage, it’s more important to have someone who can also get their hands dirty and put together code they normally wouldn’t need to in their day jobs.
A few years ago, I spoke to a potential technical co-founder who insisted I hire two junior developers before he would come onboard. I’m glad that negotiation didn’t work out in the end. I would have burned through more money than I should have.
The Low-Risk Tolerator
I’ve run a few start-ups and also worked in two early stage companies in my life. What I can say is… things never go the way you expect it to go. This is probably the most universal mantra for start-up founders. Uncertainty is the only certainty. I can go on with all the cliches quotes but they’re all true. Experiencing thrill, anxiety, anger, satisfaction, accomplishment and regret is all in a day’s work.
This is why risk tolerance compatibility is also an important criteria when choosing a technical co-founder. You need a tech partner who can plan for enough flexibility in his or her development strategy to accommodate frequently changing circumstances. More importantly, the technical co-founder needs to fully appreciate that we don’t have all the answers. Nobody does and that’s okay. It’s part of the start-up journey.
I think you’ll be able to spot a “low-risk tolerator” fairly easily. I’ve met quite a number in my time. The biggest dead giveaway is their fixation about certainty. Basically, they are always asking if we’re “sure” about something. “Are you sure the customer is going to…” or “How sure are you that the UI is…”. They also expect you as the non-technical co-founder to provide significant levels of certainty and prefer to receive instructions rather than actively participating in the product development process. If you meet one, I suggest you ask them if they’re “sure” they are up for this.
This type of tech talent is one of the most common. They’re also a sub-species of the “low-risk tolerator”. Basically, these guys don’t want to be involved in any way with “business”. They look at their contribution as strictly “tech”. In most cases, they want no responsibility for any business decisions. It’s their preference to demarcate their participation very clearly.
To be fair, most developers in large tech teams don’t often need to bother themselves with the commercial reasons behind what they’re building. They have product managers who manage communication between engineering and customer facing teams to decide on work priorities.
However, in an early stage start-up, everyone wears more than one hat and the technical co-founder needs to wear the hat of the product manager too. This means he or she needs to understand and often debate with the “business” side co-founder on what dev work can and should be prioritised based on both business needs and technical requirements.
Business side co-founders will often push for new features and development requirements based on market or customer feedback. A demarcator type technical co-founder will either be too accommodating and end up with a massive bloated product and a poorly managed development schedule. Or they may end up being too inflexible and not allow for important changes needed from the market. Both scenarios are never good for any start-up.
The Disorganised Mess
I am not the most highly organised person. However, I’ve picked up a few tricks along the years on how to stay organised but it doesn’t come naturally to me. Yet I’ve seen the brilliance of a highly organised developer, my current technical co-founder. He is one of the most organised people I’ve met in my life. It shows in his quality of work and also in his work efficiency. It is even more apparent in his thinking.
To be completely transparent, I’ve not come across a highly disorganised tech co-founder in my time. However, I’ve seen the immense benefit from working with a highly organised one. I believe that both development time and lines of code are shorter when you’re working with an organised technical partner.
A highly organised tech co-founder also keeps you honest. They have the mental faculties to question unnecessary customer feature requests and silly product suggestions. In addition, they can be a guiding light to the naturally chaotic environment of a start-up and ideas on how to streamline internal operational processes. Bottomline, you’re just better off with an organised technical co-founder.
To sum this all up, I have a piece of dating advice that seems to be oddly relevant.
Don’t fall for the wrong technical co-founder.
Below is a checklist of the types of technical co-founders that you should avoid and the traits or characteristics to spot them.