As part of my sales duties at Tandem I attend a
lot of events focused on startups. At least two or three times at each
of these I meet someone who is “looking for a technical co-founder”.
Much of the wisdom disseminated by the startup gurus will tell you that
as a non-technical founder you need someone technical on your team –
mostly they’re right. But, deciding on the ideal time to bring on a
technical owner is more subtle.
If I had to boil down my advice into one sentence I’d say: get your MVP
out there, get some user traction, and then give up some equity for a
technical co-founder. Here are some reasons why:
- You really don’t know if your product has legs until you get it into
the market. While a technical person on your team may help you save
some up-front cost it’s less likely that you’ll find the experienced
engineer you need. Senior folks won’t easily drop their stable job at
Established Company, LLC to come work for little compensation, long hours,
and a shaky future. This is one reason why so many startups fail on
the technical front.
- Giving away equity when you have a tiny valuation means giving
away a hefty percentage. Waiting until a product has a user base and
funding allows you to get away with much less in terms of equity as part
of the compensation package for a technical owner. Holding on to a
larger portion of the company allows you to use that equity for other
purposes later on.
- As a non-technical co-founder you likely don’t have the skills to
select the ideal candidate. Developers and designers are not all
created equal. We all have different skills and backgrounds which may
make us better suited to certain problem spaces over others. Unless you
have the ability to read the tea leaves of someones technical skills and
see into their future you may not be in a position to make a wise choice.
Someone with 10 weeks of programming experience at a code-school does
not make a good CTO.
I’d like to take a side-bar for a second and mention that I do think
there are appropriate times to bring on a co-founder with technical
abilities. I certainly think that if you have a technical person on
your team already you should take full advantage of what they bring to
the table. My advice here is specifically directed at co-founding teams
who are already up and running without a technical team member.
So, what are startups to do if they shouldn’t hunt around for a
technical co-founder? The answer is service vendors. Yes, yes,
Tandem is a development and design services firm and so yes, this whole
post is a self-aggrandizing commercial for consulting. But, hear me out.
Here are some of the benefits of leveraging an outside technical team to
get your product launched.
- We do this every day, all day. While consulting services will be
considerably more expensive than throwing a few percentage points at
someone who works nights and weekends on your product, the benefit of
experience is vast. A top shelf consulting team can knock out a product
much faster and with higher quality than almost any individual
- A company full of engineers and designers with a history of delivery
is much more stable than freelancers or even a potential CTO. Many
startups have come to us with horror stories of spending months with
their technical co-founder only to have him or her bail halfway through
the project leaving the other founders in the lurch. Starting a company
is hard and technical folks burn out. An established services firm
doesn’t have this problem and good ones will guarantee completion of
- An outside opinion can sometimes be a life saver. More than just
offering technical services we also offer product management, design,
and technical mentorship to our clients. These are skills and services
that a typical technical co-foudner won’t bring to the table.
We’ve worked with many startups and can bring that experience to bear in
helping solve technical, product, and user experience issues – a larger
team just has broader experiences.
If you’re a non-technical founder and would like to talk about any of
the above points or just want some advice feel free to contact us.
Ultimately we’re not out to sell stuff to people who don’t need it,
we’re out to help grow the technology space in Chicago and our other
markets. If we can offer a sounding board and a cup of coffee then
we’re happy to do so.