Sunday, August 15, 2010

Technical Co-Founders Are A Myth

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An Internet entrepreneur needs a website. Two years ago I got the bug to do an online recruiting startup and I began the hunt to find a technical co-founder - a software engineer who works for no cash - to help me build my dream website. Twelve months into my startup journey I had four half-built websites that had been built by my four ex-technical co-founders. You may get a software engineer to start something for you, but they won't stick with the project when it gets difficult. I learned something: technical co-founders are a myth. You're more likely to bump into a piece of talking bacon riding a unicorn on their way to a leprechaun's pool party than finding a software engineer who will work for free.

Most software engineers aren't business people. The only way a software engineer can tell a business idea is a viable is to see the money coming in. A business geek with no money and no income isn't going to inspire confidence in a software geek. If a software geek really wants to try building something for no pay, they're going to work for themself instead of following another cashless entrepreneur.

Max Shapiro's People Connect Staffing has an innovative program called Employees Without Paychecks. This program helps pre-funded startups get work done by professionals willing to work without a formal paycheck. These professionals can help with anything from finance to marketing, but you won't find any software engineers volunteering their services. Why? Because software engineers don't work for free.

If you want to build a business that requires software, be prepared to invest a little money. You can probably get away with spending less than you thought. I recently met a junior software developer working for $200/week + room & board at a business geek's house. The business geek needed a working software prototype and the programmer needed experience. The pair had never intended to build a lasting company together. The quality of the software didn't matter much because it was for display purposes only. After a few months, the demo site won a business plan competition.

My strategy for getting a website built was to make friends with programmers. I went to every programming event I could find on I found the group of Ruby enthusiasts in SFRuby to be quite active and social. I studied programming at Alex Chaffee's house and that's where I met Sarah Allen. I volunteered as a teaching assistant in Sarah's very first class teaching Ruby and the two of us became good friends. Eventually I was able to scrape up a few bucks and hired Sarah to build me a website prototype. That prototype is now something I use everyday to run my recruiting business. I still don't have a technical co-founder and at this point - I don't need one. Eventually I'll hire a software geek of my own, but right now I'm doing just fine without one.

UPDATE: I have to link to this article by Joshua Volz. He's right on so many levels. I'm trying to create a technology enabled recruiting service for an unproven business model. In 2008 I was first time startup founder with no cash. Partnering with me at that stage was speculative at best. Even though the business is making money now, it's still a big risk for anyone involved.

UPDATE UPDATE: Josh Volz is a cool guy. He reached out to me personally and said hello. I think it's safe to say we both agree that good help is hard to find :) Keep rockin' it Josh.


  1. I think you hit the nail on the head - any programmer that is good at what they do, will only donate so much of their time without pay. So that means keeping the projects as MVP and raise funding, or have some capital to reach v1.0 stage.

  2. Absolutely correct. From my point of view, as a tech, one of the primary roles of a business co-founder is to find cash. If there's a business co-founder with an idea looking to partner with me, they've flunked their first test if they weren't able to raise cash.

    If I'm shopping an idea around, that's a different story.

    It's not a question of me being unwilling to work for equity -- I am. I just have a hard time evaluating competence of business co-founders. Raising cash is an easy test. If they did it, they're likely to be okay. If they couldn't do it -- it's not an automatic fail, but it's pretty close. I'll need damn good evidence of your competence (e.g. former successful start-up).

  3. Programmers will not work for free if your idea is bad. If your idea is bad you have nothing to bring to the table because you have no other skills to offer as a non technical co-founder.

  4. Obviously the four 'co-founders' were just greedy morons and you rule! Or maybe four people leaving would give you a hint of something...

  5. I sorta agree ... even after our work was featured in all the tech blogs and received seed funding .. finding other devs to help for free was always a challenge.

    I suggest you learn how to code; learning such will be invaluable skill for you when and if your startup doesnt work out. Also hire offshore devs to assist you in building your product. You might work with them long enough that it becomes a partnership and the dev works for free.

