Finding a technical co-founder is one of the most important decisions you'll ever make. It’s also one of the earliest decisions you’ll make.
Because investors rarely invest in companies without any technical talent in-house, a technical co-founder plays a huge role in funding. They're also critical to steering the ship, recruiting talent, and helping you stay sane. As you're no doubt realizing, founding a startup is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do, and having someone by your side makes a world of difference.
But finding a good, technical co-founder is far from easy, and the majority of companies are going about it the wrong way. Like every other aspect of building a business, finding a trustworthy co-founder takes time and work.
Here's what we cover in this post:
- What is a technical co-founder and when do you need one?
- What makes a great co-founder?
- Early warning signs of an impending toxic relationship
- The world of “co-founder dating”
- How to be attractive as a non-technical founder
- Where to find potential technical co-founders
- How much pay and equity to offer
- When you should consider contractors instead
What is a technical co-founder?
A technical co-founder is way more than a skilled programmer. They’re someone who is deeply invested in the company and willing to muck through the startup trenches with you. They also own founder-level responsibility, such as building out the technical side of the business and setting the overall vision.
To get an even clearer picture of what they are, it’s helpful to consider what they aren’t. Here’s the difference between 3 common high-level roles: a senior programmer, Chief Technology Officer (CTO), and technical co-founder.
A senior programmer is someone with at least several years of programming experience. They have opinions on process and architecture and can support these opinions with data and experience. In most cases, they’re more skilled at programming than leading a team or strategizing a product from scratch. If they're your first hire, expect to part with roughly 5% equity.
Hire this person if: You can pay a developer salary and have a well-defined product vision and roadmap, and are willing to part with a small amount of equity.
A CTO is more skilled at building the entire technical picture. They’re fantastic programmers, but they also excel at the product and process level. They know how to build a technical team, strategize product development, and put efficient programming processes in place. Those activities plus writing code—it's a good idea to hire someone who gets their hands dirty—will command most of a CTO's time in the early days. As the company grows, they may move into evangelism (talking about your tech) and recruiting.
If they're an early hire, expect to part with more equity than you would for a senior programmer.
Hire this person if: You need someone to lead product development, can afford a technical salary, and are willing to part with a moderate amount of equity.
A technical co-founder has the same skills as a CTO but they’re more invested in the company. Hence, “co-founder.” In fact, it's best to think of this option as a partnership rather than a hire. A co-founder shares founder-level responsibility such as crafting the direction and vision of the business. Technical co-founders often accept more risk and equity than either of the two roles above.
Hire this person if: You’re just starting out, could use support in every aspect of crafting your startup, and are willing to part with a sizable amount of equity (up to 50%).
What does a technical co-founder do day-to-day?
Depending on the stage of your company and the resources at your disposal, your technical co-founder’s role will vary. Unless you're working with contractors, your technical co-founder will focus on building the product. Most often, they'll start by building the platform and then move into a CTO or CPO (Chief Product Officer) role as the company grows. Keep in mind the positions of programmer, CTO, and co-founder can and should blend during the early stages.
For all early hires, including your technical co-founder, we recommend leaning towards a generalist over a specialist. That includes someone who is willing to help out with sales, marketing, and other areas of the business. There are so many different tasks to be done in the early days that someone with a very specialized skill set will have a tough time adapting.
However, looking for a generalist doesn’t necessarily mean you need someone who is “full-stack.”* There are lots of ways programmers describe themselves, and most good developers don’t give a lot of thought to titles. Just as there are different types of marketers, CEOs, and designers, there are many types of full-stack developers.
* "Full-stack” is a popular programmer adjective. It indicates a programmer is skilled in many different areas including the parts of the software you see, the parts you don’t see, and all the ways its set up.
Instead of digging for a specific title on LinkedIn, look for people who have worked with early-stage startups before or have side projects of their own. And above all, look for someone with a voracious appetite for learning.
“But wait,” you might be thinking, “didn’t you say they need to be able to do more than code?”
If you’re successful in building a product people love, your technical co-founder will write less and less code. As you build your team together, they'll need to lead technical hiring, create development culture, make high-level architecture decisions, and lead the product side of the company.
Communication is one of the most important skills any team member can have.
That’s why you not only want to assess, “are they a good programmer” but “would they make a good co-founder?”
What makes a great technical co-founder?
The skills that make someone a great technical co-founder, instead of just a great programmer, are the same skills that make anyone a great co-founder. Based on our experiences building Krit, there are 4 attributes to look for in any co-founder.
1. Stellar communication skills
Communication is one of the most important skills any team member can have. Whether you’re scoping your MVP or building a team, communication is key. One of the best ways to assess communication? Pay attention to how well people listen; good communication isn’t all about talking.
2. Team-first mentality
Building a startup requires sacrifices. A great co-founder puts the success of the team before their own personal success. The CEO of ZipRecruiter talks about looking for “we” people. When someone is talking about their experience do they use “I” or “we?”
