If you’re running a startup with some kind of digital technology in it, you’ll inevitably have to find and hire developers at some point. Being successful at that could easily make or break your business, so it’s extremely important to make sure you’re on the right path.
Below, we’ll talk about where and how you can find and hire startup developers. More importantly, however, we’ll help you understand the needs of your business so that you can choose the most appropriate of the many options you have for solving this problem.
Here is the decision tree you should follow when finding startup developers to understand your circumstances better:
One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to start paying a developer to make your vision into reality before your idea is validated. The biggest expense in tech startups are development costs, and over-spending before you have solid confirmation that what you’re building is needed by the market is the easiest way to lose your time and money.
So, you need to find a way to create your minimum viable product at very little cost, which would in turn allow you to test your assumptions and see if your idea is valid.
There are two ways to do this:
a member of your founding team who is an experienced developer can do it for you;
you can use no-code solutions to create an MVP without the need of a developer
The important question here is: IS INNOVATIVE TECH CENTRAL TO YOUR STARTUP?
You might not need a developer for a low-tech startup:
For example, if your startup is an online store, the core of your business is the products you are selling, rather than the online store itself. In 2021 you don’t need a tech person to set up a good-enough ecommerce website. Most of the work would be in the realm of marketing and operations, very little would be in the realm of software development, so finding a tech person for your team could be redundant. There are plenty of good no-code services that you can use to do it yourself regardless of your tech background. For example, for ecommerce the market leader is Shopify.
What no-code solutions to use for an MVP?
The key here is to realize that an MVP’s goal is to provide you with a tool to validate your idea. MVP’s aren’t meant to scale well (although they could if they are simple enough), they are just meant to give your first customers a good idea of what you are trying to sell them. This means that you can “cheat” by doing manually a lot of the things that should be automated when you want them to scale.
Sometimes, as in the example above, the tech side of your idea could be as simple as just building a Shopify website or a WordPress blog with an embedded MailChimp sign-up form for a mailing list. Other times, you need to be a bit more creative to stitch together something a bit more original:
Frontend no-code startup solutions:
The part facing your customers. You can use most no-code website builders to create a landing page and an array of static pages that would imitate the user experience of your final product (although it’s a good idea to distill the user experience to the most essential parts).
The most popular and simplest tools you can use are:
If you require more customization, your best bet is Wordpress.org because of the vast amount of plugins (above 50k) you can utilize to get not-so-standard functionality. That said, the tech difficulty increases a level with this option and you might have to hire a freelance consultant to help you out at different stages.
Backend no-code startup solutions:
Here you can be a bit more creative to imitate the desired backend functionality of your website/app. First and foremost, you need a person with a computer: your founding team can manually do the tasks that your product is supposed to automate in the future. To make their job easier, however, you can use Zapier + any other relevant apps. For example, Zapier + Google Docs (Forms and Sheets) could be a great no-code way to generate a database.
Another viable option would be using Bubble as a tool for both your frontend and backend, but it has a steep learning curve for absolute beginners. Softr is the latest viable option, as they have been adding more features during 2020 and 2021, making them the most promising no-code tool out there.
The key is to keep it simple enough so that your founding team could concentrate on the non-tech core of your business.
You need to find a technical co-founder for a high-tech startup:
It’s possible, however, that the startup you are building is tech-heavy. In that case, you need a technical cofounder. Said cofounder could still use all of the no-code (and open-source) solutions out there to stitch together a working MVP faster, but they would have the experience and technical knowledge to customize things much more heavily to take the MVP to the level it needs to be to look professional.
Where to find a tech co-founder for your startup?
The answer is different depending on where you are located, but there are plenty of options.
Your own network is the common-sense answer. Much more useful if you know more people in the IT industry, but even if you don’t it's still worth posting on your social media that you are looking for such a person.
Outside of your network, you can try your luck in the natural habitats of software developers online and offline.
In offline situations, you can use the opportunity to mingle and grow your network in the local IT industry. Even if you don’t find your partner directly, ask for recommendations: people might be willing to introduce you to developers interested in early-stage startups.
Coworking spaces: an “office” for freelancers and tech nomads are a good place to network.
Tech conferences: name a technology that you need for your project, and there’ll be a relevant conference for it. Look for conferences that are close to you and join them.
Meetups and hackathons: these are probably the best places to see the skills of potential partners in action.
In online communities, be forthcoming and make sure to pitch your idea (and yourself) briefly and convincingly in the most popular developer communities. Consider if a remote cofounder is OK for you. If not, limit your search to local online communities.
Social media groups (Facebook groups for developers, etc.)
How to attract an experienced tech cofounder for your idea?
To attract the right tech cofounder, you need to make sure you do a good job of selling your startup idea. You wouldn’t want a non-competent, non-committed partner, but this applies to the other side as well. You need to convince the person of your domain knowledge, of the quality of your idea, of the skills you bring to the table, and of your serious intentions.
