This is an attempt to answer all the “How can I find a technical co-founder?” that many folks, with the next billion-dollar idea, keep asking about around the internet.
You got it, I was being ironic. Because no idea is worth a billion dollars, or even a dime. Yet, many first-time startup founders seem to overvalue their pitch expecting everyone to be just as excited about their ideas as they are: Be it a customer, investor and more importantly a strong founding team that will turn their vision into reality.
There is no harm in pitching an idea. The issue is nobody will take you seriously (except close friends and family) unless you translate your words into action and into something people want. To achieve that, the common route is to find a technical partner to help you get your project off the ground.
After helping many founders get started on their product for the last couple of years, I got to realize most founders are looking for a tech co-founder before they need one.
Why Non-Technical Founders Can’t Find A CTO
The question is floating everywhere: Tech publications, Quora, Hacker News, AngelList, Reddit, Meetups, Facebook Groups… Everyone is desperately looking for the new pandas, and no one seems able to find them.
While there are many networking platforms and websites that made it easy to connect with brilliant technical people, it’s crucial to acknowledge that “finding” is one thing, but convincing that person to partner with you is another.
Why would any seasoned, skilled developer give up a steady job, one that pays hard cash, to follow the promise of uncertain wealth in the future?
Better yet, why would that person put aside the big, long list of ideas that they’d want to implement and rank yours at the top?
Your odds are very low if the only thing you can offer is an idea. Even if you’re generous enough to split your equity, it’s still hard to follow you.
What you should be doing instead is: Validating your idea in the market.
In his post, The Evolution of The Startup Pitch, the author formulates it this way: “A pitch is a request for trust, and trust requires tangible evidence. People you ask to follow you will demand to see progress before committing.”
It’s much easier to find a co-founder once you have built something and validated the concept with customers. You need to get to the point where you have done EVERYTHING you can possibly do to prove the value of your idea. Simply because the primary risk an early-stage startup is trying to minimize is not technical, but a market one:
Your first problem as a non-technical founder is not to figure out how to build the solution; it’s figuring out what the solution should be in the first place.
There is no better way to spend your time than to put in the effort of proving the value of your business concept.
Now, let’s bring our idea to life.
How to validate your startup idea:
This is not a recipe to find a technical co-founder. However, consider the ideas below and chances are tech talent will manifest when they realize how far you’ve come.
1. Master the Problem You’re Solving.
Assuming you’ve made the effort to craft a business model mapping out some assumptions about the problem your product relieves, the type of customers you want to target, the revenue streams and the potential profit you can make. Now it’s time to turn these assumptions to facts, and facts exist only outside the building (thanks, Steve Blank).
Customer discovery is key in the early days. It’s the best way to become intimately familiar and expert with the pain you’re trying to solve. It also helps refine your elevator pitch and tweak it as you learn more about what your audience wants.
Identify people in your surroundings that would fall in your target and create a feedback group of 20–30 people so you can begin running your interviews, live chats, and one-on-one conversations.
Don’t try the hard-sell approach, the focus here is to gather enough data about the pain and gain a deep understanding of the customers’ needs.
You want also to make sure you’re getting, “in the words of your audience” what are the biggest selling points, value-proposition, and features that are most appealing about the solution you propose.
Here are some questions you can use to run customer discovery interviews:
- Do you find it hard to [process/problem]?
- What is the hardest part about doing this?
- How often do you experience this problem?
- How much time and money will this experience costs you?
- What alternative do you use now to fix or bypass the problem? What was the result?
- What don’t you love about the solutions you’ve tried?
- What would be the suitable solution for you?
- What features would you most like to see?
- Will you be disposed to pay for a solution that delivers A & B?
Do not try to memorize or ask these questions in a particular order. Instead, use them as a guide to foster a flow of ideas among your interviewees and turn the conversations to brainstorming sessions.
As you are listening, take notes of the words and expressions, and watch the body language of the person you are talking to. Notice that the body language doesn’t lie.
Bonus: Do you want early adopters? You can conclude your conversation with: I’m actually exploring a solution to [insert the problem interviewees are most actively solving]. Can I contact you if we find a viable solution?
Key Expected Result: You are an expert in the problem at hand. You have refined the USPs (Unique Selling Points), the important features and how the solution can be proposed, which is enough to define your MVP scope.
