Develop expertise, traction, and technical proficiency. There’s no “business side” — you do what it takes to build a viable business now.
Five words can end your start-up dreams: “I’ll handle the business side.”
For a generation of programmers, the idea of non-technical co-founders has gone from bad to meme-worthy. The image is unflattering — a bro-ey guy with outlandish start-up ideas who wants to use and dispose programmers on his path to CEO.
How not to approach a technical co-founder
But, wait, what if you are a person without technical skills interested in a startup? Clearly, non-technical founders can be successful; just look at Brian Chesky of AirBnB or Reid Hoffman of LinkedIn. How do you successfully show your value and find a technical co-founder?
To answer this question, we began an informal research project spanning 50+ technical and non-technical co-founders. Our meta-analysis involves a quantitative component — where we use these founders blogs and writing to count the desired characteristics of non-technical founders — and a qualitative component — where we validate these ideas in a series of 1–1 interviews.
Overwhelmingly, our founders agreed on one thing: viable companies can’t be split inorganically into business and technical “sides.” Experienced technical people know this. Instead companies require a melding of expertise, traction, and technical skills. As a non-technical co-founder, you need to build evidence you’ll make the business happen, not just handle the business “side.”
Specifically, we identified three actions as key for those looking for a technical co-founder:
- Expertise — Show that (only) you can grow and sell the idea;
- Traction for your idea — Prove that your idea is valuable and has traction; and
- Technical proficiency — Develop the technical skills you need.
Action 1: Show that you can grow and sell the idea
Why you? You’ve approached a technical founder with an idea with traction. Great. Why would they want to work with you, instead of another friend? Or with someone else who is technical?
To prove your worth, show that you, and perhaps only you, can grow and sell the idea. The majority of our founders agreed that you need to show expertise in the users and the problem.
Take the case of Zott, a rapidly growing entertainment distributor company focused on children in hospitals. One of the co-founders, Taylor Carol, was diagnosed with Leukemia at the age of 11. For the following five years, he was in and out of hospital wards — occasionally, stuck in isolation rooms for weeks at a time. As he put it, “Video games were my escape while receiving treatment for months at a time.”
Taylor isn’t technical; but, what he does bring is a deep understanding of a patient’s experience. It’s hard to imagine creating a patient-oriented content company without him or someone like him. So, when he began Zott with his father, they had technical leaders looking for the opportunity to join.
To attract a technical co-founder, you should show that you are the connecting glue between them and the problem. That becomes easier to do when it’s a painful problem you’ve experienced firsthand, like Taylor.
Perhaps you care so much about the problem, you’ve already tried to solve it before. After Taylor recovered from cancer, he worked with his father to create a non-profit to address the issue. They co-founded Game Changer charity, a 501c3 that partners with tech companies to provide video games and entertainment to children in hospitals. To date, they’ve raised over $16 million dollars for children’s hospital entertainment.
Your story is your pitch. So, document and show your experience, failures, successes around the problem. Show that existing solutions suck — especially because you’ve tried them trying to solve your problem. Convince industry insiders to advise you and advertise their support. All of this makes you an attractive co-founder.
Action 2: Build strong evidence that the idea is valuable and has traction
A significant portion of the founders argued that a non-technical co-founder is in a stronger position when they have an idea that already has traction. The reason for this is simple — you can’t start a company by simply writing code.
Imagine two scenarios, in both you are a back-end engineer working at Stripe. You have a friend who approaches you with an idea for a new type of peer-to-peer payment.
Scenario A (Low traction): Your friend approaches you with a few Powerpoint slides. He tells you that he’s spoken with a dozen of his friends and they all seem to like the idea. “We’re going to be the next Venmo,” he tells you, his eyes glinting with possibility .
Scenario B (High traction): Your friend approaches you with an incredibly janky iphone app. The app is slow, but he tells you that a few dozen people are actively using the app and hundreds are on the waitlist. His customers came out of his efforts to solve the problem manually.He shows you some of the glowing testimonials from a few of the users “I think there’s something here,” he tells you, his eyes also glinting with possibility.
If you’re like most people, the the glint in your second friend’s eye is more attractive. Instead of having an idea in the abstract, the fact that people are using the app — and better yet, a scrappy version of the app — shows that there’s interest and potential for growth.
How do you build traction for an idea? As our founders argued, you have to test hypothesis with increasing amounts of fidelity; then track the results and show the interest.
Take Airbnb for instance. Airbnb’s non-technical founders Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky’s created their first iteration of AirBnB with a simple email. Its contents were straightforward — you could rent an airbed at their house during a local conference.
These customers loved the experience since they faced the price problem acutely and a few people signed up. With this initial data, they recruited their first technical co-founder — Nathan Blecharczyk. After proving that plenty of visitors wanted this product, they built a platform and expanded — supporting other hosts to set up their own Airbnbs to get their own visitors. The rest is history.
What Airbnb did, was create hypotheses, which were increasingly close to the real thing. Then they tracked the results using easy-to-understand metrics — such as number of sign-ups, number of people who have used the prototype, etc. When they approached a co-founder, they weren’t coming with simply an idea; they had the beginnings of a small customer base excited about their work.
Action 3: Develop the technical skills you need
Finally, 63% of our founders agreed that being the “non-technical founder” does not mean that you’re technically incompetent; rather, it means that technical development is not your focus as a founder. You can — and should — contribute technically; but, make sure it’s an area you can learn quickly.
Take front-end. The single highest percentage of our founders agreed that non-technical founders should learn front-end and a little back-end. Learning front-end is important because it’s technically easier and can help you iterate quickly through products.
The key word here is “need.” Unless you want a career change, you’re not going to become CTO of the project. As Vinicius Vacanti, co-founder of Yipit put it, “I realized that the goal wasn’t for me to become Yipit’s CTO. My goal was to build a prototype that got traction.” You’re goal is to learn enough to be useful; but, not focus so much on coding that you don’t spend time on your value proposition — finding product-market-fit and attracting early customers.
Many founders argued that having technical skills is about developing empathy and credibility. The more technical you are as a founder, the more you understand the trade-offs. That empathy, in turn, leads to credibility. When you propose a strategic move, your co-founders know that you’re coming from a place of understanding.
Start building your business now
We understand that finding a technical co-founder can be hard. Great hackers are a precious group; they’re being flirted at from all sides: big tech, other co-founders, their own start-up ideas, even non-profits. So don’t wait for a technical co-founder. To succeed, you are willing to do what it takes to build the business. Build expertise, traction, and technical proficiency. Start now.
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Daniel Wu is a tech lawyer with a JD/PhD from Harvard, focused on urban innovation. Shelterforce, Urban.us, and Product Hub have featured his work on how technology and law can advance affordable housing and transit.
Stephen Turban is a well-known US-China host, writer, and speaker. As a writer, Stephen’s work has appeared in the Harvard Business Review and the Huffington Post. Stephen graduated from Harvard College Magna Cum Laude with highest honors, majoring in statistics.