The answer to the eternal question: “Where do I find a technical cofounder?”

One of the perks of our work at Founder Centric is the breadth of entrepreneurs we come into contact with. Every week I have the pleasure of working with driven people who are working on ideas spanning from fast-food to augmented reality. There is a question which comes up at least once a week, especially with first-time founders working on consumer tech:

“How do I find a technical cofounder?”

The answer I give them is simple: you can’t. Seriously. The reason for this is simple. Cofounders are not found; they are grown.

Growing founders

When an entrepreneur starts this search they are usually in a similar spot. The founder has been working on a business model where technology plays a central role. It usually isn’t a pure tech startup - like Dropbox or Docker - but a tech-enabled company such as Instacart. The founder has formulated a plan to use a technology solution which can disrupt and overtake a stagnant market. He has partners, customers, and investors ready to jump on board. Only one thing is missing: the technical cofounder to build it.

From the founder’s perspective this is a very sweet deal. “All the hard work is done,” they proclaim, “All the tech person has to do is build it.” Ultimately, the sole founder becomes increasingly frustrated when every potential tech lead they speak with says “no thanks”. The problem is a founding relationship is a serious commitment. A close friend† once said that, in order of seriousness, relationships go “business partners, spouses, cats & dog.” The best cofounding teams have worked together before. There is history. These teams have a mutual understanding and respect which took time and effort to build. They develop in school, collaborating on projects. As colleagues, working on the same team. As friends, tinkering in their spare time. These types of bonds just can’t be built over an email intro and a coffee.

I was late joining Lyst as a technical founder. Chris and I already know each other through friends. While my first startup was winding down, Chris started kicking around the idea for Lyst. We knew each other already, but sharing a co-working space allowed him to bounce ideas off of me. When he first asked me to work on Lyst it wasn’t as a co-founder, but as a freelancer. I actually freelanced on Lyst for a month before before seriously considering jumping on as the third co-founder. That month gave Chris, Seb and I time to work together and begin to understand each other. Even after that time, it took another month before I took the plunge.

“Founder” isn’t a job. For many people, it is a serious life commitment. This is why you can’t find a technical (or any flavour) cofounder. You have to grow them.

So what do you do if you find yourself in this particular shitty situation?

Do you even need one?

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: “technical cofounder” does not equate to “person who will code for free because equity.”

So, let us take a step back. Why are you looking for a technical cofounder? If you just need someone who can understand your vision and create the software which allows it to function, you are searching for an employee. This is what developers, designers, and engineers do. Yes, you have to pay them. Yes, it will take a few tries to get it right. But this is the natural order of things. If your company starts to pick up speed, you will need a team to grow it. Freelancers can quickly turn into fantastic team members. In fact, this is one of the best ways to find your first hires.

You have friends, right?

There is a body of work called effectuation. It’s a peer-reviewed hunk of research investigating how successful entrepreneurs approach decision-making and problem-solving. Successful founders don’t pick an arbitrary vision and then work out how to achieve it. Instead, they look at what is available to them and identify opportunities that these resources enable them to do.

One of these resources is people. Make a list. List out anyone who would be happy to sit down and do a few hours of work with you. Nothing serious; chatting about ideas, maybe writing some copy or a creating landing page. These people could be anyone, from old friends to colleagues. Make a little note next to each name describing what you think they could help with. Guess what, you just made a list of potential cofounders. Maybe not for the idea you are currently working on, but for something. Next, grab a coffee with each person and work together. That is your first work date. Maybe it will blossom into a work relationship.

Up shit creek without a paddle.

If you don’t have anyone in your network who is willing to take the plunge & you can’t bring yourself to pay for work, you are in a difficult situation. Tech companies work because they can produce technology. If that skill isn’t present in a founding team, that company is off to a rough start. The analogy that comes to mind is starting a band without a musician. While it is possible, it is a significant disadvantage.

TL;DR: If you need a technical founder you have three options:

  1. Spend the time to uncover one amongst your acquaintances
  2. Spend the money and hire good people
  3. Change your line of work

† I seriously can’t remember who said this. If it was you, please yell at me and I’ll update this article.