How to Use Lean Startup to Find Your Tech Co-founder

Summary: Finding the right technical parter is the biggest need I hear from Entrepreneurs.  In this interview I share insights from Rob Di Marco, one of the most accomplished developers and businesspeople I know.  Before you approach the next developer about joining your startup you may want to get insights into how Rob thinks about opportunities.  To attract the right technical co-founder:  (1) know the role you’re trying to fill, (2) prove you can sell, (3) get CUSTOMER traction, and (4) follow a process.

What Does Your Dream Technical Co-Founder Think?

A few ‪weeks ago I was talking with Rob Di Marco1, a long-time friend who has been the technical lead on startups and products since the late 1990s.  In addition to being one of the most accomplished developers I know, Rob also a ton of startup business and product experience.

In other words, he’s the type of dream candidate you’re looking for to be the technical partner in your startup.

We had a good conversation about the type of work that excites him and how he evaluates potential projects and entrepreneurs.  I interviewed him via chat about this topic and he agreed to share the discussion with you.  Below I share the key insights I took from what he said – and didn’t say.

My Interview with Rob Di Marco, CTO eLocal.com

ME‬: Hey Rob, thanks for the time. I get a lot of questions from entrepreneurs who are searching for a technical partner. We’ve had some good conversations about it and I thought it would be helpful for people to see how you view these situations.

‪ROB‬: Great.

‪ME‬: When you’ve been at startup events and get approached by people about helping them with their startup, what’s your initial reaction? I’m talking about accomplished, serious people.

‪ROB‬: My initial hunch is that they are a want-repeneuer, they want to be an entrepreneur but will not have the fortitude or talent to do it – someone who thinks having a great idea is the key to success.   Most of the time they are “looking for a technical partner”. Usually these types of people want someone to do all the hard work and be willing to do it for only a little bit of money.  Often they are successful people – usually in larger companies – and they may have fine ideas. But they have no concept of how to make it happen all by themselves.

‪ME‬: Does it feel like they’re looking for a lifeline? Someone who can rescue them from the complexity and confusion?

‪ROB‬: That is definitely part of it, but often I feel that they are focusing on a problem they can solve, hire a developer, rather than focusing on the real tough question of what will people buy.

‪ME‬: Can you think of any key signals or things they say that make you think, “this isn’t for me”? What are the big red flags?

‪ROB‬: Good question. A few things:

  • They have never started a business before.
  • They talk a lot about investors and how they are going to raise money / already have raised money.
  • They do not talk about customers.

‪ME‬: A few years ago when I started practicing Lean Startup I began using Ash Maurya’s Lean Canvas to document my business assumptions. We had an initial meeting and then a few months later we met again when I showed you what I had learned after 50+ conversations. Can you give me your thoughts on what you observed in my process?

‪ROB‬: Well, I’m trying to remember the process. I know I was very, very impressed with some of your tactics to try out ideas, for example seeing if mailing bills would work.

‪ME‬: Was it that I was following a systematic process, or focusing on the business risks? Or both?

‪ROB‬: So I’m not sure I can comment on the whole process, but I really liked the way you distilled down a problem into a testable hypothesis. I liked the method that you had of creating a hypothesis and figuring out quick and cost effective ways to try it out and refine it.  You didn’t burn through $5mm in VC cash to try and figure something out. In fact, I felt at the time that the limited resources were a benefit to you, it allowed you to drill down more into your idea.

‪ME‬: That is a really compelling point. In this case I was constrained by choice.  I realize it has been a few years, but I had the key assumptions laid out in a 1-pager and was able to show you the difference between what I knew before and now. Did seeing that help bring focus to our conversations?

‪ROB‬: Yes the document definitely helped bring focus.

‪ME‬: This is awesome Rob. Any advice for the 1st time entrepreneur with an idea who thinks the next step is finding a technical partner?

‪ROB‬: Sure. Focus on developers and their needs, specifically on compensation. Respect their time and think about what your role will be when working with them. Are they just your code monkey or do you want something else from them?  Often people don’t want a partner per se, they just want an implementer. There is nothing wrong with that, but if that is what you want, you need to be honest with yourself and with the developer about it and think about how it affects compensation.