The process of attracting a technical cofounder isn’t much different from the process of finding an investor. The only difference is that in the first case you’re convincing a person to invest their time in the project, while in the other you’re convincing a person to invest their money. Both assets are very valuable and people generally don’t want to waste them.
You need to act professionally in order to attract a professional partner.
How to vet potential tech co-founders if you’re not a tech person yourself?
The most important thing to realize here is that you are not a tech expert yourself. This means that you are not in a position to judge someone else’s tech expertise accurately.
Experience and portfolio: have they worked on something similar? Take a look and test some of the past products they have worked on. Don’t partner-up with people that can’t show you something tangible they’ve created.
Referrals: before committing, make sure to talk to someone that has previously worked with them, preferably a person that has some tech knowledge.
Availability: the person could be very knowledgeable and great-to-work-with, but if they are too busy with other projects this could be a red flag – you need someone committed.
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Hiring Developers for Stage 2: MVP to Scale-Up
So, either through no-code solutions or through and awesome tech co-founder, you have created your MVP. You’ve run your validation tests and the results are positive – you have proof of concept, you have customers, you have product-market fit. Congratulations, you are a real startup!
It’s time to transition the MVP to a meaningful, self-sustaining, scalable business, which probably means writing a lot more code than you did so far.
Once you have a budget, there are a lot of ways you can get code written for you. The best option, however, once again depends on your circumstances.
The important question you need to ask is: IS TECH AN IMPORTANT POINT OF VALUE AND DIFFERENTIATION FOR YOUR BUSINESS?
To return to the previous example, if you are running an ecommerce business, it most probably isn’t. However, if your ecommerce platform is different in any way from a standard online shop and that’s a reason for people to become your customers, then the answer changes.
Notice that the emphasis here isn’t on innovation, but rather on value and differentiation. This is because for an MVP you care more about the difficulty of the tech problem. Once your project becomes a real business, however, you start caring about the overall impact of the tech as well as competition much more.
If the implications of tech are big for your business, you generally speaking need a Chief Technical Officer even if you are doing something non-innovative tech-wise.
If the implications of tech for your startup are not that big, it’s generally speaking a better idea to outsource the whole tech side of your business.
How to find a CTO for your startup?
The process of searching for a CTO for your startup isn’t much different than the process of searching for a technical cofounder, so you can easily follow the advice from above in regards to where to find the developer you need and how to attract them.
That said, there is one fundamental difference:
When searching for a non-founder CTO, you are generally speaking offering a (competitive) salary alongside any performance-based pay. This means that the pool of candidates would be much larger compared to your pool of candidates for the co-founder position. The presence of direct pay means people would have a higher incentive to over-sell themselves and the skillset they bring to the table.
Yet, you are still not a technical person and not in a position to judge the technical capabilities of developers. This means that if you have the budget for it (and you probably do if you are in the position to hire a CTO in the first place), it’s a very good idea to employ a (local) professional recruiter to help you with the process of effectively vetting your CTO prospects. You shouldn’t outsource the search for a CTO entirely. This is a key person in your organisation, so it’s worthwhile to try to use your own channels to attract the best possible candidates. However, once you do, you need to vet them together with someone that can judge their skills and experience effectively.
Once you have your CTO, it would be up to him to find and organize the programmers that would write the code for your startup. The CTO generally speaking has two options:
Freelance developers vs In-house developers
The traditional approach would be to hire in-house developers, but generally, this is more problematic than it seems and often is not the easiest approach.
You need to consider a couple of important questions:
Do you think you can hire developers in a competitive marketplace?
First of all, depending on where you are located, developers are quite expensive and there is usually a high demand for them. Would you be able to offer good-enough conditions (money + extras) to attract and to retain your developers? Being able to attract only junior devs and having a high employee turnover rate could become a big problem.
Do you think you can keep them busy all the time?
If your startup is very tech-centric, there would probably be enough work to go around. But if it isn’t and there is downtime, you are simply wasting resources. Freelancers and development companies could work on a case by case basis, but the in-house developer salaries are running no matter if there is enough work to go around or not.
Are you financially stable?
Hiring in-house staff is a long-term financial commitment. If your business is financially volatile, a too-big in-house team could mean bankruptcy. The story of Sharkius is a great example of that: “"I made mistakes in people management, hiring too fast, firing too slow."
Startups are often volatile and risky, which means that the flexibility of contractors (freelancers or companies) could be a major selling point. Downsizing is much slower and more painful with an in-house team.
Do you think you have challenging work to keep your developers fulfilled?
Low-tech products often deal with repetitive, not-challenging enough tech tasks and problems. This means that they are not the ideal career opportunity for the most ambitious, capable developers. You could find yourself with a high churn rate simply because of the nature of your business, which is not ideal.
