I've written this post in response to the assertion that a business/product person trying to find a technical co-founder is next to impossible. If this is your issue, I feel compelled to preface this post by saying: There are much bigger hurdles ahead.

Maybe I lucked out. Maybe it doesn't scale. Regardless, here is what I did...

First - Get into the middle of the circle. Stop standing on the perimeter.

Show up at technical events – ask what you think are stupid questions. Don’t try and memorize database types and programming languages – just work to understand the variables at play and the frameworks for making technical decisions. When do you need a Document Database? When do you need to layer an indexing engine? What languages have strong developement communities? How much work is involved in porting an app after 1 year? 2 years? Ask someone about code debt.

Second - Go where the smart people are. Shut up and listen.

I read Hacker News everyday. I pay attention to who posts, who comments and who I find myself nodding along with or, at least, respectfully disagreeing with. Sure, this isn’t a perfect representation of the offline world, but it’s a pretty cultivated community. Did you know that Hacker News has a google spreadsheet of contractors and also a list of co-founders seeking co-founders?

Whatever you do – don’t go messing it up for the people there currently. You can listen, but if you’re going to contribute, raise your personal filter two full orders of magnitude. My HN account is 1322 days old (Paul Graham’s is 1490), but I’ve only ever made 3 submissions. [I suppose it's equally likely that I'm either a very good listener, or an overly timid non-contributor.]

Third - Look for a curious mind.

I’m big on curiosity. Curious people enjoy exploring and solving problems. The people that immediately rose to the top of my list had spent hours experimenting with problems that were tangential, or related to the crux of my idea (this post is not about the app). If you’ve never explored a github account, you should probably get acquainted. What are you looking for on github? Contributions. What languages/libraries are they contributing to, or watching? Is there a pattern? Do they have a personal website that hosts their projects as well? A stackoverflow account?

Fourth - Meet in person.

Two reasons: a) if they’re not up for a one hour coffee, they won’t be up for the thralls of a startup, and b) you’ll never successfully explain your bigger picture by email. You also need to be able to articulate your bigger picture in a competent manner. Don’t go in guns-a-blazin’ about how you plan on de-throning Google or Facebook. You need to strategically demonstrate your ability to roadmap, your market entry wedge, and how you intend to position the product against a specific customer. I met a dozen developers in my search, all of whom wanted to know, “what’s the use case?” Make sure you have one – they’ve seen what happens when you don’t.

Fifth - Convince somebody first.

It helps if you’ve convinced someone (anyone) beforehand. I was lucky – I had the Jet Cooper team behind me. That was huge. It added a legitimate design arm and enough of a runway for me to prove or disprove the merits of the idea. I had also assembled a technically exceptional Advisory Board from places like the University of Toronto’s CS Dept.Mozilla, and a highly regarded Toronto startup. Each advisor brought a specific technical expertise to the table and could support my co-founder on everything from building out the API and its ecosystem, to managing scale. Most importantly, these advisors were doing this as a labour of love. They believed in the idea and were curious minds themselves.

Sixth - Start small. You are, after all, strangers.

Pay them. With money. Decide on an objective and get out your cheque book. Nothing speaks louder than you having your own skin in the game.

Total credit goes to the person this post is about (my co-founder in the making). It was their idea. I had a plan to release a public beta 90 days after we began writing code. They countered with 30 days to build a product that could be released to a select group of beta-testers in a controlled, watchful environment. We were getting along already. This person had challenged my ability to strip away scope and test the core hypothesis. In doing so, they had created a sprint-like environment from which we would emerge either as co-founders, or utterly sick of each other.

This is also great way to uncover everyone’s tolerance for risk. Some people can throw all caution to the wind off of one good observation – others need to see a couple variables played out before mortgaging their future.

Seventh (Bonus) - Look for the ‘X’ factor.