    But AGAIN LEARN HOW TO CODE; front end, back end and or mobile development - SOMETHING CAUSE NO ONE CARES ABOUT YOUR STARTUP. ONLY YOU DO!

  6. Your idea is probably a heaping pile of shit.

  7. Try to make a product that is just as easy to sell to a technical co-founder as it is to a VC or Angel. I work almost exclusively with technical partners and if we are all passionate about the idea and the product, we follow through.

  8. This is hilarious, software engineers do not work for free? Maybe you have never heard of Linux? Or Gimp, or the 1000s of other open source projects, built for free by software engineers. Not business people, software engineers.

    Did you ever think it was you who were the problem in the past? I am not sure exactly what you bring to the table, apart from the initial idea, which is completely worthless in itself.

    Perhaps are looking in the wrong field, since you have never even heard of open source development before?

  9. If you had four folks quit on you, it is almost certainly your fault.

    And your post belies a real lack of respect for engineering talent. That attitude is impossible to hide when you are working closely with someone, so I can almost guarantee that this at least partially explains your failures.

  10. What you're calling a technical co-founder isn't a co-founder at all--you were looking for free labor. It's like trying to find a wife by asking women to sleep with you, make you dinner, and do your laundry, and then proclaiming "wives don't exist" when your search turns up empty.

    The notion that you are going to find a technical co-founder who should work for *you* to implement *your* idea is the myth. In reality, technical co-founders *are* working for themselves because they have partial ownership over both the idea and the company.

  11. Interesting to see reactions. A little background - I started trying too early. I had an idea with no traction and no money to spend. Was I looking for free labor? Most definitely. The other side to that is I wasn't paying myself either. Essentially I was trying to get someone to buy into a half-baked idea, and that doesn't work. From where I was starting, it was not unlike trying to get a plot of land upon which I'd build apartments and to rent out, except that I couldn't even afford the land.

  12. Were you offering 50/50 ownership split with your co-founder?

  13. I was offering a 50/50 split. I probably came across as too serious in the beginning. They wanted to try working together to see what would happen, and I wanted to conquer the world. You could say I was trying to propose on the first date.

  14. Could we know what business skill did you bring into the equation? Were you able to find money? Were you able to have a letter of intent from few people who will want to use your tool? If not, move on.

  15. When all you have is an idea you're selling yourself and your own abilities. This is likely to filter out most of the qualified technical co-founders up front (they have a lot of opportunities).

    It sounds like you didn't provide a compelling value proposition for your co-founder, in terms of following through on your side of the business, developing your idea, or simply managing your relationship.

  16. I had an idea with no cash. When I finally got my hands on 20 grand CASH, I found an amazing technical c-founder. He changed the idea to make it even way but but still keeping basically the same premise and solving the same problem - although in a much different way than I thought was possible. God blass my technical co-founder - he is the best!

  17. making it way better*
    God bless*

    sorry, Ive been working on the business side of things all day - my brain is fried..

  18. I got a few thousand bucks from friends to help with the formation of the company. If you read further back in the blog, you'll see that 2009 wasn't a very good year for me (and a lot of other people, too). I crawled my way back and have largely been able to bootstrap the business. I may or may not raise money in the future.

  19. Interesting ... I enjoyed reading this very much, although from what you describe (and as comments above have said), a technical cofounder doesn't seem like what you were looking for.

    It seems like you were looking more for someone to code your site without much cost, than someone with total buy in to your idea and to you as an individual ... This is very very key and I think thats where you went wrong (forgive me if I am being presumptous)

    I've been in such a situation before, where I was hired ostensibly as a co-founder, but my input and ideas for how the application should be built were roundly ignored because they didn't fall in line with the founder's vision. I was basically a consultant without the payment and I basically got taken advantage of.

    Nobody wants that to happen to them and Craigslist posts from a founder who just needs someone to program their idea, while they reap a 50% profit having done nothing much up front are stuff of developer lore.

