Looking for a technical co-founder? Partner up instead.

Corey Haines

As Sarah Gray and I have become more involved in the Chicago startup scene, attending meetups, meeting with and advising non-technical founders, we keep hearing that there is a dearth of technical talent available. That is, people are desperate to find a technical partner, or 'technical co-founder,' as most people call them. It is true, there definitely is a shortage of free agent developers at the moment. And contracting with a freelancer is a dangerous proposition without strong technical advising. Get the wrong contractor and you run the risk of spending a lot of money and not getting what you actually need. Sarah and I were talking about this and starting thinking about it from a different angle. Maybe the problem isn't a lack of technical talent at all.

Why is there such a lack of technical talent available to join a startup? There are many reasons, but I want to talk about a specific one: the technical talent you are searching for is busy doing a startup with their own idea. These are makers, people who have an idea and just go build it. In general, they aren't available to join your startup because they are busy bringing their own business or project to life. And this brings us to the point of my post. Technical founders often have a similar question to non-technical founders: how do you find a partner? For example, Sarah and I are in this class of people. We have built an application, it is generating revenue and slowly growing. But, we don't have the background to take the business to the next level. So, we would love to bring on someone with the skills we lack.


Builders have a common quality in that they have both the skills and the inclination to bring an idea to life. When they experience or see a problem, they create solutions and release them into the wild to see what happens. They have the skills to put together a quick website, or even just customize a wordpress blog coupled with a surveymonkey form and a google spreadsheet. By having a concrete product to build upon, they can move forward rapidly by getting experience-based user feedback. What they often lack is the experience to take these solutions and market them effectively. They need a business co-founder. Luckily, as Sarah and I have found, there is a whole community of business-minded people that could fill this niche. So, how can technical founders find these so-called 'non-technical co-founders?'


There is a problem here in Chicago, we have two communities that need each other.


There is a huge community of technical folk, most of whom have full-time jobs, but also are building projects on the side. For example, take a look at gathers.us. The developers built a great site for quickly organizing a public gathering. They have built a product and people are using it. Would you be willing to join them as a business co-founder? The developers behind it are experienced, quality builders. They also are idea people. From their perspective, perhaps, there is a lack of business talent.


But, there is also a huge community of business-oriented folk. They have experience with marketing, customer interviewing, building proposals for funding, etc. They could fill the skill gap that the technical community is experiencing. They could be the source of the non-technical co-founders.


Maybe the problem isn't a lack of technical talent at all. Perhaps the business-minded community simply needs to start looking to join and add value to existing technical startups, rather than looking for technical people to hire.


In my work advising startups, I get asked a lot about how to best to attract a developer. Sometimes it is for the role of technical partner, sometimes it is for the role of hired hand. The question is the same, though: what can we do to get a developer to join us? Imagine we turned this question around for a moment: what would it take for a technical founder to convince you to join them as a non-technical co-founder?


I'd love to hear people's thoughts in the comments. What would it take to convince you to join a technical startup? For example, Sarah and I have a working application that is generating enough revenue to cover its monthly infrastructure costs (MercuryApp). We can build it, we need someone to come and do those business-y things that will take it to the next level of growth. Or, what would it take to join another existing technical startup that is already moving forward with a working product?


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Sue Kim
It might be fun for tech and non-tech founders to take a more experimental approach.  Everyone, technical and non-technical, wants to do their own startup - and that perpetuates the divide.  What if you could apply the collaborative, open, temporary nature of a hackathon -- to actual startups?  Team up to work on 2 startups at once - both founders work on one startup for a month, then switch to the other one for the next month, and so on.  Go until you get sick of each other, or one takes off, or something else happens.
Jay Wright



Your right in stating all reason it normally doesn't work. Too much time spent working the edges in hopes of meeting in the middle. I like Michaels proposal of meeting in the middle right away. Think of it as speed dating for techs and business people.

