Before You Try to Recruit a Technical Cofounder
At the web startup group, we get dozens and dozens of requests from non-technical BYU students and alumni, asking us if we can help them “find someone to build my idea for a website.” I’m writing this blog post to help primarily non-technical, non-design BYU students understand what they should, and should not do when attempting to recruit a technical co-founder. Feel free to comment, discuss, and disagree (politely!) in the comment section below.
My BIG Idea
Four years ago, I was a freshman at BYU. Having recently returned from my mission, I was eager to become an “entrepreneur.” I had a small ecommerce website selling event tickets that was generating revenue, and while it was exciting and growing quickly, I decided I wanted to do something BIG.
Since my ecommerce website dealt with live events, I decided this would be my domain, and I came up with a brilliant idea: “it would be a website where anybody could post ‘what was going on’ – like Craigslist – but with EVERYTHING!”
In my excitement to unleash my inner-Zuckerberg on the world, I mentioned the idea to a friend, who encouraged me to approach a mission companion of his that was a “tech genius” and ask him to build the website for me. I did just that, and I still remember sitting in this poor kid’s dorm room and telling him with solemn gravity “I will give you 30% of my company… if you will build this website for me.”*
*Justin, if you’re reading this – I’m sorry man! I just didn’t know any better!
What I Did Wrong:
The most glaringly problematic aspect of my naive attempt to “recruit a technical cofounder,” was my utter ignorance of just how big of a job I was asking him to undertake. Developers and designers have skills that they’ve taken years to obtain. All I had done was dream up a not-so-creative idea. I needed to find a better way to demonstrate that I could be a contributing partner on such a difficult project.
Another mistake I made was trying to offer him equity as payment. 30% of a company that doesn’t exist yet is 30% of nothing. This video is a pretty good example of how silly these types of offers can sound when the company is only in the “idea stage.” Wait until you’ve made more progress to make that kind of an offer.
Startup thought leaders have posited that the ideal startup trio of cofounders is “a hacker, a hustler, and a designer.” If you are not a designer or a hacker (coder) then you must be the hustler. Designers and developers likely have a portfolio of projects they have built over time. As the hustler, you must also come up with a similar ‘portfolio’ to prove that you are not just an idea-guy with zero follow through. This means having both demonstrable traction, and wireframes. A degree in business, finance, accounting, (or in my case, comparative American literature) does not necessarily qualify you as a ‘hustler’ – you have to prove that outside the classroom.
The Hustler Portfolio: Where to Begin
The two things that are the most powerful demonstrators of your hustler status are traction, and a well thought out product.
Traction: This means somehow proving that there is demand for your product. It is not the promise that you “know a guy who’s an angel investor.” (I’ve tried that too). Evidence of traction could take many different forms. It could be letters of intent from your first three customers. It could be a blog that gets 4,000 unique visitors a month. Ideally it is a paying customer… that is not a family member or a friend. If you have somebody trying to pay you money to solve a problem, and it looks like other people might have similar problems, you could be on to something.
Wireframes: Wireframes are simple sketches of what a website will look like. Here’s an example here. Wireframing requires you to intentionally design every button, of every screen, of every feature of your entire software/website/app. Then you need to show these wires to customers, and make sure you’re not too far off base. Too often non-technical guys/girls come up with feature-lists of things they want, ie. “A layout like Pinterest, with a calendar to list events, and a section for videos where people can leave comments, and vote stuff up or down.” If you can’t communicate with a high-level of precision what you want built by a designer/developer, you have no business trying to talk to one yet.
It doesn’t matter if you do your wireframes in crayon, or with one of the web-based tools below. The point is that you’ve gone to the effort of thinking through every detail of the product.
Balsamiq – $5/month
Mocking Bird – $9/month
(If you have another tool you prefer, please mention it in the comments!)
Hang Out With People More Technical Than You
Finally, the best advice I could give somebody who is looking to be involved in a tech startup but is not necessarily a “technical” person, is hang out with people more technical than they are. Take a few computer science classes, and study coding on your own. Then ask thoughtful questions. Come attend the Web Startup Group meetings, listen, and learn. Don’t worry so much about recruiting. Earn your right to call yourself a hustler, and then you won’t have any trouble finding someone to partner with on your startup adventure.