    So I think your experience is educational, but the lesson you drew from it, is a little flawed.

    My advice for people in your position would be to
    - Put the emphasis on finding a developer who truly believes in your idea and who you genuinely like. Being a co-founder is like being married, expect to butt heads a lot ... you're not going to be able to dictate things to someone coding for free. And the way you resolve differences will determine how your partnership will work.

    - So when you write a post on craigslist, talk about yourself, what you bring to the table (don't brag, most developers are as smart if not smarter than you). Why they want to work on your idea (without giving away too much) and why they would want to. If you can't do that convincingly, go get investor money and hire a consultant.

    - Find out what you can about your potential cofounder, read their blog posts and comments on hacker news, reddit or wherever, to get a feel for their personality and how that's going to mesh with yours.

    - understand that most of the risk is borne up front by the Developer ... DO NOT OVERLOOK THIS. You have to appreciate that if they buy into your idea, you have to make life as easy as possible for them because unless you're paying them a retainer of some sort ... they're actually contributing code and billable hours to your project while you've only put in your idea, at this point.

    So to close, a technical co founder and a low cost consultant are not the same thing. Finding a co-founder is like finding someone to marry, it takes really effort and discernment ... and in truth, it might be a lot easier to just raise the money and pay a consultant to build your idea.

    Act accordingly.

  20. maybe you're just a douchebag?

  21. Sorry dude but your logic is flawed - absence of evidence does not equal evidence of absence.

    It only takes one counter example to show you are wrong and you've even linked to one.

  22. It's simple, really:

    Most people aren't entrepreneurs.

    It doesn't matter whether it's code, developing marketing docs, generating inbound leads for an internet property, repairing car engines, or performing brain surgery, most people have zero inclination to deal with the stress, hassle, and possibility of failure that starting a business entails.

    The best strategy is to adopt a high bar for cofounders. Think long-term. If you have to work a job, get a degree, or do something else, it's worth it if it leads you toward the good people. This article seems to imply a series of quick flops with people the author didn't know well.

    Finally, and I know I'm going to start some controversy here, non-technical people really have no business founding high-tech companies. It really all comes down to who you know and can recruit to work with you, and you won't have a snowball's chance in hell of identifying, let alone finding, the best engineers without being one yourself. Get a tech co-founder or just stop wasting your time.

  23. Technical people will work to death if the technical aspect of the project is interesting and/or they really see a economical incentive in the future. The further away the future the biggest the economical incentive should be and also the certainty.

    Working for a not so certain economical reward in an unrewarding technical problem does not appeal.

    Also witness the countless nights and weekend that FOSS people invest in their projects and in that environment coders tend to think other people will not commit. Will an marketer commit to promoting a OSS project? Not likely.

  24. Geez, it's simple enough. Programmers like anyone else will resent being undervalued. Given what I've seen so far, 50% was way more than you deserved.

  25. What a pointless article

  26. Finding good co-founders in general, technical or business for that matter, is very hard. And it is even harder once you find them to execute.

    You failed in your search and execution. Then you blame the other side.

    But I can guarantee it that as a co-founder you failed big time.

    Then you incorrectly concluded that this how the world must be -- that there are no good (technical) co-founders.

    It is not as simple as that...


  27. My guess is the reason you have a hard time finding technical cofounders for your idea is that ideas are a commodity whereas good technical cofounders are really difficult to find.

    Also, what is your background? Do you have the experience to prove you're ready to contribute as much as a top notch developer? Are you pitching yourself well? It takes more than an "idea" to make a viable business, and as such it should take more than an "idea" to get a cofounder (technical or otherwise) on board.

  28. I'm not sure if you're familiar with him, but I'm a big Gary Vaynerchuk fan and have been to several of his keynotes. In the last few years I've noticed that he's been speaking a lot about meshing entrepreneurship with these issues. I realize this is an older post but I wanted to see if you've seen any evolution in the field?