2. Know How To Find Users.
After you know what benefits you can provide, now is the right time to broadly communicate your product to a wide audience and see if they express an equal interest to your initial community.
Getting good at acquiring users is one of the best ways to attract technical talent to your team.
A great idea would be to copy what Dropbox did, which was to create a landing page with a great demo video to show off exactly what they are trying to do. They were able to get 75,000 beta user sign ups out of that.
Set up a landing page.
You don’t need necessarily a demo video, you just need to use the key messages and benefits generated from customer discovery to craft a copy that reflects the value of your product and clear call-to-action to capture the names and emails from your visitors.
Now it’s time to spread the word. There are different ways you can do it:
- Publish in social media groups of your niche: Aladdin, the author of TOP 101 Growth Hacks, managed to collect 1700 subscribers for his growth hacking newsletter using a couple of startup facebook groups only. This comes at no surprise when you reflect a real value. Customer discovery helps you do just that.
- Allocate a small budget ($50 — $300) for generating traffic: The paid channel you’re going to choose will depend on which target you want to advertise to. But generally speaking, Facebook ads are going to be your first and best bet. It will generate hundreds of visitors for your landing page and help you evaluate their response to your pitch.
- Do some Guest Posting: Targeting blogs is an extremely effective channel, especially in the early-days, It helps you build an authority. Find a topic close to your product vision and voice your opinion to a big number of engaged readers. However, Getting featured in a big publication involves more than just finding a good topic to write about. Make sure you do some reading on how to guest blog. You need to know which editors to target, what information they’re looking for, and what materials they need to mention your company or products in their blog posts. Do your job right and you’ll get a positive mention; make a mistake or two and you won’t get mentioned at all.
- Try some content-sharing websites: A lot of startups and small businesses took off from Reddit, Hacker News, and Quora… These communities will give you positive attention if you contribute with original content, share your story and avoid an explicit sales approach.
- Send the link to your early feedback group: Ask them about feedback. Some of them will share in their social media feeds, hopefully, their friends will join your waiting list.
As your landing page receives traffic and sign-ups, make sure to monitor closely your key metrics: N° of website visits, N° of sign-ups, conversion rates (Sign-ups/Visits), Duration spent in the website and traffic sources.Use Google Analytics and Mixpanel (or any other free analytics tool) to keep an eye on the numbers and analyze the results.
Data will help you learn about which people are searching for your site, where are they located, their demographics and which channels are best to attract them.
Bonus: Put your email and bio on the landing page. People may want to reach out for more information, maybe for pre-orders too. As you collect sign-ups, drop a message to some of your interested leads and try to get on a conversation. You never know what new insights you can get.
Key Expected result: Proving with actual data that people are willing to use your product, puts you on a level that most “wantrepreneurs” never reach.
3. Make Your Solution Visual.
While you can still generate users and interest from your landing page. It’s time to stop imagining, and start seeing what your product will look like.
Mockups are a great way to test your solution by giving a face to the product before committing yourself to developing the software.
At this step, you want to make sure you’re clearly defining the scope of your MVP. Meaning, you’re making the distinction between the“must-have features” and “nice-to-have features” in the form of User Stories.
What is a user story?
A user Story is basically a short description of something that your customer will do when they come to your product. The important part is that they are written from the point of view of a person using your application, and written in the language that your customers would use.
The format is also important and it goes like this:
As a <type of user>, I want <some goal>
Examples of User Stories:
As a user, I can sign up using email and password.
As a user, I can upvote a friend’s photo.
As an admin, I can delete a user account.
As an admin, I can view the number of daily active users.
If you choose to work with a designer, the best way to provide a solid input would be:
Don’t try to be a perfectionist about the look. The aim of drawing a wireframe is to provide a clear input to your designers, mainly data and actions. Your job is not to solve UX problems, it’s his. Your work ends at describing the actions and data to be displayed.
Take those mockups again to the users. Having a realistic representation of what the product will look like will encourage your growing community to give a more precise feedback and tell you what’s good and what’s missing with the solution they’re presented with. Seeing is believing.
Compare the new feedback to the old, learn new insights and continue tweaking to make the solution even more effective.
