My Advice for Finding Technology Co-Founders

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iStock_000007206299XSmallIt’s a common phenomenon in startups that the hustler or what I called the business guy, typically goes out to search for the technology co-founder. In meeting entrepreneurs via my network fund, they often asked me one common question after the initial pitching of the idea, “I am looking for a technology co-founder who can get this done. Can you help me with this?” Of course, 99% of these startup co-founders whether they are rookies or MBA students have no clue to who they really want to hire. Hence, this article is addressed to people who might want my advice on seeking out technology co-founders.

Here’s a typical problem. Your background is in business and you want to do an Internet/mobile company because the cost of starting up is extremely low and you think that you have a great idea. Of course, different people have different perspectives on the shortage of technology talent and this is a common problem happening everywhere.

The unique challenge of finding good technology people is endemic not only in Asia. It happens everywhere, including Silicon Valley. While Google, Facebook and many notable technology companies are putting in top dollar for the best engineering talent, most founders in start-ups don’t have that kind of resources.

The challenge of finding the best technology talent is exacerbated in Asia, since these people are viewed as a support arm and is something that can be outsourced to programmers in India or China.

Here are some considerations as to why you should or should not find a technology co-founder.

Why do you want a technology co-founder?

Perhaps you have a background in business, be it a basic degree, an MBA, or you might have a CV that gives you some credentials, for example, being a Goldman Sachs banker, a McKinsey consultant or a business executive from a prominent company. Typically, most business co-founders shot themselves in the foot without being good at their own craft.

Although you want to build a mobile-web startup, you realize that you do not have the technical knowledge to execute on the idea. So you have to talk to people who have access to software engineers or mobile-web developers and hope that you will find this person who might support your crazy ideas and magically solve all your technology problems.

Even if you do find this person, a fallout could occur a few months later, especially if the guy thinks he can do this better than you. You’d be back to square one. In most conversations, the business owner put the blame solely on the technology co-founder on the reasons that the latter was not able to deliver the promised product. I have even heard horror stories in the reverse, where the technology co-founder is moonlighting and not pulling his or her own weight. The technology co-founders are equally to be blamed as well. So, how do you ensure scenarios like this don’t occur?

Before I get to that, let’s take a step back and focus on the first question: Should I recruit a technology co-founder for a mobile-web startup?

That’s actually the wrong question to ask. You should take another step back and determine whether the idea behind your startup is or isn’t a technology business. A useful guide to help you answer the question is this article by Alex Payne, co-founder & CTO of Simple. With his note as a guide, I extracted the following questions which you, the business person, should answer before you start seeking a technology co-founder:

  • What are the features of the product you are planning to build for your idea?
  • Can you build a set of mockups of the product?
  • From the mockups and features, are there any similar products out there which you have seen deployed?
  • Do you have a set of hypotheses for customer validation which you can experiment, collect and analyze data?

If you have not answered the above questions carefully and honestly, you will end up like most people who have come to me for advice. Seriously, I have advised enough people that I can frame it into this article to help you.

They usually come to the following conclusions: (a) the product is impossible to build because the technology is not there yet, (b) the product can be built because there are existing case studies of similar start-ups with sites having the same features, (c) the product can be built but require some tweaks of the features which may or may not be possible, depending on which platform it is built on. Usually, most people fall within the group where their ideas have the same look and feel as the existing mobile-web apps out there.

The fourth question I’ve asked will help you to attract a technology co-founder. If you can demonstrate proper customer validation and show that the idea really has legs, the likelihood of attracting a technologist to work with you increases. Answering that question well proves three things:

First, you are able to put your words into actions and hence build something simple to test your idea. The biggest problem for business people is that they can talk very well but they cannot execute. That’s why a lot of engineers end up telling you that they can do this better than you, because you did not prove your worth to let them join you. So, having a prototype decreases the risk of your co-founder walking out on you.

Second, you have shown that you can work with less features to see if there are really customers who will buy the service.

Third, it helps you to work out whether it’s a good or bad idea. In the end, you might realize that the idea has no legs and hence it’s time to move on and do something else.

So here’s a summary of what I have to say: If the mobile-web company you want to build leverages on an existing industry and the features of the product are pretty standard, for example, an e-commerce site, then you don’t really need to find a co-founder.

You should probably try your luck to build a prototype based on existing technologies out there. Content management systems or e-commerce engines can help you to get an idea of what you want to build.

Try to build that minimum viable product without a technologist. Once you have really established a case where you need a good technologist to come on board, then go and find your co-founder.

Author’s note: The original article is published in TechinAsia.com but I have added additional content (with links from other writers) to that last post to provide more details.

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Bernard Leong

A Pragmatic Idealist