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

August 22, 2011

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?