The fact that I’m not technically trained has always pushed me to work a little harder. It’s like this challenge I carry with me in my back pocket. When I met Jen, she was this incredibly curious and intelligent person. She knew what she knew, but could put aside her ego if the situation required it. I love that about her. We share the desire to produce the best possible product (as does the rest of the Jet Cooper team) – regardless of whose feelings get hurt. And while I can’t speak for Jen, I have to imagine that being a woman in tech also comes with a little extra motivation too.

 

So there you have it. A less little difficult than previously imagined.

If you’re trying to start a startup and you can’t code yourself out of a paper bag, drop me a line and I’d be happy to help where I can.

  • http://www.jonlim.ca Jon Lim

    Great post. I think that if you’re a non-technical founder, you’re going to really have to show that you’re going to be worth the trouble.

    If you can’t code, but you can set out a very realistic and actionable road map and ideas on how to gain traction and whatever else, you’d be a lot more desirable to said coder.

    As long as you can convince him or her that your idea is worth investing themselves into, of course. ;)

  • http://www.onpreinit.com Nariman

    Great post, Andrew; just don’t rule out the Enterprise developers that are too busy to have much of online presence. This group offers both technical aptitude as well as unique business insights; sure they may be tied down with lucrative salaries today, but from experience, I know that there’s a solid group that still has that inner-void and is wondering where they can pair their expertise with a strong product/sales guy.

  • http://www.idextrus.com Chris Bruce

    This is a solid and timely post Andrew!

    I have been struggling with this exact thing for far too long now and have in fact used it as an excuse not to move forward.

    “Getting Real” provided a no holds barred inspiration but was missing what you have outlined here. I will take a look at these steps closely and hopefully it will bring me (a technical person) closer to finding the co-founder/partner that I need to bring my solid idea for a service to life.

  • http://luke.in Luke Sequeira

    Andrew, this post is incredibly timely and helpful! In fact, I’m meant to meet @skanwar this evening (c 4 pm) at Jet Cooper for the very same reason!

    If you are around, I’d like to meet you too.

    PS; The product I want to discuss is a potential solution to situations such as these.

    Cheers!

  • http://www.bilal.ca Bilal Jaffery

    Don’t forget the non-technical founder can also sell your idea at the end of the day. Being in Enterprise, I feel sorry for hundreds of startups I see with no real business model in place nor revenue/sales systems etc.

    Meeting and working for fun works wonders when we don’t have real bills to pay but when we step into the real world — everyone wants the ROI.

    Having an exit buy-out strategy isn’t feasible every time. (Unless if you are Facebook 2)

  • http://AutoShare.com Kevin McLaughlin

    Great post. And in case things go bad later, after you have built something of value together, ALWAYS have an exit / shotgun clause. (The one thing they didn’t teach me in biz school.)

  • http://twitter.com/drupeek/ Andrew

    Those are great points Kevin & Bilal. Thanks for the additions.

    @Nariman – I never rule people out off basic heuristics like age. That’s a lesson I learned from Billy Beane and Bill James (Moneyball references).

    @Luke – I should be here.

  • http://www.gabrieltomescu.com Gabriel

    Hey Andrew, great post! What I’ve seen often times are non-technical founders that jump the gun and contract out the technical work, which may work in some cases, but usually ends up plagued by legal agreements, poor quality of work, broken people relationship, and budget/cost overruns. So your post makes a lot of sense to alleviate these challenges.

    On the other hand however, I think technical founders have an equal duty to make themselves “heard” by actively seeking out non-technical founders. It’s a two-way street.

  • Glyn Holmes

    Andrew, thanks for the great write-up. I wouldn’t label myself as “non-technical” as I have dabbled in the field of web development for several years now, but in the startup I want to launch (or even discuss!) I would much rather be the business development guy and steer clear of programming.

    I just recently saw Jet Cooper mentioned in the #GEW video and thought I’d check you out. I’m young, inspired, and feel I have a great idea – but I don’t have the people around me who can help execute the idea or even give me appropriate feedback (ie “am I nuts or is this viable?”). How does Jet Cooper work? Are you guys all working towards one “goal” or do you operate a more open-house type dealy and people collaborate when needed?

