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

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


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.

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Wed, Dec 18, 2013


4 i) is critical. I am a non-technical founder and take the blame for my mis-starts with technical folks because I did NOT educate myself. If I was on the techie side, unless the non-techie is anxious to learn and understand, they will not make a good founder or partner. Thanks for a great article.

posted on Wednesday, December 18, 2013 at 10:45 AM by Mary Juetten

At CoFoundersLab, we think a lot about personality, motivations, and work style as key elements to helping entrepreneurs find the right co-founders. We've built a personality assessment into our online matching platform, http://www.cofounderslab.com/, to use as one more indicator of potential fit. The assessment was created by Joe Abraham and his incredible team in Chicago at BOSI, http://www.bosidna.com/. It quickly determines what's referred to as someone's "entrepreneurial DNA." There are 4 archetypes: Builder, Opportunist, Specialist, and Innovator, and most people are a combination of the two (i.e. a 'BO' or a 'SI').  
Finding a co-founder with a complementary DNA is important. For example, if you both lean more towards Builders, you will clash, but if one of you is more heavy on the 'Builder' side and the other is more an 'Innovator,' this will go a long way in balancing your team. Different things drive different people, and we all have different, hard wired entrepreneurial DNA. You can't change who you are, but you can find someone who celebrates who you are and brings out your best with a complementary set of skills, motivations, and view of the world. 
Take your time choosing your co-founder as it will be one of the most important decisions you'll make in your startup journey. Good luck to all!

posted on Wednesday, December 18, 2013 at 10:52 AM by Michael

I love this list! Especially #3 because the rejection of your idea will not just come from investors, but also from well-meaning family and friends. 
But you are also right in that there is no way to evaluate these characteristics in an interview process. You might be able to evaluate some from track-record, but you really don't know until you start working with someone. I'd say, if it feels right, give it a go and then do an evaluation after a month.

posted on Wednesday, December 18, 2013 at 10:53 AM by Barbara Tallent

Another factor I've found to be important is delegating well, by which I mean not interfering with the technical person's control over the technical agenda. Business is a nightmare when a non-technical CEO tries to set the technical agenda of the company: 
"Wait, you mean flow is a real thing?" 
"Why do we need to beta test it before launching?" 
"I promised our customers that we can release a totally new mobile app to them by tomorrow. It has to have (laundry list of features). You can develop it by then, right?" 
"We need to be able to use laptops as servers" 
"Whoops, I was using the laptop as a server and it got a virus" 
"Yeah, the website looks like the mockup. But I think this part needs to be moved over to the left..." 
A trial run is the right answer. Do it for a couple of weeks. If it works out, great! If not, no biggie - part ways and the search continues. 
I'm actually of the opinion that nontechnical people should never be running software companies. The CEO should be the salesperson / "face" of the company, bringing in new business, funds, and press opportunities, but the day-to-day progress of work and deliverables should be the CTO's responsibility to manage.

posted on Wednesday, December 18, 2013 at 12:18 PM by Michael Barnathan

Good article.  
I would add that a non-tech founder with business experience will often come out of a large corporate enterprise and will potentially struggle with the concept of "good enough". If you are running as a Lean Startup, make sure they have read the book and have a passion for the principles. If you are hiring someone to build the customer base, make sure they believe one smart guy can do two jobs (both sales AND marketing - two functions inside corporations that barely acknowledge each other). 
Finally, ask them what they did in their last few companies. Over and over again. Don't settle for the first few answers - make sure you understand what they actually did. In a large corporate, a majority of people spend their days in meetings and writing emails. They don't actually *do*. Put a line through their names and move on to the next one. 
Best of luck.

posted on Thursday, December 19, 2013 at 3:40 AM by David

Good article. I starup with AdvertGoal.com. I added that a non-tech founder with business experience.  

posted on Sunday, December 22, 2013 at 9:29 PM by Peter Paul

I'm actually of the opinion that nontechnical people should never be running software companies. The CEO should be the salesperson / "face" of the company, bringing in new business, funds, and press opportunities, but the day-to-day progress of work and deliverables should be the CTO's responsibility to manage. 

posted on Monday, December 23, 2013 at 9:40 AM by kaspersky coupon

Techies are from Mars, Sales guys are from Venus. Both of them communicate in ways that the other won't really understand. While it's hard for a non-technical founder to know if a techy is legitimate or not, it's also hard for the reverse to be true. Technical people need to find the right business and marketing guys that have connections, understand business models, have a history of acquiring some funding, etc. You can test them, you can ask them about some business or economic questions, you can see if they know about things like buying Facebook likes, you can test their knowledge in various ways, but the ultimate proof is in having done it before. I think that applies to both technical people and business guys as well.

posted on Saturday, January 04, 2014 at 9:53 AM by Kyle Taylor

i think that the team members more important than idea . when you have integrated , smart and ambitious one you have found a colleague in all your ideas and projects finally the soul similarity is the point

posted on Saturday, January 04, 2014 at 1:55 PM by ahmed raafat

Very nice article, I totally agree that people are different and have variuos experience, for this reason their union can create new and very effective business with many strong sides.

posted on Monday, January 06, 2014 at 2:23 AM by Valdymo sistema

Awesome article :) Today i have read one article here http://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/linkedin-group-marketers-list and land here  

posted on Wednesday, January 08, 2014 at 11:17 PM by Jigar

i think the combo of tech and non-tech founder can be the best thing happen to a start up. they can take the firm to great heights. thanks for writing this article.

posted on Saturday, January 11, 2014 at 5:21 AM by click group of companies

I agree with you mate, a combination of both non-tech and tech is best for any startup. Though for a technical startup,its even more important to have one non techi to offset things. 

posted on Thursday, January 16, 2014 at 1:59 AM by Ajinkya

Good article and practical approach. 

posted on Friday, January 17, 2014 at 4:56 PM by Benny Tomas

Good article. I starup with AdvertGoal.com. I added that a non-tech founder with business experience.  

posted on Wednesday, January 22, 2014 at 12:15 PM by Microsoft surface

Spot on as usual Dharmesh. No wonder Hubsot rocks so hard. Love the FSO quotient. All the degrees in the world cant overcome a lack of a high FSO ability. Connecting the dots is more important that drawing the dots

posted on Friday, January 24, 2014 at 10:34 AM by Andy Newbom

I hired a guy who was CFO of a big tech company. I should have heard the warning bells when he said "Well, I won't do the day-to-day accounting stuff..."

posted on Friday, January 31, 2014 at 8:11 PM by Anil

Thanks for sharing this...

posted on Wednesday, February 05, 2014 at 1:00 AM by Marwa

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