If you meet all of the criteria from above, then having an in-house team could be the best option simply because it brings a lot of intangible benefits opposed to remote, freelancer teams – culture, motivation, community, easier communication, etc.
If you have access to a lot of resources and the tech problems you are solving are challenging enough, it might be worth it to try to build a top in-house team. For most startups in the MVP to Scale-up stage, however, it’s prudent to keep the in-house dev team as small as possible and to outsource most tech-work to freelancers (or consultancies) simply because of the lower costs and higher flexibility. Managing a remote team could be challenging, but the benefits usually outweigh the costs for startups.
On remote teams:
One of the biggest selling points of an in-house team is that you can physically put everyone in the same place, which (as mentioned) produces a lot of intangible benefits - culture, loyalty, easier communication, etc. Moreover, the proximity and easy access to people makes project management a bit easier. Thanks to Covid, however, most offices are forced to transition to (at least partial) remote work. This presents a dilemma: if you are hiring right now, is it worth it to go for full-time in-house developers when your experience with them wouldn’t be much different than your experience with a remote freelancer team? Of course, if you are trying to lock-in high-tier talent to your organisation, you might want to do it anyway, but otherwise it makes the case for full-time developer teams for startups even weaker.
Moreover, there are indications that the remote trend in tech is here to stay, which means you are extremely unlikely to avoid remote teamwork regardless if you go for full-time employees or freelancers. This means it’s vital to teach yourself how to manage a remote team.
Where to find and hire in-house developers:
You are most likely hiring for your local market, which means it’s best to stick to local offline online events and communities that we mentioned in the “finding a tech cofounder” part (LinkedIn, local Facebook groups, Hackathons, Tech Conferences, etc.) combined with the traditional local hiring methods (recruiters, job agencies, etc.).
Make sure you combine the tech competence of your CTO with good HR practices (and ideally HR professionals to help you write job descriptions and do effective interviews) to attract and select the best candidates.
Where to find and hire freelance developers:
From freelance portals. Websites such as Upwork and Guru are the most popular places to search for tech talent, but usually for short-term remote projects. If you’re planning something ambitious, you can consider the pre-vetted freelance platforms such as TopTal and Crossover.
(Just mentioning, it’s possible to have a CTO and to hire a contractor – a software development company, instead of building a freelance team. This is rarer, however, simply because it’s more expensive and having a CTO would make part of the development company’s job redundant.)
How to find and hire developers if you don’t have a CTO:
As mentioned above, if tech as a whole isn’t a point of differentiation and added value in your startup, then hiring a CTO might be redundant even when your business is growing.
It’s a totally viable (and often the right) decision to fully outsource the tech side of your business. This generally speaking means that you won’t be hiring individual developers, you would be hiring developer companies.
The full-service software development company would give you the benefits of a CTO + a developer team in a package. Since you’re getting consulting + project management + writing code in one place, it usually is an expensive option. Nonetheless, if tech is not the core of your business it could still turn out cheaper than an in-house team while remaining as flexible as a freelance team.
The big question here is if you should go for a local or overseas IT consultancy. This is a similar question to the in-house vs freelance (remote) decision. Generally speaking, local would give you more convenience and intangible benefits (similar culture, same time-zone, easier communication, etc.) while overseas would cost less money.
If you are based in an expensive-to-live location (North America, Western Europe, etc.), going for an offshore developer could save you a lot of money. If you live in India, China, Eastern Europe, or any country with a good IT industry and lower costs of living, however, it’s quite straightforward that you should go for a local company (the savings for going overseas would be minimal).
Where can you find the right software development company for your startup?
If you are searching for a local developer, you should search for local resources to help you out with your decision. Leverage your network and ask for referrals.
If you decide to go for an offshore IT consultancy, however, you’d have to find help online.
Clutch.co is the market leader and provides an extensive database of developer agencies and consultancies, allowing you to filter by technologies, location, price, and providing vetted reviews, which makes finding potential candidates easier.
If you want to take things one step further, you can use services that handle the matching and vetting process for your particular case (usually agencies). For example, if you decide to go for a development team in Ukraine, you can use Mobilunity, who specialize in this market and would dig deeper to understand your problem and match you with the right developers. There are a plethora of similar services specializing in different markets and industries.
So, in order to find and hire the right developers for your startup, you need to understand your startup in two important dimensions:
The importance of tech for your startup and difficulty of the tech problem together with the developmental stage of your startup determine if you need a tech cofounder/CTO and if you should outsource or hire developers.
Once you have this understanding, simply go to the most relevant online or offline places (that we listed in the beginning of the article) and start searching for the right people!
Since we are heavily involved in the dev space, make sure to reach out to us if you have questions - we might be able to assist you and make recommendations and introductions.