Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Before You Find a Technical Co-founder, Answer These 4 Questions

You’re an entrepreneur and your startup is based on an amazing business idea. You’ve struck “creative gold” and now you are ready for the next stage: developing your app.
One of the most important steps, maybe the most important step, is to find a great team: a team who shares your enthusiasm, and compliments your skillset. For many business-savvy entrepreneurs one of the first key hires is a technical co-founder.
However, deciding which specific type of technical expert to bring into your startup can be a tough call. Having worked in this industry for nearly 17 years, I have seen entrepreneurs struggle with this. Companies that have thought through the 4 questions below have fared better than most. Taking the time to go through these questions will help you make the right decisions moving forward:

1.  Does my startup currently have a team member who knows how to read code?

If someone on your team knows how to read code, this section is not for you. This ‘someone’ can be the founder, an employee, an advisor, or a contractor. If your team includes at least one person that can read code, skip to Question 2.

If code-literacy is non-existent in your current team, then keep reading.

This may not seem obvious, but as a first step, I recommend that you find someone who can read code and make them part of your team: As a part time Technical Advisor. This person will ideally be a seasoned, senior-level person that has seen both success and failure in software development teams.  Perhaps she is a serial entrepreneur, or a member of a tech team at an established company.

The key to this first step is that the Technical Advisor will join your team in a part-time capacity.  Why: Because this drastically widens your net of possible candidates. A Technical Advisor can keep their day job. She can work 2 hours a week for you (either for pay, equity, performance based-bonus or for bartered services) and keep her other job. 

In terms of how/where to find a part time Technical Advisor, I’d recommend asking your network, and your network’s network. This is not something that you will post a job ad for. Searched your LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook connections and see who you know. See who your network knows. Tell everyone you know you are looking for a Technical Advisor.

Starting this way – i.e. bringing in a part-time collaborator to help evaluate the jargon-filled, code-ridden world of technical expertise – is less expensive and less risky than hiring a technical co-founder or a CTO right off the bat. Having this person on your team will pay dividends and here’s why: finding a competent technical co-founder without the advice of an internal, “code-literate” member will be extremely difficult.  However great your idea, if you cannot read the code a technical candidate presents to you, you will not be able to know if he or she will develop your plans the way you envision. 

2.  Next, consider this: What are my near and long-term goals for the code I need to develop?

This question assumes you have a team member who can read code (aka: an “Advisor”). Either you found them via Question 1 or someone on your existing team can read code.

Now you are close to hiring someone to code your application. Maybe you don’t have a single line of code written yet. Maybe you already have some code and are looking to raise Series A funding. Or, maybe you have secured funding and are building an MVP in order to get traction with customers.

In any case, I'd recommend sitting down with your Advisor or code-literate team member and writing down your answers to the following questions. This exercise will help you think about your near and long-term goals:

·    Do you want the code your team builds to be a kernel for future product development? Or will it be throwaway code?
·    Do you have a tech stack in mind or is it open?
·    Do you want to start with a web or mobile app? If you answered “web,” and assuming you will eventually build an accompanying mobile app, will you choose to build a native mobile app or skin the web app to look good on mobile?
·    Are you targeting a specific launch date? For example, if your business is seasonal, do you need to launch by November 15 in time for the holiday season?
·    What are the biggest technical risks the company faces? How can you test these in the ‘cheapest’ way possible?

3.  With questions 1 and 2 taken care of, you are now ready to find a technical co-founder. Which brings us to the questions: Should I hire a technical co-founder, a CTO or a developer? and How should I compensate this person?

In truth, at the end of the day, regardless of title, the job description is the same: This person will be responsible for the creation and upkeep of your code base.  If your company grows, this person will be responsible for building out a tech team and may or may not manage this team.  If your company does not grow, the role of this person will remain close to the code on an ongoing basis.

You and your Advisor can decide if you should title the role Lead Developer, CTO, or Technical Co-Founder.  I’d recommend actually posting several jobs, some for a Technical Co-Founder, some for a CTO and some for a Lead Developer.  I have seen multiple job titles attract different candidates, even if they all have identical job descriptions.

How do you know when you’ve found the person you are seeking? It is your Advisor’s responsibility to vet the technical abilities of candidates.  And it is your job to vet the non-technical aspects of candidates.  (Going forward, your Advisor will also help evaluate the performance of this hire, other technical hires and any tech-related partnerships.)

I recommend creating a set of acceptance criteria prior to talking to the first candidate. This way, if you find a candidate who passes both the technical and non-technical vetting rounds, you can be confident that the person is a good fit. 

In terms of compensation options, you have multiple arrangements to choose from. You can hire someone full time, part time, or contract to hire.  You can pay salary, hourly, equity, bartered services, and/or bonus. (Note: There are laws regarding what each type of compensation and employee classification can be tied to specific types of work arrangements. For advice on this, please email me.)

4.  As you embark on hiring a Technical Co-Founder, the last question to consider is:  How will I move my company forward as I take the time I need to hire?

Taking time to find the right technical expert takes time. Expect it to take 3 months. But, in direct conflict with this is the fact that startups thrive on getting product to market quickly.

Luckily, the time spent searching for an employee doesn’t have to be independent of time spent getting product developed.  You can move forward with your product development while you make your technical hire.


Many entrepreneurs have effectively bridged the 3 month gap and bought themselves time to “hire slowly” by outsourcing the first three months of development. They do this by hiring a local consulting firm to pump out high quality code.  Note that this process is not the same as offshoring product development.  Rather, it is a means to maintaining the hyper-productivity inherent in all startups.

Someone once told me it was like ‘renting a brain’, and that’s basically what you are doing. You are paying for experts to come in: You are taking advantage of a team of developers that have worked together already, know how to build high quality code using modern technology languages and using modern technology practices.  The word “local” is key. You want people that you can physically meet with in person. You are building your vision, and whether it’s in your head, in a word doc, or in a prototype, it’s still fuzzy and unclear. Colocating, at least part of the time, with the consulting firm is the most effective way to benefit from the 3 month ‘bridge the gap’ plan.
As a bonus, as you vet and onboard technical candidates, the consulting firm may be able to help with interviewing and onboarding.

In summary, I recommend:
  1. Ensuring you have a code-literate team member
  2. Writing down your near and long term goals
  3. Working with your code-literate team member to vet and hire a Technical Co-founder
  4. Buy yourself 3 months to hire slowly by having a local consulting firm build the first 3 months of your product

1 comment:

  1. Just discovered this ... did a startup myself ... mentoring starts ... wish more mentors and advisors had this down ... thanks for he home run.