In my 15 years of work with exceptional founders, I’ve heard too many times how, after they’ve pitched their tech startup to investors, they’ll need to find a technical co-founder. That the only way their idea is going to work is if they fill the technology gap with someone as committed as a founder, who is willing to spend workdays, nights and weekends building, and who never leaves their side.
This might be true in many cases, but this narrow view can be inhibiting for non-technical founders, and possibly force them into a decision that ultimately isn’t the best one for their company.
Luckily, I’ve also seen plenty of case studies of founding teams that don’t have a high level of technical expertise who’ve raised money and grown their companies at scale.
But how are you supposed to tell when you should be looking for a true technical co-founder, or whether another arrangement might be the better fit?
1. Build Your Team for You, Not an Investor
This may seem obvious, but is still an important first step. Much of the pressure founders face has to do with perceived or actual expectations from investors. And winning over investors is just plain part of the process.
But companies shouldn’t be built and structured in order to check investor boxes. Theoretically, it’s the other way around, and investors should be the ones responding to a well-built company. If you come up against an investor who seems a little too quick to pass judgment on how you’ve set up your team to handle the technical side of your solution, they may not be the right investor for you.
Instead, focus on the investors who thoughtfully consider your approach to the technical aspect of your business. It could be that, after discussion with them, you do actually find yourself considering a technical co-founder. But at least you and the investor have strategically thought through it to get to that decision, instead of simply defaulting to a blanket preference.
2. Answer the ‘Co-Founder’ Piece Separately
There are two parts to the role of technical co-founder — the “technical” piece and the “co-founder” piece. There is a technical side to your business that needs to be addressed and there is a potential co-founder role that can be filled. The technical role is an actual functional area, but the co-founder role can be function-agnostic, and includes much more than having a certain part of the business covered.
Ask yourself in what scenarios you want or need a co-founder. A co-founder of any type should be equally as committed to the idea and the company as you are. They’re going to share the overall risk (and rewards), they’re going to make the company their primary focus, they’re going to show up above and beyond. They’re going to be an excellent communicator and decision-maker, and they’re going to be your true partner.
A co-founder should also have some level of management and leadership skills — whether it’s just at the team level or the company as a whole — as they’ll almost certainly be taking on top-level people responsibilities, especially at the early stages.
Does the technical person you’re considering live up to that co-founder status?
If the answer to that question is “yes,” that’s fantastic. Looks like you’ve got a potential fit for a technical co-founder.
3. Remember, ‘Technical’ Is Functional
But if you’re struggling to fill both the technical role and the co-founder role with one person, don’t worry. The last thing you want to do is shove a square peg into a round hole. You’ve got a lot of options if you start to consider the various ways you can get the technical side of your product done.
Consider this: How many times do you hear about someone having an “operations co-founder” or a “marketing co-founder”? Never. They’ll have a vice president of operations or a chief marketing officer (CMO). Or they might have a co-founder who is strong in one of those areas, and is given a dual status, like co-founder and CMO. The point is, there’s never been pressure to fill a functionally focused co-founder role in any other case but a technical one.
So take the pressure off yourself. Here are a few other entirely effective ways you can nail the technical side of your product:
- Find a skilled chief technology officer (CTO) who can build and lead a great team. If you have the resources, you can also pair this CTO with an equally amazing chief product officer.
- Identify one to two technical advisors who, perhaps with a slightly higher amount of equity, would feel incentivized to give direction to your team, or possibly roll up their sleeves themselves.
- Consider educating yourself on the technical aspects of your product. I’ve known scores of non-technical founders who’ve taken bootcamps to get them to a level where they know enough to be dangerous, can hire a good tech team, give them effective direction, and push out a great solution.
- Investors like traction. Focus on your minimum viable product first, and feel comfortable with lower-tech solutions in the beginning. I’ve seen startups with a nice front end that users adopt, but behind the scenes is a hodgepodge of excel sheets, manual matching and emails. Nothing special, but it proves out the market fit, which could lead to the investment dollars you need to then build more sophisticated technology.
It’s so important for an early stage company to be building their team as thoughtfully and effectively as possible. Nothing should be forced, and all options should be considered. This core team will likely be the one to get you through your first stage of growth (or more), and your decision on how to fill a key co-founder position is an important one. Make sure to consider the best choice for you and your company.