3. Long term thinking
There is no such thing as an overnight success in the world of startups. You need co-founders who are thinking 5-10 years into the future, but are still capable of executing now.
4. Complementary strengths
This goes beyond technical/non-technical. If you're not organized, consider finding a co-founder who is. Or if you're more risk-averse, consider someone who's risk-tolerant—they could help you act on the many uncertain and risky decisions you'll face.
Early warning signs of a toxic co-founder
Keep a sharp eye out for these red flags. One flag isn’t immediate grounds for refusal (we’re all messy humans) but it is grounds for caution. Be especially cautious if you notice several flags:
- Has zero interest in the “business side:” This may fly for a programmer, but it won’t fly for someone stepping into a true founder role. They’ll need to understand, drive, and invest in the overall business.
- Will work for free...indefinitely: Someone who doesn’t need the income won’t be half as interested in building a profitable business with you. A fire under their butt, such as needing to pay for groceries or a kid’s tuition, is a healthy motivator.
- Commits with little information: While it’s flattering to receive a quick, “YES!” be wary of anyone who jumps in this fast. Becoming a co-founder is a big decision. You want someone who has weighed the pros and cons before committing.
- Loathes customer interaction: No one builds a successful product in a vacuum. Your co-founder needs to know how to solicit, listen to, and apply customer feedback. It’s fine if they don’t want to end up as head of customer support, but it’s not fine if they detest the idea of talking with customers.
- Sucks at listening: We’re all bad listeners some of the time. But if your potential co-founder is a bad listener most of the time, this is a major red flag. Working with you (no matter how awesome you are) will take an enormous amount of communication. A technical co-founder will also need to communicate with customers, new hires, and potential investors.
As you’ve no doubt realized, you need more than one conversation by a conference booth to assess whether someone has all the right (or wrong) qualities of a co-founder. You need multiple interactions, in several settings, to explore who someone is.
The level of time, effort, and intentionality that exploration takes is one reason finding a co-founder is so often referred to as “co-founder dating.”
There is no such thing as an overnight success in the world of startups.
The world of co-founder dating
Experienced founders compare co-founding a startup to getting married. You spend 8+ hours a day together, make lots of important decisions, worry about your finances…it’s quite literally a legally binding contract between two people.
But while most people have gone on dates and know the appropriate time to bring up big questions and contracts, fewer people have searched for a co-founder. And that explains more than one mistake.
Take this common error: Would you ask someone to marry you on the first date? No. It would be creepy. And suppose they said yes. What if it turns out you’re a horrible match? Maybe they snore, only eat chicken and broccoli, or are an insufferable penny-pincher (goodbye lattes).
You wouldn't know, because you don’t know anything about each other.
But people do this all the time with startups. They rush into a co-founder relationship. Or they ask a developer to build their app when they barely know them.
Finding a co-founder is not an overnight process. You have to build a relationship slowly, so you shouldn't expect anyone to commit on the first date.
How do you build this relationship? The same way you would any relationship. Talk to them. Get to know them. Go to a meetup together. Find out what they want and whether it complements what you want.
Keep in mind any healthy relationship is a two-way street.
Making yourself attractive as a non-technical founder
So far we’ve honed in on the other person. But it’s important to take a look in the mirror too. Keep in mind any healthy relationship is a two-way street. You have to be interested in them as a technical founder...and they have to be interested in you as a non-technical founder.
Do you know what’s not interesting or attractive? Someone with a fuzzy idea, no traction, no customers, and no money. If you want to find a credible co-founder and pique their interest, you’ll have to do better.
Here are a few ways to make yourself more interesting:
- Be an expert in your niche: Make it your goal to understand your niche and problem better than anyone else out there. Gather persuasive evidence and qualitative data for, “why this, why them, why now?” Do customer research, productized consulting...whatever gets you in deep.
- Have a super skill: Work on excelling in sales, marketing, fundraising or some other skill your company needs in order to grow.
- Have a well-defined product vision: Based on your understanding of the problem and your niche, know what you want to prototype or build. One way to think through this is a product roadmap (we’ve shared templates and the exact process we use elsewhere on the blog).
- Build a no-code prototype: We’ve extensively covered what no-code tools are out there, how to approach prototypes, and why it’s possible to build them if you know zero code. You have no excuse not to take this step.
- Learn to speak the language: Among many other reasons, this will help you connect with programmers, assess their abilities, hold intelligent conversations, and network in circles your co-founder is likely to run.
- Craft an irresistible (true) story: If you’re addressing a real problem for a real set of people, you already have the makings of a good story. Work on making that story interesting and persuasive—you’ll need this skill for marketing, fundraising, and recruiting anyhow.
- Be realistic about what you’re building: Don’t pitch the next Facebook or Uber. A seasoned programmer will immediately be turned off.
- Share your idea without an NDA: Asking everyone you meet to sign an NDA is a surefire way to have as few conversations as possible and not find a co-founder.
