One of the things that often holds people back from launching their startups is that they don’t have the technical skills required to actually build a product.
One way to solve this and get your startup off the ground is to look for a co-founder with the technical skills you’re missing.
Considering that the most successful startups typically have at least two founders (as we saw in our How to Find a Co-Founder guide), you should probably be looking for a co-founder anyways — regardless of how tech-skilled you are — to improve your odds of success.
If you think your company could benefit from a co-founder with certain tech skills that you don’t have or aren’t fully confident in yet, read this guide to learn how to find a technical co-founder who will complement your skillset.
What Is a Technical Co-Founder?
In general terms, co-founders are people who create a startup together and are equally invested in its success. There are two broad types of co-founders, technical and non-technical, who share responsibilities and split the workload.
A technical co-founder is a founder who has certain technical skills, typically related to programming and technological product development. A Chief Technical Officer (CTO) is an example of a title often given to technical co-founders.
On the other hand, a non-technical co-founder is a founder who might lack tech skills but often excels in other areas, such as developing overall business strategy and acquiring investors. Chief Executive Officer (CEO) is a title commonly given to non-technical co-founders, as they are often the ones who come up with the idea for a company and bring others on board later.
Keep in mind that co-founders don’t always have to consist of a strictly non-technical and a technical individual. In many cases, all the founders of a startup have some of the tech skills it takes to build their products together, though the most technical person might take the lead in product development.
Why Do You Need a Technical Co-Founder?
If you’re not a programmer yourself or you don’t have the specific technical skills that you need to use in order to build a minimum viable product (MVP) for your startup, chances are you need a technical co-founder.
Sure, you can always hire a programmer to help you build a product, but finding a technical co-founder ensures that you are working with someone who is equally committed to the business idea and just as motivated to make it succeed.
When you first start your company, working with a technical co-founder also provides you with someone to split the hard work with 50/50. In the early days of a startup, this significantly contributes to productivity.
When you’re ready to start scaling, a technical co-founder should also in charge of finding and hiring other technical employees to build a solid programming team. This is when your tech co-founder would move from the role of building the product themselves into more of a strategic/executive management role, such as CTO.
Having a technical co-founder to handle the whole tech side of things also frees up your time to focus on other important areas, such as fundraising, marketing, and acquiring users/customers to build traction once you have a working product.
In short, having the right people working alongside you right from the beginning is one of the best ways to achieve success, and partnering with a technical co-founder when you aren’t technical yourself is one of the best decisions you can make for your startup.
When Don’t You Need a Technical Co-Founder?
If you have the skills needed to build a tech product yourself, or if technology isn’t a core part of your startup idea, you may not need to look for a technical co-founder. For example, if you have an idea for an app and you already know Java and other app programming languages, you don’t necessarily need to look for a technical partner.
Another case in which you might not need a tech co-founder is if you have the budget to contract a developer or hire a team of programmers and you don’t mind managing them yourself.
However, it’s important to note that if technology is a core part of your startup, outsourcing its development can be quite risky. The code might not be understandable, it might not be scalable, and you are generally giving too much power over your product to the contractors you might not be working with for long.
Additionally, remember that one of the biggest reasons to partner with a technical co-founder is that they are as invested in the company as you are. At the end of the day, a part- or full-time programmer that you hire isn’t going to care as much about whether or not your startup succeeds, as they can always find another job if it doesn’t.
Also, keep in mind that even if you are technical enough to build a product yourself, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you shouldn’t be looking for a co-founder of some type.
If you want to pattern match your business to the most successful startups (think Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Facebook), your chances will almost always be better when you partner with one or more co-founders.
Where and How To Find a Technical Co-Founder?
1) Professional Engineering Network
If you’ve worked at a startup or a small tech company before, you may already have a network of technical engineers that you could tap into to find a technical co-founder.
Think back to your past jobs and the different programmers and IT employees who you worked with, and make a list of all the people you think might have the skills and drive it takes to be a co-founder.
Then, reach out to each of these individuals and ask if they would be up for meeting you for a coffee or lunch so you can pitch them your startup idea. Or, if you haven’t fully formulated an idea for your startup yet, ask them to brainstorm ideas together with you to grow a business concept together right from the beginning.
2) College Network
For founders who are still in college or university, now is the ideal time to start looking for your future technical co-founder.
Try to meet people in your classes or social circles studying coding, computer science, computer engineering, and other technical topics. There might also be a coding club or other technology-based clubs that you could check out to meet people.
Once you get to know some tech-oriented people at your school, ask them if they would ever be interested in working on a project together. You can start small and just create something simple within a limited timeframe to get a feel for working together, then move on to bigger ideas if you think a more serious partnership would work.
Another place you can look for a technical co-founder is on social networks, particularly LinkedIn.
The first thing you could try is to create a post on LinkedIn and explain a bit about why you’re looking for a tech co-founder and what skills you are looking for in your co-founder. Maybe someone from your personal network who you hadn’t considered before will reach out.
