Seeking the Elusive Technical Co-founder

by Guest Author on January 2, 2013

There’s never been a better time to start a business. Ask virtually anyone in the startup space these days, and they will tell you that with a good idea and the will to work hard, there are almost no limits to what you can accomplish. Well…not exactly. I see a lot of ambitious non-technical founding teams slowly come to the very harsh realization that, there are in fact pretty major barriers to getting their startup off the ground. The reason? A lack of crucial technical skills on the founding team. Without a technical co-founder on board, it can be a struggle to get launched. As a result, many founders find themselves on a long and difficult search for someone to bring on board and take over the technical aspects of their business. Without realistic expectations, this search can quickly become frustrating and un-productive. Alternatively, some startup founders will reach out to freelance developers for help. However, without knowing exactly what they need, and lacking the ability to accurately judge the technical talent, this can quickly become a nightmare situation.

These days, virtually every new startup relies to some degree on a technical innovation, implementation, or at the very least a nice website. Look at this another way, and the reality is, virtually every startup’s success currently hinges on its ability to successfully find the technical skills to turn an idea into a profit. Thus, it’s critical that identifying the proper talent take a high priority on the initial agenda. Enter the “seeking a technical co-founder” ads. But, as many founders soon realize, this process isn’t so simple.

If your startup is currently attempting to find a technical co-founder, or even if you’re just looking to hire your first developer, there are some things you need to think about before going any further in the process. First of all, there’s a common misconception that plenty of technical folks are out there just waiting to join a cool startup like yours. All you have to do is snap your fingers (i.e. post a job opening) and you will be flooded with well qualified software developers eager to join up. I’m sorry to be the one to tell you this, but it’s a developers’ market out there. A vast majority of the good developers are already receiving an excessive number of job opportunities. Oh and did I mention they currently have well paying full time jobs too?

Fact: developers are a hot commodity whether you’re a startup or not. They’re in demand, and there aren’t enough to go around either. Popular job hunting websites for developers, such as 37 Signals Job Board, and StackOverflow Careers demonstrate just how many opportunities are currently out there for technologists. Technical talent must be wooed away from a stable flood of job inquiries, great salaries, and great benefits. Finding the right person for your team, someone who’s both talented and motivated, is not a walk in the park. It gets even harder if your startup is not yet in a situation where you can pay competitively. Thus, the search can drag out. Effectively exhausting a lot of resources and time. Resources and time are precious commodities when you’re an early stage startup. Be prepared for the possibility that you may have to freelance or partner with a technology firm while you continue your search.

Alternatively, if a technical co-founder seemingly lands in your lap, approach with extreme caution! An exception to this rule is if this person is a personal connection, but in general a good developer should be hard to get. That’s one sign they’re good at what they do. Outsourcing, especially oversees, is extremely dangerous if you don’t have the technical knowledge to at least be able to assess talent before you hire it.

So I guess what I’m really trying to say is, you get what you pay for! Good websites, good services, good apps, they’re going to cost you. Founders need to be more realistic about the amount of upfront costs it will take to build their ideas. This is driven in part by the classic supply and demand issue we are seeing with technical talent right now, leading to higher developer salaries. Yet, this is also simply a product of the fact that software development, and other technology trades, are specialized skills. They take years to become fluent in, and decades to master.

Given all these challenges, here are my top five recommendations for non-technical founders seeking technical talent:

1. Be realistic with your expectations. When it comes to technology, expect to get what you pay for. Anticipate that acquiring talent can take time due to the competitiveness of the job market right now. Have a backup plan and timeframe for your talent search.

2. Be reasonable with your budget. If the first three quotes you receive from development firms are all “way too high”, they’re most likely not. The reality is most reputable shops are actually lowering their rates as much as they can afford to in order to be able to work with businesses like yours. You’re going to have to come up to meet those rates. Again, you get what you pay for. Good technical skills are not cheap.

3. Look into partnering with a technology firm. They have the skills today to get your business up and running, and they are experts. You can always hire someone full time to takeover later, once you have more time and money to invest in the search.

4. Bring in someone qualified to assess talent. When evaluating technical talent to hire, you absolutely must bring in someone who’s tech savvy to help you assess skills and make the decision. Maybe this is a business advisor, maybe it’s a connection in your personal network. But you must do this. It’s absolutely crazy to hire a developer, spend a lot of money, trust them with the livelihood of your business, without knowing whether they are actually good at what they do. Services like Technical Advocates [] can be invaluable in the talent search process.

5. Be wary of de-valuing what that elusive technical co-founder means to your business. He or she is often what stands between you and success. If you’re talking about how little you can get away with paying that person, you’re really selling out your own company. Also, keep in mind that developers regularly take salary hits just because they believe in a startup. These people deserve to be treated as an incremental, valued part of your team.

Happy Hunting!

Brittany TarvinAbout the Author
Brittany Tarvin is the co-founder and an iPhone/iPad/Mac developer at FadingRed. She frequently provides free consultations and advises startup teams on the feasibility, costs, and timeframe for app development. FadingRed’s apps are regularly featured by Apple and are recognized for their simplicity and intuitive design. They also craft elegant apps for startups and other businesses. For more information visit




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  • Tim Henningsen

    Great advice Brittney. #4 can especially make life a lot easier on a non-tech founder. Getting a referral from a trusted advisor in your network can be the difference between a 1.0 and 1.NO! Once a basic prototype is built it’s much easier to find/convince a talented tech leader in the community to join the team.