by • August 4, 2010 • FoundersComments (2)173

Thriving without a tech cofounder

A disproportionate number of individuals planning to create new startups are non-technical and seeking a hacker to partner up with. It is worth briefly considering why this might the case and we’ll then look at how to avoid exacerbating the damage if you find yourself in that position.

Imagine a group of three friends, who are all hackers. They will create a single company that eventually needs one business person, maybe. When a set of business people takes the same leap, you get three companies that collectively want at least 3 hackers right away. Technical founders pair off and immediately removed from the job pool while the business guys enter the cofounder dating circuit and notice a distinct shortage of potential CTOs.

The best thing you can do is already know a good hacker, or get lucky and meet one and create an idea together. The next best option is to put enough momentum behind the business that you’ll be hiring employees, not recruiting partners. However, many people choose the destructive (and seductive) third option, which is to work on the idea while still banking on finding a cofounder.

Why is the middle ground so poisonous? A hacker with an idea but no team can simply begin building a product. A bit down the line you may realize you’ve missed the mark and a business guy could make a huge contribution, to the point where you want to offer a big equity chunk and treat each other as equals. It’s relatively easy to entice this person because there’s an opportunity for them to meaningfully contribute by creating and executing on a business model. The further you get with the product, the more appealing you become to potential teammates.

Our poor business founder, on the other hand, is in exactly the opposite situation. Working on (or even thinking about) the product is going to significantly reduce his chances of finding a partner. Why? Because every decision you make about the product is removing ownership from a future teammate.

I watched a cofounder speed dating event recently. The vast majority of the [brief] conversations involved both parties describing their ideas while longing for the other to say “I would love to program that for you.” The most experienced guy there, an ex-VC taking the plunge back into startups, prompted very different discussions. He talked about problems and customers he’d been learning about, and he mentioned some data points he’d collected. It was an amazing cofounder pitch because he got people excited about a problem he had demonstrated was worth solving, and he then let them imagine all the different products they might build to make it happen. It’s infinitely inclusive and promises intellectual ownership. If you need a technical cofounder, spend a bit of time and think about what you’re really giving them a chance to own.

But also bear in mind that you may not need one. Solo founders created 37% of the companies that have gone on to raise seed and Series A funding over the past 6 months. Dual-founder teams slid in a tiny slice ahead with 40% of the pie.

You might be surprised how far you can get into a business with no development or design work. And I don’t mean “no development” as in you just have some offshore freelancers. I mean nothing gets created except emails and calendar entries. Steve Blank’s book offers a helpful roadmap of where to focus your energy for the stretch (in months) before you start thinking about a product or website.

The barriers to product creation have come down a long, long way. This means that for hackers, the shortest path to success sometimes (but not always) involves learning by building. But that strategy is financial suicide if you’re using freelancers. It’s simply too slow and expensive to iterate. And for non-coders, it means you can spend your time learning and then build one product, just as fast, that is much more likely to hit the mark.

Lessons learned

  • Attract technical cofounders with intellectual ownership in an exciting space, not with a bright idea.
  • The more concrete your product idea becomes, the less interesting it is to cofounders.
  • The fastest way for hackers to reach a good business is [sometimes] to build & iterate. But for non-developers, building early is a dangerous indulgence.
  • Months of meaningful work are available before you write a line of code.
  • Play to your strengths.

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2 Responses to Thriving without a tech cofounder

  1. irrationalfab says:

    Interesting post. I was in a similar position a took a different approach. Became a techie myself. I think that there could be an edge in understanding the business and technological aspects of a project.
    It woul be nice to hear your opinion about how a single founder might look for collaborators (where to find, how to remunerate) on the cheap, to validate his idea.
    Your post about being in the right place is a good advice. However I feel that there might be other solutions (online?) for collaborators that could be willing to risk in order to do the most useful activity for a start up: experimenting.

    Keep up the great work!

    • robfitz says:

      Learning tech is totally valid (and shows admirable willingness to get your hands dirty — nice work!). In general, I think learning a bit of tech is better for the long-term, career approach but less efficient for a specific idea you want to start *right now*.

      Finding & working with collaborators is probably going to be pretty unique on a case-by-case basis.. I’ve always done it by meeting up in person at some point, first to talk about interesting stuff which we evidently both care about. That tends to lead to advice on each other’s ideas, which tends to lead to a potential new idea. For me, we typically just both find ourselves saying something like, “Let’s do it!”