Are You Looking for a Technical Co-Founder?

Every day, I see job postings for “technical co-founders” or CTOs. Almost all of them from non-technical founders. I have to say I don’t know the overall success rate in hiring that person. But I’ve talked to many of them at meetups and the complaint that it is impossible to find that CTO is widespread. Part of it is certainly the limited supply of programmers, especially those willing to step into a founder role. But the problem, in my opinion, lies somewhere else.

You are looking for a cheap programmer

If you are looking for a “co-founder”, you are “founding” your startup per definition. The majority of startups in that phase have no funding or revenue yet. But they need somebody to develop that initial software that will — one day — make them rich. Calling them “co-founder” then typically implies that that person will be paid in shares as opposed to a salary. (The word “salary” almost never shows up in those job postings.) Any developer with a bit of experience — and those are the people you want — knows that your shares are worth nothing. Chances are you are not the next Instagram. So you’re asking them to work for free (or for “Club Mate”, big deal). How attractive is that?

You don’t care for the technical work

All you need is someone to implement that app for you. Could be anyone. You don’t really understand the difference between Ruby and Python so they better not bore you with it. I’ve spoken to so many developers working for MBA-type founders who simply didn’t care. These developers were all secretly looking for new jobs (or had just quit) because they were treated as a necessary evil, with no respect for anything they did. And these were internet startups who, at their very core, depend on technology.

Your product sucks

The overall idea of your startup may be exciting to you. But that app you need the tech co-founder for is no more than CRUD software. Some shiny buttons and forms which do no more than update a database on the server. It’s a glorified Excel-macro but with the label “iOS” and written in Objective-C instead of VisualBasic. Any experienced programmer may rather spend their days at T-Systems where they get paid for that stuff.

How to get that technical co-founder anyway

The following list will certainly not guarantee success. But I’d say it will increase your odds:

  • Sell to the programmer. It’s likely that if you are not the tech co-founder, you will be the one selling the product. Hiring the right people is a form of selling. Find out what they want. Don’t focus on what you want. Then find ways to provide that to them. That’s sales 101. If you don’t know these basics, you’re doomed already.
  • Be interested in technology. And I explicitly didn’t write “show interest in technology” because that is often misinterpreted as “fake interest in technology”. Ask questions. Learn. In fact, the best you can do is learn programming yourself. You don’t have to be great at it. But if developers realize that you understand what they are saying and are able to make decisions based on that, things are going to be much easier.
  • Have an exciting product. That’s easier said than done. But it’s also crucial if you want to hire the best CTO in the area. The big startups all have an exciting product which requires the use of exciting technology. All that stuff excites programmers. If you don’t have it in version 1, at least try to have a vision for version 2 or 3 where there is some functionality outside the enter-some-data-into-a-database realm. I’ve met some crazy great developers in Berlin who a lot of non-tech founders would die for. These guys all have their own startup going where they solve cutting-edge programming problems. To get them, your technology may need to be more cutting-edge than that.
  • Make technology a priority. This is about internet startups so technology is at the core of your company. Act like it. Give the tech people the resources they need, listen to them, involve them in major decisions.
  • Pay them. Very simple. Obviously, if a startup (the idea and the people) look extremely exciting to me, I’d join as a co-founder with stock options only. But that has not happened so far. If you are not willing to put money into your startup, it’s probably not that important to you anyway. In any case, with the current shortage of developers, great people will come if you pay them.

The first step is to stop seeing developers as a means to an end or a necessary evil. Then learn about them and from them. By doing that, you will know what it takes to attract the good ones.