Even if none of your connections are interested, they might know someone who is, and they can introduce the two of you.
Another thing you can try on LinkedIn is joining different groups related to startups, founders, and technical professions. Then, post within those groups, reply to other peoples’ posts, and start networking with members to see if you can meet someone who might be a good fit to work on a tech project with.
Another social network you may be able to find a co-founder with technical programming skills on is GitHub, since it’s a professional social network built specifically for programmers.
Search GitHub for developers who make their repositories of code public and reach out to them to see if they are looking for new projects to work on.
4) Hackathons, Meetups, & Conferences
Special events related to tech and programming are also great places to search for a technical co-founder outside your own personal networks.
Start by searching for local in-person events, which most major cities hold plenty of. Try Googling terms like “tech conferences near me” and “local startup events,” for example.
You can also check meetup.com for different founders groups that get together near you to meet people who are also interested in networking with potential business partners. Or, you could look for local programming and coding meetups to join and introduce yourself to tech-skilled people.
If you can’t find any local, in-person events or meetups to attend, there are also lots of online hackathons that are usually free and open to everyone. Many developers looking for career opportunities attend these online hackathons, so you might be able to network with someone who could potentially be your tech co-founder.
These sites work a lot like traditional dating sites, except they’re for helping people find their perfect business partners instead of romantic partners.
When you sign up for one of these sites, you create a profile explaining what you’re looking for in a co-founder, and the site’s algorithms show you potential matches. You can then send them messages and request to connect with them to start exploring your compatibility.
Startup incubator and accelerator programs are also excellent places to meet potential business partners and even try working on projects together within a shared office space.
Keep in mind that accelerators are short, intense programs designed for founders who already have an MVP to help them rapidly grow their businesses.
So, unless you’ve already been able to build a technical product on your own or by hiring someone to do it, you aren’t likely to get into an accelerator where you can meet a technical co-founder.
If you’re still in the idea stage of your business and looking for a technical co-founder to help you build a prototype or MVP, an incubator will probably be a better place to meet them.
Unlike accelerators, startup incubators are not usually very competitive to get into, and they are specifically designed to help startups in their very early stages by providing resources, mentorship, business services, and networking opportunities.
Incubators typically provide shared office space in some type of co-working facility, where you will have the opportunity to meet lots of other founders and tech workers who you might be able to work with on your project.
What To Look for in a Technical Co-Founder?
Naturally, the first thing you’ll want to look for in a tech co-founder is actual technical skills.
For example, if you want to build a mobile app from the ground up, they need to at least know all the programming languages necessary to do so for different mobile operating systems.
Ideally, your tech co-founder should also have technical expertise beyond your immediate needs. That way, when you’re ready to grow and scale your business and your needs change, they’ll still be able to lead the way on the tech side of things.
To vet a potential co-founder’s technical skills, look at their resume and ask to see a portfolio of past work to verify that they can do what you need them to.
Passion For the Business
The next thing you should look for in a technical co-founder is passion for the business side of things.
Technical skills needed to build products are great, but your co-founder must also be committed to growing the business once you already have a product up and running.
Before you commit to working with a technical co-founder, make sure that they aren’t going to be working on any side projects that are going to distract them from your business together — their passion and commitment should be 100% focused on the startup you’re running together.
When your co-founder is equally as passionate as you about the business side of things, it’s much easier to ensure a good balance of work and equal motivation, both required to achieve business success.
Good Communication Skills
Non-technically skilled people and tech-minded individuals often have a difficult time communicating. That’s why it’s so important to find a technical co-founder who has the communication skills required to discuss technical topics with you and other team members in terms they can understand.
You and your co-founder also need to be able to talk back and forth honestly and listen to each other in order to brainstorm and develop an overall business strategy.
Think of your partnership with a co-founder as a business marriage — without good communication, it’s not likely to go well.
Strengths That Complement Yours
One of the biggest reasons to partner with any co-founder is that their skills can (and definitely should) complement yours.
If you’re not a technical person, finding a technical co-founder covers those tech areas where you cannot do certain things yourself, such as building a technological product.
However, you should also look beyond a person’s technical skills for other strengths that can complement your strengths and balance out your weaknesses.
For example, if you are not great at pitching to potential investors, it’s a good idea to look for a co-founder who is also very comfortable talking and pitching ideas.
Or, if you’re not a strong team manager, look for a co-founder who has very good team management skills and can help you manage your first employees efficiently.
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What Are Technical Co-Founders Looking for From Your Startup?
The first thing any technical co-founder is looking for when they agree to partner with you is equity or shares in the company. This ensures that, as the company grows and becomes worth more, their stake in the company is also worth more, and they can cash out on it one day. In short, equity rewards the company’s founders for their hard work from the beginning (find more on how to split equity below).
Equity is just one of the financial benefits of being the co-founder of a company. All founders should also eventually get salaries, although you may both agree to work for free at the beginning for a set amount of time until your company hits a particular milestone.
