In the early, early days, a large part of whether a startup succeeds comes down to the founders: Do they get along? Are they committed? Are they nimble? Do they make intelligent decisions? Do they get things done? If not, the startup will probably never get off the ground. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200.
After that, comes some of the early team. Most of these people will usually be people the founders know (directly or indirectly). These hires are usually great too. If not, the startup will probably never get off the ground. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200.
After that, comes the really hard part. Things are working reasonably well. The idea is starting to crystallize. More than a couple of weeks go by where the strategy for the company has not changed. Maybe some funding is raised. Maybe some customers have come on board. Now that you sort of know what you're doing, you need to find more development talent for one simple reason: You have more great ideas that will improve your company than you have people to pursue them. At this point, you have the hard problem of trying to hire great developers for your startup. This is about one of the hardest things to do. The reason it's hard is that even great developers don't always make great developers for a startup. And, the ones that are destined for startups likely have their own ideas and are thinking about their own startup. I can't help much with the second part (convincing other entrepreneurial folks to join your cause is non-trivial and a topic for another article). But, I think I can help a bit with the first part: Detecting who might make a great developer for a startup.
Here's a simple quiz that can be taken in about 5 minutes.
The Startup Developer Superstar Detection Quiz
1. You're more of a pragmatist than a perfectionist. [Yes/No]
2. You've muttered "I'm up anyways, might as well code" at 4:30 a.m. at least once in your life.
3. You understand why the above is misleading because time is continuous, not discrete and the probability of any individual having muttered anything at exactly 4:30 a.m. is near zero. But, you answered yes to #2 anyways, because you're practical and know what was actually meant.
4. Your sense of satisfaction from software development is a function of how many users are delighted with what you've built.
5. You can argue both sides of a technical debate most of the time, if you had to. Some of the time, you actually do, just to better understand the tradeoffs.
6. You've been impressed with someone else's code at some point in your life.
7. You've reused someone else's code at some point in your life, and resisted the temptation to rewrite it.
8. Given a weekend, you could build and launch a trivial web application from start to finish in a language/platform of your choosing (C#,Java,PHP,Python,Ruby,etc.). And, since you've actually had weekends, you've actually gone ahead and done this.
9. You're strangely comforted by the fact that the list of languages in #8 is alphabetical and not in descending or ascending order of quality/power/coolness/etc as you really don't have the time for a religious war on languages and platforms.
10. Given a long weekend and some caffeine, you could do #8 with a popular language/platform that is not of your choosing.
11. You've developed something non-trivial before that nobody you know could recreate in a weekend (and you know more than two people that you'd consider great developers).
12. You're going to start your own company someday. So, you're interested in sales, marketing, operations and things other than figuring out how to make Ruby on Rails scale to large numbers of users when there are complicated database queries involved.
13. You read a lot, including things like Hacker News.
14. You're not just an internet developer, you're an internet participant. You actually use the stuff other people have built.
If you answered "Yes" to all of the above, you are probably a startup development superstar.
If so, and you are looking to join a startup in the Boston/Cambridge area, drop me an email (startupcareers [at] onstartups.com) any time. I'm involved in several startups in the Boston/Cambridge area that are looking for great development talent. This includes my own Cambridge-based startup, HubSpot, which is growing like crazy.
The next best thing to starting your own is to join a smart and passionate early team and learn as much as you can.
Update: If you tried to reach me today via email, please resend your message. I've just learned that messages have been bouncing. My apologies. I promise I'm not ignoring you.