By Michael Woloszynowicz

By Michael Woloszynowicz

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

The Technical Co-Founder Search

I was recently asked for advice on finding technical co-founders for a startup, so I thought it best to share my response with a wider audience. 

In order to keep this post generic I'll break it up into two stages as the advice varies depending on where you are in your startup.

The Early Stage
By early stage I am referring to the point in your business before product-market-fit is established and a verified business model has been put in place. To be more specific, you have tested one or more minimum viable products, found the element of your product that people love, and chosen a route to focus on. If your startup is not yet at this point then I suggest reading an excellent article by Charlie O'Donnell, Need a Technical Co-Founder which will help you determine if it is the right hire in the first place. Charlie suggests looking for a Product Manager at this stage, and it is in fact a suggestion that I touch on later in this article. I would add to Charlie's post that this is a good time to learn some basic programming. Get your feet wet with HTML, CSS and back-end languages like PHP, C#, or Java. The goal is not to become a professional programmer, but to understand the lingo and technical discussions your staff is having. Many non-technical co-founders can often help with early prototypes that have limited functionality and are intended to test the hypotheses you have about your product. Also, at this point try to find a part time technical advisor to give you some early guidance. This is much easier to do than finding a full time partner as many currently employed business leads will make time to help out other startups. 
The Growth/Expansion Stage
So you have a product that people like, that addresses a market need in a market that is big enough to support your business, great! By this point you have either built or are in the process of building your working prototype, likely through a combination of in-house and outsourced resources and are beginning to think of the next stages of your business. You realize that your lack of technical abilities can only take you so far, and so the search for a technical co-founder begins.
So who are you looking for? As with programmers, a technical co-founders match is based 50% on personality and 50% on technical abilities. This presents a challenge as personality is not always easy to gauge in the short term (more on this later). From a technical standpoint your interview should focus on problem solving skills, breadth of knowledge, and vision. Is the person feature focused or more appropriately, product focused. Do they view the application as a product or an ecosystem from which new products, ideas, and sources of value can grow? Have they worked on routine engineering projects or have they encountered a good breadth of technical challenges? Your focus should not be their knowledge of your specific programming language (although this helps), but rather their ability to architect a well-functioning, highly usable, and robust application. Are they familiar with the latest computing trends and technologies such as web services (e.g. SOAP vs. RESTful), distributed computing (e.g. SOA), API's, and open source technologies (you want to keep your costs down)? Ask them to take you through their application design process, what considerations do they make? Do they use the out-dated waterfall model or the better suited agile methodologies? See if they think of the application as it is today, or as it could be in the future. Ask about their failures and struggles, how they recovered, and what they have learned. Do they give their team as much credit for their success as they do themselves? As far as eduction goes, a Bachelors degree in Computer Science/Engineering is a must and an MBA is often a benefit as they should be able to weigh technical vs. business trade-offs. 
As mentioned above, product managers make good candidates, provided they started their career as programmers. If you choose to hire a PM in your early stage, search for one with a CS background and groom them with this future position in mind. Project Managers with a CS background are also wise choices as they've been faced with many of your challenges on a smaller scale. On the personality side, look for passion and excitement about the work they've done and an interest in your product. Look for someone that is personable and inspiring but also strong willed.
So where do you start looking? As anyone will tell you, a great starting point is tapping your network and asking around for people they would recommend. If this fails it's wise to begin attending technical conferences such as the Web 2.0 Expo which offers an attendee directory. Scan the directory for people with the right skills (as described above) and engage a meeting with them. Scour LinkedIn and become an active member of technical groups, see who stands out. Another option is to contact job banks at MBA programs as a good proportion of MBA students have technical backgrounds. Find candidates that have several years of technical experience and if they fit a good chunk of the above criteria, give them a chance. Once a suitable candidate is found, bring them on as a lead developer or project manager with the prospect of becoming the companies CTO. Offer them restricted stock units with a vesting period of at least one year. An interview will never reveal if the two of you work well together so test things out before you issue equity. Your candidate should be willing to take a lower salary in exchange for ownership in the company, thus proving their dedication and belief in your product, and their drive to make it grow. 
The search for a technical co-founder is much like the search for talented programmers and designers, only more difficult. There is no magic formula and it requires you to keep your eyes and ears open, interact with lots of people, be patient, and never settle. As your product develops and your user base grows, your sales pitch to talented individuals will becomes more enticing so don't get frustrated if you can't immediately find someone. Remember that anyone you hire will heavily influence the direction of your business so ensure that they are good fit for your company and that you share similar values. 

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