A Tech Founder's Guide To Picking A Non-Tech Founder

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on December 18, 2013 in guest recruiting founders 18 Comments

There are many articles and blogs claiming to have THE list of things to do to find the perfect technical cofounder - as if it’s that easy to find a cofounder in general. From my purview at FounderDating, however, one of the most important and least-discussed (in the press, at least) questions is from technical entrepreneurs. For the last year the longest- running trending topic on FD:Discuss (the Q/A section of the site) is: how do technical cofounders evaluate non-technical cofounders? yin yang colorful

Why It’s Hard

When you’re technical and interviewing or planning to work with other people who are technical, you’re used to giving them objective “tests” that help you determine their abilities, white board problems, coding projects, pair-programming sessions. Even if you’re not technical and you have someone do a coding project, you can easily show it to technical friends and advisors and quickly get their expert opinions. Of course, this isn’t enough to decide whether you should work with someone -- especially as a cofounder -- but it’s at least cutting to the core of the skills question. (You also need to address the chemistry/personality question.)

Unfortunately, there isn’t a white board test equivalent for business folks that really mimics these (if anyone has one please share). You can get a rough idea of how they think, but there isn’t a concrete “result” to help you figure out if they are any good e.g. can they acquire customers, can they recruit someone, etc.

The Most Common Mistakes

You don’t know what you don’t know. And that leads many potential technical cofounders to fall back on criteria that seem important but are typically false positives. A few of the most popular characteristics people tell us they look for that aren’t good indicators on their own:

1. Expert in the field you’re interested in - I guess this is nice if there is no chance that the idea will change industries (read: almost never). But some of the most successful companies were started by people that had no experience in their industry, and that’s precisely why they were able to change it. Kevin Hartz didn’t have a background in ticketing nor did Max Levchin in payments. Often times having spent a career in an industry means you can’t re-think it.

2. Top schools or top companies on their resume - It’s nice to tout, but if you joined Facebook as the 4000th employee this just doesn’t tell you much - good or bad.

3. Built a prototype - This is helpful but only in that it shows they can DO and not just talk. But it’s unlikely you’ll want to inherit that code or that the idea will remain the same.

What To Look For and How

As a non-technical cofounder your job ranges from product to hiring to taking out the trash. There isn’t one test or one white board problem to give, but here are the characteristics you should be looking for:

1. High FSO (Figure.Sh*t.Out) quotient - When you start a company or a side project there are few guarantees. Pretty much the only one I can make is that there will be a large body of work that comes your way that neither you nor your cofounder(s) have ever faced before. This heap of work will far outnumber the portion you have actually encountered. Can your cofounder figure sh*t out? And can they do it quickly? Being amazing at one thing is nice, but honestly not what you should optimize for in a cofounder. Founders are typically just “good enough” at a slew of things: fundraising, product, partnerships, etc. You can hire for the very specific positions later, right now you need an all around athlete –calls plays and executes at different positions

2. His GSD (Get.Sh*t.Done) quotient - The sheer volume of work that needs to get done when you start a company is, well, never ending. It’s great to be able to talk to crowds and VCs but given a list of 20 things that you need to do, can they prioritize and knock them off at an impressive rate (especially the ones they haven’t done before - see #1)? You should feel totally confident that when they say they are going to do something it will get done -- and done exceptionally well.

3. High Determination Quotient - OK, so I lied: There are two guarantees I can make about starting a company - the second is that you will get rejected (over and over again). Can this person handle that kind of negative feedback? How long does it take them to get back up? This is the reason having previously been a cofounder or joined a startup as an early employee is important. It shows that they’ve been to battle, have scars and are opting back in. It’s less the industry and more the psychological experience that matters. Paul Graham has a famous essay on Determination. Cliff notes version: “We learned quickly that the most important predictor of success is determination.” This means you need to work on something together long enough to hit a road block (or four) and see how they react.

4. High Communication Quotient - There are actually two parts to this requirement.

i) Can they speak your language? You can’t expect them to know as much about engineering as you do. But do they make an effort to understand? Have they worked with engineers before and comprehend the questions to ask? If you don’t know the answer, ask to talk some of these previous co-workers. A non-technical cofounder learning to code is an encouraging sign – not necessarily because they’ll be contributing meaningfully on the engineering side, but more as a helpful signal that this person is curious and wants to understand your language.

ii) Can they communicate with others effectively? This means investors, potential employees, customers. If you have a SaaS product, can they sell the first customer? If you have a consumer-focused product, can they go get an alpha group to test and then gather their feedback and work off of it? Can they present to a crowd and get them excited? That could mean a startup weekend crowd or a group of students; you don’t have to wait until you’re pitching investors to figure this out.

You may have noticed that you can’t figure out #s 1-4 in just a few meetings. The best way to figure all of this out is -- to work together first. Start a side-project. These quotients are exponentially easier to calculate when you’re working on something real together. It doesn’t matter if it’s the idea you actually end up working on, you’ll see far more revealed doing this than you will over 10 coffees or hypothetical white board sessions. Yes, that also means you can’t find the right partner in just a few weeks. So be constantly putting yourself out there.

These aren’t the only things to look for -- there are big questions around motivation and alignment and of course personality fit -- but these are much more telling characteristics than a resume-based checklist.

This was a guest post by Jessica Alter.  Jessica is the co-founder & CEO of FounderDating, the premiere online network for entrepreneurs to connect, share, and find co-founders. Previously, she led Business Development and was GM of Platforms at Bebo (before it was acquired by AOL). She is also a mentor at 500 Startups and Extreme Startups.