Based on our experience, The more you make a designer or a developer’s work easier by providing clear inputs, the more likely they will remove the plus 20% they tend to add to avoid under-estimation caused by a blurry input from the founder.
Key Expected results: Having a well-defined MVP scope (user stories and screens) will help re-affirm there is a need for your product and confirm that your solution can potentially fix the problem. This also saves cost and effort and fine-tunes your product before investing in development.
4. Make a Prototype of Your Product.
Prototypes offer a high fidelity representation of your MVP. It gives you a feeling of using a real product by having the option to navigate through screens, click buttons and get a more accurate impression about the UX. You get to see how the users act on it, instead of just describing it.
Your goal at this stage is to let users “play” with your idea and give you valuable feedback that shapes the final designs before you start building the MVP. For that, you can use tools like InvisionApp or Marvel. These tools help you easily share the prototype with potential customers to receive new comments and suggestions.
It also helps you collaborate with your designer to implement a feedback loop to make the necessary changes you see relevant based on the experience of the user.
Continue iterating and learning. Since customers always wish to bring changes or add new features, it’s always much easier and cost-effective to make those changes will prototyping, rather than after developing the real product.
By now, you should really know what you want your app or website to be: how many screens it will have, what every single screen will look like and how your users will navigate through it.
Key Expected Result: You have a working prototype of a product people want. You have a growing waiting list of customers, some data of the potential market and an amount of pre-orders. You’re up to something real.
Now, your progress is worth listening to: Use it to pitch investors, co-founders and first customers.
5. Build The MVP and Get Traction.
Finding a great technical co-founder becomes easier when you’ve gone this far. Actual data backed with customer validation is the perfect combination for a proven business model.
But as I said in the beginning, going this far doesn’t automatically imply technical folks will show up on your doorstep. It just means you have a real opportunity and you bypassed the market risk, and this is fairly enough to be confident about building the software.
At this stage, you will have a couple of options to get started on your product. Going over each one of them will require a new post on its own, but I will outline some of them here.
Of course, finding a great technical person to get on-board remains the best option out there.
However, in case your quest brings no results, you should consider new options because speed is your critical asset to bring an idea to market:
- Hire an in-house developer.
- Contract a freelancer.
- Outsource The MVP to a development firm.
Each of these options present benefits and drawbacks. While hiring in-house developers can benefit you in the long-run as they’ll be part of the internal team and will stay fully dedicated to the product, chances are you don’t have that much experience in hiring technical people nor evaluating them.
Most importantly, this process is time consuming because having to manage the project and being in constant communication with the team will suck your time and drag you from doing the most important thing: Talking to customers and investors.
Contracting a freelancer is somehow similar to hiring a developer, except that this option is more cost-effective and you won’t need to worry about managing him/her in the same degree as you do with an in-house team. This gives you more time to focus on important things.
There are marketplaces that vet very skilled freelance developers.
However, one of the big disadvantages of this option is the long-term commitment that freelancers don’t offer since they always move from a project to another. After launch, when many updates and changes will be necessary based on the early adopters’ feedbacks, there is a big chance the freelancer won’t be there for you.
The last option is working with a dev shop. Many now-successful tech companies used this method of product development during their startup phase, Groove is one example.
Working with a dev shop, especially one that works exclusively with startups has a lot of benefits. You get access to a proven tech team since the beginning, one that has chemistry and history of working together on different startups for a long period.
This helps bring an extensive expertise and typically get the MVP faster to the market. The costs of this options depend on whether you decide to hire a local dev shop (which involves a lot of cash) or outsource to a firm overseas, that are relatively affordable.
No option is absolute. Each of them has its good sides and also challenges, and there are cases where one of them makes more sense.
Startups succeed when there is a strong alignment of objective among the founder and the other parties that work on the startup, be it an in-house team or a contractor. This should be the only criteria when choosing to move down this stage. At the end of the day, the goal is to build a product that’s going to get traction and take off.
Key Expected result: Traction makes everything else irrelevant. Having a working product that is both validated in the market and proves traction is the best currency of the startup world. It will give you leverage to pitch investors, co-founders, and partners.
The process of going on such validation journey will be demanding, but no one ever claimed that starting a startup was going to be easy. Doing so will allow you to attract the best and will better help the venture succeed.
Congrats, Now You Have Earned A Technical Co-founder.