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Finding a technical co-founder: You’re doing it wrong

When you’re trying to create a new product as a non technical person, it might seem easy at first, until you start looking for real technical partners. Either you need to pay more than you can afford, or they simply aren’t interested in what you want. As a potential technical co-founder, there’s often so much work that has to be done before an idea gets validated, it sometimes feels like you’re on your own, with a non technical co-founder just waiting for things to happen.

Creating true partnership is what’s required to if you want to offer your deep gifts to the world. For myself, it took a while to find a real technical partner. Hopefully this post will make your efforts a bit easier.

The incident that made me want to write this article

I was at a tech mixer recently where I was talking to a gent, let’s call him John, who had been looking for a co-founder for months, with no success. His project was technically challenging, leveraging a monetization strategy for a platform that had no track record. John was banging his head against a wall. He didn’t realize the sacrifice that his potential technical co-founders would have to endure for a risky startup. I felt bad for him, and explained most of what I’ve put in this post. I’m hopeful that this effort will help you avoid some of his pain.

A startup is like raising a child

When joining a startup, founders implicitly agree to a multi year commitment to each other. It takes time for ideas to prove out or fail, and there’s a huge opportunity cost. People could take paying gigs instead, or simply do a different startup. The startup is like a baby, that could mature into something great, but there’s a required sunk cost that could be years of work before the magic happens. Because of this, your partner should be someone who you enjoy sharing the journey with.

Technical co-founders early on in a startup really are playing the nurturing role. So much of their time goes into product, whereas it’s sometimes hard to see what a business co-founder brings to the table other than cash. When approaching someone for a possible committed relationship, ideas by themselves are cheap, action is what counts. If you were to approach a potential mate and simply say, “we should get together and have sexy children” that wouldn’t cut it, and neither is a simple business idea.

This doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t form relationships, as successful ones happen all the time. It just means that you have to create the foundations in yourself before approaching someone, expecting a positive outcome

Ways to show value

1. Be authentic. If you want to show that you’d be a good partner, you need to be human and genuinely relate with people, not objectify them by assuming they are there to do things for you. Interact with the WHOLE person by talking with genuine curiousity about their interests and desires.

2. Validate your product idea. If you’re providing business skills for the startup, back it up with action. Take steps towards product market fit, such as getting signed Letters of Intent (LOIs) which show that your product will have revenue on day 1. You could also create a business model canvas, and collect real world data for each section of the canvas.

3. Cocreate an experience. There’s value to be found in most social interactions. Don’t presume an outcome, go with an open mind and a belief that there is some spontaneous positive result that can happen if you have an open mind. You can create with the other person, and meet them where they are to get to a new place. It’s hard to tell if you’ll work well with someone until you actually do so in some way. Startup Weekend is a great shortcut that can help see how people work.

4. Give a gift regardless of expected outcome. In a recent article, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman talks about “giving helpful help” as a means of nurturing new relationships. To be able to do so, you need to know the other person well enough to figure out how you could help them with a reasonable investment of time. In the past, I’ve pointed people to different books, or made introductions. As long as this feels like a personal gift, you’re golden.

5. If needed, bring cash. Just like the technical co-founder who is putting tons of hours in, you need to have skin in the game. Executing the non-technical parts of your business plan is a must, but often this translates to providing funding for enough runway for V1 and possibly a major pivot afterwards.

Genuinely check for a good fit

Just like dating, it helps to know what you’re looking for if you want to avoid wasting time, and create something wonderful. Have a set of criterion, such as values, skillset, and work ethic, which will help you select on a logical level.

So how do you know if your values are compatible? Here’s a shout out to Tony Wright, who shared some key startup values with me. Here’s a paraphrasing:

  • Passion – How passionate do they need to be about the problem space?
  • Risk tolerance – Are they willing to endure the financial hardships of a startup? Do they want to raise funds ASAP to limit risk or maximize ownership?
  • Motivation – Do they want money? Fame? To serve a particular audience? To solve a problem they’ve been enduring?
  • Target – How big do they want to get? Would they be happy with a lifestyle business, an IPO, or something in between?
  • Appreciating skillsets – Do you value each other’s respective disciplines? If not, over time you may resent your co-founder as being dead weight, which is a recipe for disaster.

A lot of these values are about risk. If you’re serious about the same problem, agree on the financial risks, and are going for the same sized goal, you probably are compatible with respect to risk.

Finally, a major benefit of being genuinely selective is that it projects that you value yourself. Most people want to be with someone that knows their own worth. It also helps to listen to your gut, because you’re deciding on a relationship, not solving a mathematical equation.

Build up your network

It helps to have a solid network of friends, not only to have more candidates, but to lay the groundwork for business partnership. I go over an example of this in my blog post about volunteering for a non-profit, Vittana, which ended up turning into business. In general, what you want is a T shaped network, which is wide and sometimes deep, as a catalyst for great ideas and partnerships.