Also – and this is just my personal opinion – there are only 2 jobs in a startup: sales guy and doer.  So if you are looking for a technical partner, you probably want them to be a doer, which leaves you as sales guy. That will be your number one, two, and three priority – not the doing part. They should make sure that’s what they want

‪ME‬: Awesome, well said.

‪ROB‬: Another piece of advice…talk about your customers, not your (potential) investors. I get excited by hearing that customers like your idea and are voting with their wallets much more than investors voting with their wallets.  Too many people look at investments as validation.

‪ME‬: This has been awesome, Rob. Really appreciate your time, please as always let me know if I can do anything to help you out.

‪ROB‬: No problem, take care

Key Interview Points – How to Approach Your Potential Tech Co-Founder

  1. Know the role you’re trying to fill.   If you’re looking for someone to execute on YOUR vision, you’re probably not looking for a co-founder, you’re looking for en employee.  Suppose your prospective tech co-founder offers a radical shift on the product vision after a few weeks.  Are you open to that?  If not, you’re looking for an employee.
  2. Prove you can sell.  Technical people know they can hold up their end of the deal – getting the technology to work.
  3. Get CUSTOMER traction.  Startup ideas are dime-a-dozen and most ideas that get funding fail because the startup isn’t solving a real problem.
  4. Follow a process.  Most technical people are skeptical of ideas and analytical.  Use a Business Model Canvas or Lean Canvas to document your assumptions and how you’re testing them.  Ash Maurya’s Running Lean or Steve Blank’s Udacity Course are great places to start.  Better still is to join a StartupWeekend NEXT program like the one I’m rolling out in Beijing, China.

What Rob DIDN’T Say

Before you approach the next developer at a hacker meetup, consider what Rob didn’t say:

  1. Funding matters.  Getting money is part of execution, and good teams with customer traction can get it.
  2. The technology choice matters – You’ll notice Rob didn’t use a signal technical term in the discussion.  Great developers – not technology – build great products. You don’t even need to bring up the issue.
  3. The vision matters – Of course everyone wants to be part of a great vision, but there are so many big ideas that don’t work – and many seemingly small ideas that change the world.  Unless you’re Elon Musk, better to focus on the customers and not your vision.

Need Advice on Getting a Tech Co-Founder?

Unfortunately I can’t easily introduce you to your technical co-founder, but I can give you feedback on your plan to get one.  Sign up for a slot on my startup help open office hours and I’ll  be happy to give you some advice.

Some good topics for a 20-minute discussion on finding a tech co-founder

You’ll make good use of everyone’s time and get advice if you ask specific questions.  Examples:

  • “I don’t know a lot of developers.  Can you give me advice on where to meet them?
  • “I’ve prepared a pitch to look for a tech-cofounder and plan on using it at a Hacker News Meetup.  Can you listen to my pitch and give me feedback?”
  • “I found a great potential technical co-founder and want to make her an offer.  Can you review the offer and give me feedback?”
  • “I’m building my MVP using consultants but ultimately want to find a partner to take over development.  Can you give me advice on managing this transition?”
  • “I’m using Lean Canvas/Business Model Canvas to document my assumptions.  How can I use this document to attract technical talent?
  • I’m a sales guy and don’t know a lot about technology.  How can I use my sales skills into an asset to attract technical talent?”

Photo credit: Revolweb

  1. I’ve always appreciated Rob’s advice because he is so candid – when I ask him what he thinks, he tells me.  He is also a super-nice, humble, and helpful guy, so please don’t interpret his candid comments as ego.  I asked him to be candid because I thought it would help non-technical startup founders.

4 Comments

  1. Andrew January 27, 2013 at 9:23 pm #

    I looked for a technical cofounder for almost a year. It wasn’t until I hacked together three working app demos that I found a technical cofounder who was willing to work with me. Check out our first educational game at meerkatmath.com

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