Recruiting Technical Co-Founders

Note 1: This piece is the first of three posts I’m going to do over the next couple months on recruiting. This one is obviously on recruiting technical co-founders. The next post will be on recruiting advisors.

Note 2: A discussion of this post is going on here.

Not having the right team is a startup killer. So is not having a team at all. Putting together your founding team is the most important thing you will ever do in your startup because if you don’t do it right, you will not have the opportunity to do any of the other important stuff.

My company, LaunchGram, consists of a designer (Carrie Phillips), a full-stack developer (Zach Boerger), and a hustler (me). We each bring unique technical skills to the table, we’ve known each other for between four and five years, and the way we work together just fits.  

If you’re starting a company and looking for co-founders, I believe this is the recipe for starting out on the right track:

  1. Bring something real to the table (vision + skills)
  2. Drink more beer  (aka GO MEET PEOPLE)
  3. Date’ your co-founders (know or work with them first)

BRING SOMETHING TO THE TABLE

Please keep in mind that I am writing this from the perspective of a ‘hustler,’ and things might be a tad different if you are a developer or designer looking for co-founders. I also believe all founders should be technical (post on that here). If one of your potential co-founders lacks any skill you believe to be technical, I would advise you to keep looking.

Ideas do not equal vision + skills

The first time I set out to start a tech company I had nothing real to bring to the table. I was an ‘idea guy’ without experience in design, coding, sales, or real-life product management. I didn’t even have much of a network. In short, I was non-technical and despite my work ethic was pretty much useless. I thought I had a vision, but I didn’t really know how to achieve that vision. If you don’t know how to execute, build, and hustle towards your vision, you don’t have a vision, you have an idea.

If you’re asking another person to co-found a company with you, you are recognizing their skills and they will want to see complimentary skills on your end. Make sure you have them.

If you don’t have skills, go get them and come back.

So what did I do? I got a job with a startup that paid me $10 an hour as an intern / their only sales guy. We were making iOS apps, which generally looked awful, and it quickly became apparent that we needed a designer. Only catch was we didn’t have the money. So I learned how to design iPhone apps by watching YouTube videos. I wasn’t award winning by any standards, but I got the job done and learned a ton about the art of design.

The same job eventually became a full-time gig as ‘Director of Product,’ but I actually did some design, some sales, and some product management. By the time I quit that job, I had a proven record of design capability, sales under my belt, and experience with how to and how not to manage software products.

LaunchGram’s CTO, Zach, still to this day says one of the reasons he decided to join the team was because he believed that if he could build something, I could sell it. As the non-designer non-coder, one of your technical skills is selling other people. Own it.

DRINK MORE BEER / GO MEET PEOPLE

I had a mentor once tell me that the best advice he had for aspiring entrepreneurs is to ‘drink more beer.’ What he meant by this wasn’t to go become an alcoholic, but to get out and just make friends with as many smart people as possible. Drinking beer just happens to be a really good way to do that.

This turned out to be great advice. I met both of my co-founders in college at Ohio State and while we didn’t know the startup life was for us at first, we all gravitated to events around campus that brought together developers, designers, and hustlers. Events like this exist in practically any city. I have a short list below here. Go do these four things, meet people at the places you go, and ask them to meet up and get a beer. Be nice, be genuine, and remember what you’re bringing to the table.

  1. Go to a couple hackathons (e.g. Startup Weekend)
  2. Subscribe to the Startup Digest in your city (their Gcal integration is real slick)
  3. Get on Meetup and find some cool events
  4. Lookup startup people in your city on Twitter and ask them where to go
  5. If you’re in college, find the entrepreneurship club. If there isn’t one yet, start it. See here for Ohio State’s example.

DATE YOUR CO-FOUNDERS

When a member of the sex you’re attracted to asks you to date them, I’m guessing you have probably known them for a while. I don’t think finding a co-founder should be any different. You’d like to get to know that person first, determine whether you actually like them, whether they’re a good fit for your lifestyle, whether they’re a good person, whether they are driven by a passion, and whether they have any sweet skills.

So wouldn’t you want to do the same with people you’re about to spend between 8-24 hours a day with? I’m talking about co-founders here. Here are a few things you should evaluate co-founders on:

  1. Do you like them?
  2. Do you trust them? On what basis?
  3. Do you respect them? Do they respect you?
  4. Do they bring complementary skills to the table?
  5. Build relationships before you need them

The first one is easy to evaluate. You either like them or you don’t. As for trust, co-founders will have opportunities to stab you in the back. The question is, do you know them well enough to trust them not to?

Respect can be the basis for trust and criticism in a working relationship. If you respect an individual professionally and trust them to be honest, you should feel comfortable receiving and giving criticism and praise.

Liking, trusting, and respecting your co-founders is also incredibly important because who you bring on will shape your company’s culture. Company culture can be a really positive thing or it can be a really negative thing. Sometimes people think of company culture and they think shag carpeting, Steve Jobs posters, lots of coffee, and beer Fridays. While those things are great, they are only a small part of company culture. Company culture is about the degree to which you and your co-founders emulate approachability, openness, mutual-respect, individual expression, self-fulfillment, comfort, commitment, hard work, and fun. That’s all easy to say, but it is damn hard to build a business culture with those traits, so choose your co-founders wisely.

With all of this in mind, if you’re a hustler, you clearly need a designer and a developer, not just another person you like, trust, and respect (emphasis on finding people with complementary skills). I’ve seen a lot of early co-founder relationships struggle with an over-abundance of the same skills.

WRAP UP

All things considered, recruiting co-founders is serious business. It’s all about two-way streets though: complementary skills, mutual-respect and trust, and shared vision for culture. So now, just don’t screw it up =).

Reference material:

http://techcrunch.com/2012/06/03/for-the-single-founder-who-cant-code/

http://www.quora.com/What-is-the-best-way-for-a-non-technically-trained-founder-to-find-and-recruit-a-software-engineer-for-an-early-stage-startup

http://www.slideshare.net/GA_SF/intro-to-the-sf-startup-community

Thanks to Zach Boerger and Carrie Phillips for editing this post.