Adam Birch

I think there are a few reasons why it is hard to find a co-founder in Chicago (or anywhere).

  1. Designers, developers and business people tend to hang out in different places. Just look at the Meetup groups in Chicago for an example.
  2. The only events where these groups mix are at entrepreneurship events, which pretty much everyone is coming with an idea of their own. And of course everyone thinks their idea is superior to everyone else’s since they came up with it (the Ikea effect).
  3. Each of these groups speaks a different language. I've met a number of tech and biz founders over the years and they each have tend to have short comings. Developers seem to come up with ideas that seem cool, but lack a way to monetize it or solve a pervasive problem people are willing to pay money for. Business founders tend to underestimate what it takes to get a site going and think there is a queue of (good) tech co-founders waiting to jump on a project for free.
  4. Lastly, the ratio of developers and designers to business people in Chicago is very lopsided. Which is also inversely proportional to the needs of a web based startup. In addition, many developers in Chicago are content with their "secure" comfortable paying jobs at Fortune 500 and trading companies they are at full time. 

Even if you were lucky to get past the above hurdles, as Scott mentioned, there also has to be a good personality fit.


At the end of the day, I think you need to find someone you like being around A LOT and make sure there is money involved from the start, since money makes the world go round. Get out there, talk to lots of people and start saving/bootstrapping.

Jin Hwang
Great post, Corey.  I second Michael's proposal about creating a forum for technical and business people to meet for the sake of starting a conversation.  A lot of meetups do a good job of providing educational outlets where people can chat but there really isn't a group that blatantly addresses this need.  I'm a business person who is learning how to code while I hope to find a CTO.  But it all starts with networking and meeting people who want to create great things.  Let's end this middle school dance.
Scott Corwin
I did enjoy reading this article which had several good points. One major challenge not addressed is personalities. While it is suggested 'like minded partners find one another,' technical and business professionals are not like minded. More times than not each have different priorities and viewpoints. I am on the business side of the equation and have a strong background in sales, marketing and operation. The worst idea ever said out loud was, "If you build it they will come." While that works in the movie it does not in the real world. Marketing and sales is critical to any idea paying returns on your investment. I welcome conversations with anyone who is looking for business direction.
Michael Phillip

Great article. I am on the business end of a start-up looking for a developer and have found what you have stated above. Most developers I have come across in my networking have been involved in a start-up already, forming a start-up, or looking to do freelance work or consulting. I will definitely look into gathers.us.

I am also looking to form a meetup community that solves that solves this exact proplem. I want to form a group where it advertises itself as a place where developers/technical experts go to find business people and vice versa. So everyone that comes is actually looking to join a team or bring in a team member. And eveyone makes an introduction and states their need prior to the networking so it makes the process more efficient.


Jay Wright
Stephen,  your story sounds very familiar. I'm sure we're not the only ones out there.  In pre social media days most technical business people thought they were on a island alone and no one else could understand our frustration or problems or even our dreams.  Hearing others having the same pain, only makes it more frustrating because we are busy working in our business and not on them. We don't have time to go on a bunch of dates.
Corey Haines
Hi, Stephen, I do think this could be a great place. The important thing is to continue education and mingling of the communities. Chicago has a fantastic startup culture. Unfortunately, it seems like there has historically been a wall between the technical and the business communities. We're working to break down that wall through education and introductions. It is exciting to think what we could do if we start to push this.
Stephen Christiansen
I completely agree with you... as a technical resource myself, I have my own ideas and my own dreams. In a perfect world, a business partner would appear with the same dream looking for a like-minded person. Sort of like Shel Silverstein's "The Missing Piece". A networking site to tie business folk and technical folk together would be incredible. LinkedIn isn't able to do that. Nor is FaceBook. I just joined this site today... could this be the place?
Corey Haines
I'm excited to hear people's thoughts and conversation around the idea of joining the startups established by the local, Chicago developer community. Thanks.

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