January 12, 2022

How to find a technical co-founder: if you have to ask, you're not ready

The best way to find a technical co-founder is to start building without one


Zack Steven

One of the most common questions I get from founders is, "How do I find a technical co-founder?" My answer: if you have to ask, you're not ready. When you're new to the whole process of starting a tech company, it's too early for you to know what you're looking for. By the time you've learned what you need to build, you will probably also know what you need to do to find your person if you haven't found them already.

This answer is not meant to be some type of Zen Buddhist koan to drive you up the wall, but I understand that's how it might feel—it’s not the answer most founders want to hear. It's unsatisfying to be ready and excited to build and then be told that waiting is the answer. The good news is that you can still get started in the meantime, and doing so will make finding your future co-founder or CTO (chief technology officer) all the easier. In this post, I'll go into detail about why you should wait to find a technical co-founder, what you can do instead, and how beginning to build without a technical co-founder will ultimately help you on your quest to find one.

Co-founder is a significant relationship and succcessful ones  aren't formed overnight

In the startup origin stories we most often hear, the founder simply gets an idea, teams up with some co-founders, and then they all get to working. What non-technical founders who aren't in this position miss, however, is that by the time most founding teams form, the co-founders have already known each other for years. If you don’t already know your technical co-founder, you’re going to have a hard time finding a good one until you have traction.

When you've found a problem you're committed to solving, put your primary focus on selling and validating that your problem is sticky. Start your search for a technical co-founder, but look casually. Reach out to old connections, ask people you know for introductions, join some communities, and attend a couple of events. Then, share what you’re doing with the people you meet over time. When you’ve started to prove that you’re onto something, they will already have seen the process you took to gain traction. The more they understand what you’ve been doing and how, the better your chances of finding a fit. To a potential co-founder, traction is more compelling than an idea.

For co-founder relationships to work, there needs to be knowledge, trust, and commitment in addition to compatibility on many fronts. Going from new acquaintance to co-founder too quickly is a major risk. Having the wrong team or disharmony among it are some of the top reasons startups fail. Gloria Lin, CEO of the construction finance platform Siteline, started her search for a technical co-founder from scratch. In her resulting potential co-founder questionnaire, there are questions covering everything from weaknesses to conflict to stress, de-partnering, health, family, money, failure, and resentment—and those are just the touchy subjects.

There's talking about each other's styles, preferences, and motivations, and then there's experiencing them firsthand. In Lin's co-founder dating process, she'd brainstorm and prototype with candidates after a few conversations to see what it'd be like to work together and understand if the relationship had legs. Lin and her co-founder, CTO Joel Poloney, kept working together for four months before committing legally. Overall, her search took an entire year, which makes sense when you consider that executive hiring typically takes three to six months and co-founder tenures can last much longer.

Start looking for a co-founder, but take the time to really get to know your candidates and yourself in the process so you can figure out what's going to work. Putting in that time and effort is how you'll be able to know when the right person comes along. There needs to be an existing shape for things to click into place. Focus your early efforts on making sure you have an idea that can become a product that can then become a company before going too far down the co-founder commitment path.

To make an attractive offer to a co-founder, you must have something to offer as a startup

Building on this idea of something needing to be there already for you to confidently form a partnership, let's now mind the gap that exists between finding suitable co-founder candidates and convincing one to join you.

In FundersClub's guide to co-founder fit, tech entrepreneur, advisor, and investor Christopher Steiner accurately points out that engineers are "constantly barraged" by people with ideas, and the most entrepreneurial of them are also working on ideas of their own. He recommends building a prototype, testing your idea with users, talking to potential customers, and mapping the market to demonstrate traction and sweeten the deal for engineers you don't already know—actions we recommend and have written about too! Odds are this work lets you meet and work with technical folks that may become your co-founder.

Startups are hard and the reality is that the vast majority of founders quit. In the application to the prestigious Y Combinator startup accelerator, there are more questions about the commitment and relationship of the founders than their ability. As Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham writes, you haven't seen someone's true colors unless you've worked with them on a startup. While that means you should choose your co-founders carefully, the opposite is also true—smart technical co-founders will also be looking at their non-technical co-founders' levels and lengths of commitment. Don't wait until you have a technical co-founder to get started so that when it comes to showing how invested you are, you have proof.

When you've entered the world of startups as a non-technical founder, you know what you don't know. Naturally, you're interested in teaming up with a counterpart that brings technical skills to the table and can get your technology built, and it would be ideal to find someone with skin in the game. Building, however, is a long process that you shouldn't put off while you meet candidates, learn about them, and work on proving that your startup is an amazing opportunity. It’s counterintuitive, but getting started and demonstrating traction are the steps that lead you to finding your technical co-founder, not the other way around.

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Zack Steven, CEO of Cloudburst, is a curious optimist, Dad, entrepreneur, and angel investor. He has a degree in Studio Art and is a fan of good design, big ideas, and strong communities.