Of course, people can only work for free for so long, and you should make sure you have the funding to eventually pay a salary that will at least cover you and your co-founder’s living expenses, until your company becomes more profitable and you can raise your salaries.
Most people also look for opportunities for personal growth when they take a new job offer. If you initially bring your co-founder on board to build a product for you themselves, they are probably going to want to know that they can eventually grow into a bigger role, such as a CTO who manages the whole tech department.
How Much Equity Should You Give a Technical Co-Founder?
Once you know how to find a technical co-founder, one of the other most common questions you might be wondering about is how much equity to give them.
Outside of certain cases, the best path is to give your co-founder an even share of equity. So, if your startup consists of you and one technical co-founder, you should each get a 50% share of the initial equity.
Splitting equity 50/50 helps ensure that both you and your co-founder are fully committed to the startup and equally driven to make it a success. An even split can also help avoid disputes down the road.
If you come across a potential co-founder who wants to make a different deal, such as working for less equity and a higher salary, it may be a warning sign that you should reconsider working with them.
If someone wants less than an even split of equity with you, they might not truly be as committed to the business idea as you. Your less-committed co-founder could end up leaving you and the company down the road, in which case you’d be back to asking yourself how to find a tech co-founder again.
How to Pitch Your Startup to a Technical Co-Founder
Once you’ve found some potential technical co-founders and you’re ready to start pitching your startup idea to them, the first thing to keep in mind is that it’s important to be realistic about your business idea. In other words, don’t pitch your potential co-founders the “next Facebook” or the “next Google,” because they are probably not going to buy it.
Instead, be clear about what problem(s) you want to solve with your startup, how your product will solve them, and why you think it will be a success. Setting realistic goals and expectations will be much more appealing to a potential co-founder.
You should also make it clear to your co-founder what skills you are bringing to the table. If they’re going to build the product, what side of things are you going to take care of? For instance, will you be pitching to prospective investors and acquiring customers?
Your co-founder needs to clearly see how the work will be split evenly between you in order to make the deal enticing to them, especially since they’re doing the complex technical work.
What If You Don’t Have a Startup Idea Yet?
In many cases, you might know that you want to found a startup, but you aren’t set on an idea yet. If so, this is actually the best time to start looking for a technical co-founder — when you aren’t in the position of having to find one.
If you’re in the stage of just starting to think about startup ideas, and you know you’ll need a technical co-founder, start vetting potential candidates now and ask them to sit down and brainstorm ideas together.
Then, when you have some cool ideas, ask them to work on a timeboxed project with you. This means picking a timeframe and committing to building a functioning product together within that time frame. Working on small projects like this gives you and your partner an idea of what it would be like to found a startup together, so you can decide if it’s really a good fit.
4 Alternatives To Getting a Technical Co-founder
1) No-Code Tools
For non-technical founders, no-code tools are something to consider as an alternative to finding a technical co-founder, at least in the very early stages of your company.
No-code tools allow you to build functioning apps and programs without knowing any code yourself, typically using drag-and-drop technology.
While no-code platforms can be limiting, they are a good way to at least build a basic version of your idea for an app as a proof of concept. The good thing about apps built with no-code tools is that you can usually build on top of them using code later on, as it becomes necessary.
So, if you aren’t ready to partner with someone on your idea just yet, you can build a prototype or an MVP using a no-code platform, then decide how to proceed when you’ve reached the limits of what you can build.
2) Learning to Code Yourself
If you don’t know how to program anything yourself, another option you have is to learn how to code.
While there are lots of great college and university programs out there to teach you how to code, you might not want to commit the time and money required to complete one. This is especially true if you are already studying or have already completed a degree in something else, such as business or marketing.
Luckily, there are more ways than ever to learn coding without going to years of school for it. Online academies like Codecademy and Udemy are good places to start.
You could also consider joining an intensive coding boot camp. These boot camps are offered both online and in-person in various locations, and usually last 12-24 weeks.
3) Outsourcing to Freelancers
Another alternative to partnering with a technical co-founder right away is to hire a freelance developer to build your MVP for you.
With the advent of platforms like Upwork that are designed to connect companies and freelancers, it’s easier than ever to find a freelancer with the skills you need (who will work within your budget, too).
Remember that the downside of working with a freelancer is that it is usually just a temporary arrangement, so you’ll have to find other people to continue building your product eventually.
4) Outsourcing to Agencies
Another way to build an MVP without a technical co-founder is to contract a development agency.
Again, this isn’t a long-term solution, but it’s a way to turn your idea into a functioning product. Then, when you’re ready to scale, you can either find a technical co-founder or hire an in-house development team to keep building your product.
The benefit of working with a development agency over a freelancer is that they have teams of pre-vetted developers and lots of experience working with founders and startups, so their services are generally more tailored to people in your position. However, hiring an agency also generally comes with a higher cost than working with an individual.