Many startups begin with a few people having an idea they want to pursue. In this group, there is often a natural CEO joined by some people with more or less defined roles, but no coder. So the next step usually to find that person, and this often proves to be one of the most difficult positions to fill. It is also a key role — in the short term to build a prototype to validate the market, and in the long term to create a technological advantage over competitors.
So, why is this technical co-founder so difficult to find?
There is currently a huge shortage of programmers and many are already employed with high salaries and good working conditions. Others are freelancing or already working on their own ideas. Because of this shortage, developers are often drowning in recruitment offers. This has created an environment where even junior developers have started to see job offers as spam. The barrier to leave this lucrative environment is high which naturally puts high expectations on each and every alternative.
At an early stage, the typical startup rarely have much money, so competing with salary or security is usually not an option. You need to find other values. Freedom and the opportunity to work with something they are passionate about is important, but rarely sufficient. You must also be able to convince the developer that there is real substance in the business model and that the team as a whole has what it takes to go all the way to a profitable or scalable business.
So how can you improve your chances of finding a technical co-founder? Some concrete advice:
1. Network and tell people about your idea
Get out there, meet people and always talk openly about your idea. Skip the NDA and be completely transparent about what are trying to create and who you are looking for. You may believe your idea is unique, but you can be almost certain that it is not. Execution is everything and if you are too secretive you are risking to miss opportunities to create interest.
2. Clearly show your own value
Building a first version of the product often takes several months. For a programmer to find the time and energy to do this puts very high expectations on the rest of the team. Someone must be responsible for developing a business plans, talking to potential clients or attracting investors, and all that stuff. If everyone wants to have opinions about the product, but no one wants to take on other important tasks, it can be difficult to keep a developer motivated. Show clearly what you and the rest of the team will contribute.
3. Show what you are ready to risk
Do not expect that the programmer to sit to work evenings and weekends while you are not. If you have a job, show that you are willing to leave it and dedicate. Joining on a startup usually implies insecurity, so knowing that someone else believes in the project enough to quit their job can be comforting.
4. Distribute the ownership fair
Do not underestimate the value of a technical co-founder, and not overestimate the value of yourself. Find a ownership distribution that reflects the risk and expected value creation in a fair way. In many cases, a technical co-founder should be one of the major shareholders.
5. Have patience and wait for the right person
It can be easy to become desperate for a while, but being patient will likely pay off. The right technical co-founder will feel the same passion for the project like you, and has probably started setting up the project before you have agreed on any details. If the person doesn’t feel right from the start, it is probably wrong.
Even if you do all of the above, there are many other factors that come into play. Above all, timing is key since there are usually only a few time slots in a career where a developer actually has the possibility to join an early-stage startup with everything it implies. The odds are therefore not always on your side, but with some patience I think the majority of startups will be able to find the person they are looking for.
If finding a technical co-founder still feels hopeless, think about whether you can do something different based on the points above.
What if you never find the right person ?
If despite months of dedicated work you cannot find a technical co-founder you need to think broader. One solution could actually be trying to code a prototype of the product itself. It can both be fun and rewarding, and there’s no better way to learn to program than building something you are passionate about.
Learning to code of course requires patience and hard work, but at the same time it gives you the opportunity to place yourself in the driver’s seat. If you believe you have a lot of great ideas you really don’t want to be dependent on other people to get started. Also, should your first idea should not show potential you would have a strong job market to fall back on. In this way you can to gain experience and savings for your next attempt.