Updated: Nov 8, 2021
Finding a technical co-founder can be an extremely time-consuming challenge, especially when you don't have a technical background. In addition, after interviewing dozens of software developers for my own startup, I realized that on top of the technological gap, there's a mindset gap to bridge, as many of them have recurring misconceptions in regard to the co-founder role, the effort needed and compensation, that led to most of the mismatches I've experienced - and that could've been avoided.
Therefore, I've gathered some guidelines that are best to make clear before an interview with a potential technical co-founder, that might save you hours if not months of your precious time.
1. They are Entrepreneurs at Heart and in Practice
Some people are more suited to be employees than entrepreneurs. That's fine, but you need to make sure that the person you're interviewing for a co-founder has the neck for the task. Do it by checking if they have previous experience in entrepreneurship. It doesn't mean they have to have an 'exit' under their belt, but they should show you some attempt on entrepreneurship, even a failing or a minor one. This will let you know that they are not quitters and that the entrepreneurial drive still burns in their veins.
2. The Only Reward is Equity, Until the Investment
Co-founders are named as such usually because they took a chance and started working on their startup from the very beginning with no salary. Otherwise, they are often considered as founding members or employees, and they'll get much less equity since one can't have their cake and eat it too. Therefore, if you don't have money to pay for salaries, you need to make it clear as day that your co-founder will receive only equity until you attain a large enough investment, and that it might take months to achieve it as most investors want to see an MVP or traction.
In addition, you should both agree on the minimum salary for the year after the first investment, which will allow you to live well while building a sustainable business. Your investors would want to see that your priorities are set on building a successful company and that you're not wasting their money on unnecessary expenses. While many software developers are used to getting very high salaries as employees, they need to have an entrepreneur mindset and the belief that their equity will be worth a lot of money in the long run and that their current effort and thrift will pay off.
3. You Need a Hands-on Technical Co-founder
You're probably looking for a technical co-founder in exchange for equity partly because you can't afford to pay for a software developer. So there isn't much logic in getting a technical co-founder who can't or won't build anything themselves. Therefore, you need to make it clear that, at least in the first year, your co-founder will need to build the product hands-on and won't just manage others. A CTO that only operates as a high-level manager can work for larger or more funded companies, not at startups that have very little resources.
4. They Have the Necessary Skills to Build a Minimum Viable Product
Many developers will tell you that they can do anything, even if they haven't done it before - Watch out! You don't want a pig in a poke. Everyone has a learning curve that takes time and patience. Therefore, it's best to prefer someone who already has technological expertise in your startup's specific field. You can check that by looking for candidates who worked for companies or products similar to yours. However, you'll still need to find out if they've acquired enough experience to build an MVP on their own. You can do that by consulting with an external experienced software developer to give you a list of technologies that your specific product requires, so you'll know what you're looking for while scouting. It's also recommended that the consultant will join you on interviews and help you screen candidates so you can find the best match.
5. They are Continuous Learners, Preferably with Leadership Skills
All founders dream of the perfect CTO to join them as a co-founder, but not everyone can find one. The ideal technical co-founder is a full stack developer, who can build a scalable MVP end-to-end, has a deep understanding of software architecture, the knowledge to hire good developers, and the leadership skills to manage them. However, these unicorns are very hard to find, and they need to be truly impressed by you to leave their comfortable high-paying job for your startup.
Therefore, you might find yourself compromising on your co-founder's current skill set. However, the one skill you shouldn't compromise on is their ability to learn new things on their own. For example, if they are very fixed on the technologies they currently possess and won't be able to adjust themselves for what is best for your product, or to the ever-changing market needs and new technologies, it can slow down your startup growth. Thus, make sure you team up with a partner who has the hunger to research the newest trends out there, and the benefits and flaws of other coding languages and tools, so they can choose the best practices that will elevate your product in comparison to others in the market.