    Can you drop me a line?

  • http://twitter.com/maxmeilleur Max Meilleur

    @Nariman -> Being from the corporate world myself, I find your thought on “an army of enterprise developers ready to rumble” quite interesting. Drop me a line (twitter?); I would like to discuss it a little bit more!

    @Andrew, @Glyn -> echoing Glyn’s question.. How does JetCooper operates?

  • http://twitter.com/drupeek/ Andrew

    @Glyn & @Max – Jet Cooper is a digital agency. We specialize in design. I operate the “labs” side of our business which can be anything from the less-conventional lines of business we tend to explore, to the separately incorporated entities that we create in order to build out ideas we believe have unique potential.

    Our one goal is to move the digital experience forward through smart, capable and beautiful design. We work primarily with tech and media companies (or, more appropriately, people who are tightly integrated with the web). That’s the commercial.

    Glyn – I’m at andrew at jetcooper dot com if you’d like to tell me more.

  • http://www.ahmedbad.ca Ahmed Badruddin

    Good post Andrew.

    I have some suggestions for non-technical entrepreneurs:

    -Do wireframes and mockups yourselves. You dont need any coding skills for that and when you start talking to potential technical co-founders, they.will respect you a lot more.

    -Not all developers are created equal. If you are looking to on-board someone as your technical co-founder, you should have a two inch deep understanding of technology to tell weak dev’s from rockstar dev’s.

    -Understand the difference between a ‘developer’ and a ‘technical co-founder’. There are a lot of people who can write code really well. But a technical co-founder of a startup needs to do that and a lot more. E.g. Solving product and technical challenges, platform decisions, architectural and design specs, technical strategy and roadmap, selecting dev toolsets, and perhaps even managing developers and designers.

  • http://www.newagemedia.ca W Drakes

    Great Post!

    From personal experience — having a team of solid resources let’s my group deploy many types of IT solutions. As 1 person I cannot do all — thus I rely on a group of highly skilled developers / IT resources that can get the message across, but can also deliver the goods. Nothing worse than management being totally disconnected to the IT part of what we are trying to accomplish — and this can really show weakness for IT companies.

    It’s proven very successful for my group — each project has been under budget and delivered beyond the client’s expectations. We are currently working on leading edge technologies (iPad deployments for sales force teams) along with keeping our bigger clients up and running with their legacy systems (mind you integrated with the latest / slickest front ends).

    There are lots of guys with ideas — I want the guy who can get their hands dirty too.. Heck — I saw mp3 players being small like PCMCIA cards back at the end of the 90′s but Steve Jobs beat me to the market something called the iPod :) I had the idea first :) (Kidding). It took me years to forge the relations that I have with solid engineers — that is key.

    My team love helping out entrepreneurs — it’s win win to bounce ideas off of other people with visions.

    Technical guys who can execute a vision with a hands approach because they know what they are doing — are worth their weight in gold.

    Max Meilleur — drop me a note if you need a team of highly skilled guys to bounce ideas off of.

  • http://Spidvid.com Jeremy Campbell

    Like everyone else has already said Andrew, really great post and helpful advice! I’ve been looking for information like this because I’m a Toronto based entrepreneur looking to attract a tech co-founder to my company. We already have a solid public beta, but want to attract a talented developer that can develop the 2nd version for better usability, new features, scalability, etc.

    If you are a developer looking to join a new media startup (get in touch with me jeremy@spidvid.com), or Andrew, if you could point me in the right direction I would certainly really appreciate it!

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge!

  • http://hyperbio.net Leila Boujnane

    Andrew: good post. I would add one tiny thing: one of the most important things to look for in a co-founder (technical or otherwise) is determination. Paul Graham encapsulates it beautifully: “bad shit is coming. It always is in a startup” so what you need more than anything else (some days) is a co-founder that has the resilience, determination to stay the course. Carry on.