- Have funds to pay a salary: Yes, you can and should offer equity, but that doesn’t mean you skip a salary altogether. If they’re skilled enough to be your technical co-founder, they’re also skilled enough to make a very impressive salary somewhere else. You don’t have to be able to pay market rate; you do need to make sure they can pay rent and groceries.
These will all help your cause. But your best bet, by far, is to have customers, revenue, and traction. More than any other attribute above, these data points communicate you have a high FSO and GSD quotient...otherwise known as the ability to Figure Shit Out and Get Shit Done.
Any co-founder worth their salt knows it’s easy to put a plan on paper and hard to execute. Potential co-founders will be most interested in your idea if it’s already resonating with paying customers and you have an impressive track record of getting shit done.
One big caveat here: don’t put your co-founder search on hold while you work on these improvements. Building relationships with and vetting potential co-founders can take years. You can work on all these things while you’re networking.
Where to look for a technical co-founder
There are two places you can look for a technical co-founder: in-town and online.
In-town, the best place to find potential co-founders are local tech meetups. Being in the same geographical area makes it easier to interact, build a relationship, and get to know each other in different settings. (Even with all the technology we have, no one likes long distance dating, right?)
But when you go to these meetups, don’t forget a key rule of building relationships: it's about them, not you. Don't try to fake it or walk in pitching your startup. Instead, learn enough to be dangerous and then go to meetups you’re actually interested in. This is a win-in. You’ll learn something and meet some cool people. And the best way to impress developers is to learn a little bit about their world.
Also consider looking for meetups that bridge the gap between tech and business, such as product-focused meetups.
If you don’t have any tech meetups in your area then look online. Reddit has some awesome developer communities, Dev.to is a newer community, and there are innumerable Slack groups (and channels within groups) dedicated to programming. Spend time to get to know these communities and learn the language. You don’t have to write code to know what a server is or understand the difference between native and hybrid apps.
Bottom line: Don’t understand something? Ask someone. Developers are typically friendly folks, especially towards people who are eager to learn. Plus, asking questions is a great way to fast track building relationships.
How to know if a developer is a legit co-founder option
If you find someone who checks all the co-founder boxes, isn’t throwing up red flags, and is interested in your startup, you have one more big assessment hurdle to jump over:
“Are they really, really good at the tech stuff?”
If you don’t know enough to look through their code, the best way to tell if a developer is legit is to look at past projects. Have they worked on serious applications that are being used by real users? As you’re getting to know them, find out what they’re interested in and which projects they’ve worked on.
Above all else look for a willingness to learn, an understanding of the business side, and a passion for what you're doing. Any good developer can pick up a new language or tech stack given enough time. Worry less about which languages or frameworks they’ve worked with and more about how well you work together and their capacity for growth.
How much pay and equity should you negotiate with a co-founder?
First off, don’t start with a salary offer.
Even if you think you’ve found a great match, do a small, paid project together first. The best way to assess how you work with someone is to work with them. Maybe you work on the prototype together or some other small project: build a landing page, create some wireframes, outline a product roadmap, or architect the project.
For these projects, pay your potential co-founder a standard hourly rate or project fee for their time. If you’re not willing to put a small amount of money into the project, that’s not a great sign of confidence to your potential co-founder. Plus, most developers have been burned by “idea guys” who offer a 10% equity stake if they’ll recreate Facebook from scratch in 2 weeks.
The best way to assess how you work with someone is to work with them.
If that goes well, then you do need to start ironing out salary and equity. And you should want them to have a significant stake; you want them to buy into the success of the project. We covered how to divide equity over on the Baremetrics blog, but here are some questions to guide the conversation.
- What skills, relationships, or unique value does each person bring to the table?
- How much time will each person be devoting to the project?
- What will each person’s responsibilities be?
- How much money is each person putting in?
- Will anyone be drawing a salary? If so, how much and when?
- How much time/money have you put in so far?
One more thing before you go...have you considered a contractor?
Sometimes founders fall into the trap of thinking their options are (a) find a technical co-founder or (b) bust. But there’s a third option here: working with contractors to get off the ground.
Alex Turnbull, CEO at Groove, worked with an agency to create a teaser site and beta app for his initial product. Once he gained traction, he hired two in-house developers. Other founders have followed this path too.
How do you know if it’s right for you? Funding is a key factor here. Hiring a contractor, or team of contractors, who produce excellent work is expensive. If you’re considering this route, make sure you understand your options and which questions to ask.
Working with an agency isn’t a long term solution for finding a technical co-founder, but it is an excellent way to gain traction in the meantime. As an agency, our goal is for all of our clients to become so successful that they eventually replace us with in-house employees.
Although you'll eventually need a technical co-founder, working with a team like us is a great way to get your product to market before you’ve found the right fit.
Update note: Andrew originally published in July 2017. We updated it in January 2020 to include more resources and guidance. Think it’s still missing something? Let us know on Twitter.