Finding the right technical co-founder for your startup is hard

By Shaun Symm, September 16, 2015
Startup founders sitting at table with laptop

Startup ideas are easy to come by. Executing the idea and shipping them is a lot harder. It becomes even harder if you are a non-technical founder needing help with startup web application development.

The ideal scenario is that you find a technical co-founder who can develop the application for you. You can then focus on what you’re good at (presumably business development and sales, managing suppliers, investor relations, media relations, content writing, marketing, distribution, accounting, general business management, hustling etc).

Unfortunately it isn’t that easy.

If you’re looking for the right co-founder who is a good web application developer, ask yourself:

  • Can you work with this person as a partner for 2, 5, 7 or more years?
  • How can you evaluate their skills? Are they good enough?
  • Will they jump ship when the going gets tough?
  • If that happens how are you going to manage and maintain your software?
  • How much do you know about them right now? If they have the right skills are they the right personality match?
  • How much time are you going to invest in finding this person and will you miss your window of opportunity when doing so?
  • If you find the right person are they going to love your startup idea as much as you do? Enough that they’re willing to commit long term to it?

I could add a few more questions, but you get the point. Finding a technical co-founder, when you don’t have technical skills, is a difficult task. In fact, some advice for founders is to stop looking for a technical co-founder.

Alternative options to finding a co-founder

If you can’t find a technical co-founder upfront then you have 4 options:

1.Learn how to write code and develop the product yourself

Becoming an engineer is a craft that is honed over many years. I’d encourage anyone who starts an online business to learn some aspects of programming, but learning to do it all yourself takes time (more time than you think).

While it may be free on the surface it is a drain on your resources and indirectly costs money as you aren’t deriving a salary nor growing your business while learning to code. You’ll potentially miss the window of opportunity that your startup idea has.

2.Employ a developer

This option presents many of the same issues you’ll face when trying to find a co-founder. How do you evaluate their skills and how do you know that they’re doing a good job day to day? There is the salary too so if you’re at a minimum viable product (MVP) stage you probably can’t commit to paying a full time salary.

Plus, attracting good developers when there is no promise of the business being around in 2 months makes things a tad tricky.

3.Outsource development offshore

This is done quite frequently, and more often than not it is a poor decision. At the outset you’ll save heaps of money doing it this way compared to hiring an Australian developer but often the quality of the code is poor, the developers need to be hand-held through the process and the additional time investment you’ll make in project management will quickly make the project expensive (seriously, add all the additional time you'll spend managing the developers and dealing with issues at a fair hourly rate and you'll quickly realise that this is not a cheap option).

Oh, and if you don’t have a technical background expect to learn quickly as you’ll sometimes be asked to give answers to technical questions. If you can’t give the offshore developers direction they’ll make the decision for you, which will in all likelihood be the wrong one.

4.Hire an Australian web application developer

There is a higher upfront cost here. It will seemingly cost more than #3 but probably be cheaper than #2 and potentially easier than #1. The key is to ensure that the local web developer has the right skills, and experience, to develop your idea.

This is usually much easier to evaluate as you can ask to see their portfolio. You can even ask the developers for testimonials and ask about their methodology. Having startup experience also helps. Agencies that focus on designing ‘brochure’ websites are very different to companies who develop scalable online software for startups.

A word of warning here too. Many design agencies, or digital marketing agencies, in Australia offer web development as a service. They essentially design and develop the frontend but they outsource backend development offshore. Be sure to ask if this is the case and weigh this up when comparing quotes and product quality.

An experienced startup web application developer in Australia will probably cost more than other web developers, and will certainly be more expensive than option #3 but the money spent upfront will be money well spent. You’ll have the foundations in place for success and adding new features in future and scaling will be much easier. Plus the chances of having to re-build the product from the ground up after the MVP will be, in almost every case, zero.

Make the right choice for you

I have personal experience in each of the 4 options mentioned above. While finding a technical co-founder is usually the best option it isn't always feasible. Hopefully if you're in this situation you'll give #4 a try. If you opt for one of the other options please heed my warnings and advice. Remember, I've been down this road myself.

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