  • http://twitter.com/drupeek/ Andrew

    @Leila – that’s a fantastic point and one I wish I had written into this post. Paul Graham does seem to have unique a way of articulating it in a very practical, “you will need this” kind of way. I believe he also refers to this trait as being “an animal”.

    Thanks for leaving that thought.

  • Liviu

    Hi Andrew,
    I loved your post here, I find it very interesting and useful. I am looking for a technical co-founder for my idea but i would like to know where are the good places in Toronto to go and get in these circles of techies. I am good at numbers but not at coding. I am starting to learn HTML and CSS and how to use dreamweaver but by the time I do a lot of time will pass.
    Can you please help me with my quest???

    Thanks

  • http://twitter.com/drupeek/ Andrew

    @Liviu – You could take a look on meetup.com for things like The Toronto Ruby Meetup etc. Again – best to listen first and update your knowledge on the subject matter.

    If you have specific questions, you can drop me a line at andrew at jetcooper dot com.

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  • http://alicja.homelinux.com/knitart/ Alicja

    Jen is my daughter in-law, and I know that incredibly intelligent person does… she is all you said and some more ;)
    Much more.

  • http://alicja.homelinux.com/knitart/ Alicja

    ..crap,, “she is” wanted to say instead “does”
    sending comments before reading :roll:

  • http://www.playersgolfnetwork.com Paul Sullivan

    @drupeek Great advice. As a (relatively) non-technical tech startup guy, here’s a couple of suggestions:
    - If you’re looking for a “co-founder” prepare to treat him/her as such. Ownership, compensation, decision-making has to be shared – fairly.
    - Find someone that will disagree with you. A co-founder is someone that you will need to trust and respect. If are looking for a code monkey, hire a contractor.
    - Learn the lean startup model (and make sure your prospective co-founder buys into the approach). It bridges the gap between agile dev and customer dev and becomes a common language for all.
    - Limit the kool-aid. Programmers are usually (and thankfully) skeptical by nature, and prefer to be convinced through data not gut-feel.
    - In addition to HN, go weed through slashdot and understand the psyche of the programmer.

    Thanks Andrew – great read!

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  • http://www.mtiks.com Muthu

    I like this post. This is timely. I see some of my incubator startups in Boston struggling to find a real good passionate technical co-founders. One piece of advise I would like to recommend is not to get a consultant to build a prototype. It was tempting to do that but not worth it.

    Just my thought.

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  • http://twitter.com/drupeek/ Andrew

    @Paul – Great points… Jet Cooper practices the Lean Methodology very rigorously… not only from a development (technology and customer) standpoint, but also in a set of agile design processes that we’ll be writing about a little more this year.

    @Muthu – I don’t think you look for a co-founder if the prototype is firmly specified. If you’re looking for a co-founder, then you’re looking to define the prototype together (as you’re still in pre-product/market fit mode). Starting that relationship on a contractual basis might make better sense if you’re discovering solutions together… it allows for you to feel other out in advance. I still think you’d want it to be a temporary arrangement though – at some point you want to share risks and rewards on a more balanced scale.

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  • Mj

    Thank you ! !…I happen to believe my idea is a simple but good idea. I’m a writer not a nerd and at the “can’t tell anyone” stage for a good fear of the obvious…So here I sit. In my mind I will have to register the idea first, but where?
    I really do thank you for your detailed information.
    Margaret.

  • http://twitter.com/giles_g giles goodman

    Thanks for this insight Andrew, really useful. I’d like to add one other small factor to look for in a technical co-founder and that’s “enthusiasm”. Andrew touches on this mentioning how the initial meeting should be done in person ” if they’re not up for a one hour coffee, they won’t be up for the thralls of a startup” – so true.  I’d also say that if they don’t show real enthusiasm in the first place, then I’d question going into business with them at all.