Wrap up

Just like dating, you need to get out there a lot! Ideally spend time in places that you’d enjoy, regardless of outcome, such as a tech gaming night. Building up a group of friends in the startup community takes time, but like anything worthwhile, the time spent pays off in profound, life changing ways.

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Coding for a cause: Benefits and Pitfalls

Does free work sound like a bottomless pit of time expenditure, with no chance of compensation? Have you ever wondered how to do pro bono work in a way that not only improves the world but helps out your bottom line? Our team just released some pro bono work for Vittana, which I think was time well spent. Below you can find out how it came about, why it was worthwhile, and read some lessons learned to improve the odds of success for your next pro bono project.

Discovering the project

When I ran into my friend Kenji at a mixer a couple weeks ago, it seemed like a usual incidence of our paths crossing, given that in one recent week we ran into each other 4 times at various tech events. Little did I know that the project I’m posting about now would be revealed. Kenji mentioned trying to raise awareness for Vittana as a means of making a difference, via a blogger challenge. For those not in the know, Vittana provides microloans to students in the developing world, and donors can choose how funds are distributed, as well as distribute funds each time students pay back their loans.

Over drinks, Kenji and I bounced around a bunch of ideas and eventually we came together with a plan to create a blogger challenge with a leaderboard sorted by tweets and dollars lent through the challenge. It took a bit of back and forth, but eventually we were ready to rock.

Working with Another Team: How we did it.

In order to keep the project from spiraling out of control we:

Defined Scope:I’ve talked with people who have done pro bono work, and one of the worst outcomes is ever expanding project scope, with no end in sight. To prevent this, we established some ground rules to keep it from getting out of hand. By the time that the contest started, we agreed that we would hand over the code, and give maintenance responsibilities to the Vittana team.

Established the Concept:Our first task was to establish the concept before any serious coding began. We wanted to create some background tasks that made Twitter API calls to search for number of retweets associated with a given blog post. To narrow the search down, we suggested using hashtags. A possible side bonus is that we could create a trending topic and create some buzz.

Minimized Reliance on the Vittana Team:To ensure we didn’t have to take a deep dive into their code base, the Vittana team gave us JSON feeds containing all of the necessary fields (including donation totals) for each of the bloggers. Given the nature of the work, we were able to have a quick pile on of a few developers, giving them a change of pace for a couple days, and then allowing them to move on cleanly.

Why did we do this?

First off, I’m always happy to make my friends look good and improve the chances of a successful project. Given that the Vittana team was already slammed, I saw a great way to help out a friend. I was also able to do some good for a cause that I care about personally and professionally. TangoSource trains developers in our locale to increase their odds of professional success after college.

We also have a few developers that we’ve been training and were just about ready for production quality code. I believe that real work is more interesting and effective in training junior developers. This seemed like a good opportunity to expose some guys to a real world project.

Finally, we were presented with a chance to expand our business. Despite being relatively young, Vittana has a strong brand with a lot of awareness, which was a chance for great exposure. The possible value for the TangoSource brand seemed significant. Here’s a screenshot of the link we were given on the contest page:


I also found out recently that the Vittana team is interested in discussing TangoSource doing paid work. This should not only provide us a means of growing the business, but also help us do good at the same time.

Lessons learned

1. Don’t rely on others to test your code.To a certain extent, we assumed that the other team would test our code on production. We ended up having to do some last minute patching that would have been more efficient if encountered earlier in the development cycle. Initial testing also exposed some places where the interaction design was broken on the admin side that would make further testing difficult, and we had to code out a much more involved administration panel. This was an affirmation of test early, test often, with a realistic scenario.
2. Remember to nail down the environment before writing a line of code.In this case, we assumed that Vittana was using the same database as what we were testing for in our local environment. That mistake was an fast way to waste a couple hours. Also, unit test your code regardless of the scope of the project. We wasted a fair amount of time on regression errors.
3. Whenever possible, try to limit scope in a way that’s win-win.It makes sense for the Vittana team to take ownership of our code. The more complex our product, the more work needed on their side. Also, since this was a new type of initiative, we were able to execute a lean exercise for them without too much investment for either party.
4. Networking is valuable but often in an intangible way.Deeper connections are more useful, but take work to find and cultivate. For me, this means meeting plenty of people to find those that I connect with. Afterwards, there’s the enjoyable investment of staying in touch, which helps create opportunities.
5. Genuine altruism is a great business strategy.You never know what might result from doing good. After starting work, I ran into the some of the Vittana leadership, who mentioned they might need some development help on future projects. This was confirmed in later communication, after they performed some code review.

Final results

With 90 hours of work total, I feel this was a worthwhile way to spend our time, even not including the chances to grow TangoSource’s business. From a purely utilitarian standpoint, this effort will probably pay out regardless. Subscribe to our blog to find out!

Stay tuned

During the course of the blogger challenge, check out Vittana Twitter and the leader board we helped create:
Be sure to spread the word to help fund students around the world.

Also, we’re planning on releasing a Rails gem that does the majority of the Twitter heavy lifting, so keep an eye on the TangoSource blog if you want help automating the tracking of tweets.

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