A skill that you can compromise on is their leadership ability. You might find a genius developer who can code your MVP from scratch, however, they might not be CTO material. Meaning, they can't manage others, see the bigger picture or make tough decisions under pressure. That's fine, but if you recognize that, you should let them know that you're planning on bringing in a CTO later down the road. This might be a tricky thing to do and you need to make sure that your technical co-founder agrees with this decision so they won't become frustrated in the future.
6. They Have Passion for the Problem You're Solving
You might have to pivot at some point, but the main reason why you started your business shouldn't change. Meaning, you and your co-founder should have a relentless passion to solve the problem. Do not add a co-founder that gets in just to make money, as they will probably leave you for money as well. Entrepreneurship is a very long and hard ride, and if you don't feel a genuine passion for what you're doing, you'll give up after a short while, especially when the road gets tough.
“You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do." - Steve Jobs
7. You Share a Common Set of Values
As with any partner, you need to make sure that you're seeing eye-to-eye on things that matter most to you. That can be anything from economical views to religion, politics, and day-to-day moral values. Whatever you consider as crucial for you to get along well so you can build a business together. For example, if you're a vegan and you can't bear eating next to someone who eats meat, and your co-founder won't be willing to compromise their lunch so you can eat together, that might cause issues as you need to spend time together in between tasks, not to mention respect each other's core beliefs. That doesn't mean that you must have identical views on everything, but as you won't go out on a second date with someone that owns beliefs that you just can't live with, you shouldn't get into a long-term relationship with a co-founder that their core beliefs are too different from yours and you both can't bypass or bridge them. You decide where that line is crossed. Remember that you're looking for a co-founder, not an employee, and that you both set the foundations for the company culture and the priorities for where your money and efforts will be spent.
8. You Share a Common Vision
If your passion represents "why" you want to build the startup, and your values set "with who" you'd want to build it, then your vision represents "how" you'll do it. Ask yourself and your potential partner, how do you see your company 5, 10 years from now? Would you be satisfied with an exit or with an IPO? Do you want a medium-size company with no investors involved, or a billion-dollar company with thousands of employees worldwide? How do you picture your company culture? Are you looking to make an impact on a specific target market, or would you be open to expanding to other markets and doing whatever is needed to scale?
You should also discuss how building your company will affect your lives today, and to what extent you'd be willing to change them in order to achieve your vision. Obviously, things may change over time, but make sure that you and your partner are aiming for the same outcome, at least for the foreseeable future, and that you're willing to make it a high priority alongside your other commitments and responsibilities. I recommend that you'll use co-founder question guides to help you align your expectations before embarking on a joint journey.
9. You Need to Work Together Before You Work Together
Even if your potential technical co-founder has the right skills on paper, you still need to see them in action while testing how well you two work together. Therefore, if you're testing their front-end capabilities, you can set up a time-bound project, like one or two screens, to see if their eye for design and product UX matches your expectations. For their back-end skills, you should see if they have a few years of work experience on products with large user-bases, as you need to build your product properly for it to scale. A full-stack developer should be able to pass both tests.
In any case, if you decide to move forward and draft a co-founding contract, it should include a trial period of 1-3 months, as most conflicts only show up during a longer period of time. Meaning, the equity vesting period will only start after the successful completion of the trial period. This will allow you both to see how well you work under pressure, your level of commitment, and if you manage to get along and build trust.
10. Your Startup is Truly Worth the Time & Effort
My final tip is actually the one you should implement first: Don't spend months just looking for a technical co-founder or an investor that will finance bringing a tech person. Instead, make sure your main focus is on finding your customers, aka product-market-fit. Try to find an indirect way to sell your product, even without building your own software. You can do that by using no-code platforms, social media groups, or even selling dor-to-dor. Your customers should always be your first priority, and if you find a way to prove that your product can make money, it will be much easier to get both potential technical co-founders and investors interested in it. This will also affirm to you if your product is truly worth the time and effort of building a startup at all. Good luck!