7 Steps to Finding and Keeping a Great Technical Co-Founder

By Gaurav Jain

Since several of you are launching tech ventures and are in the process of finding tech co-founders, I thought I’d share my thoughts and experiences on this topic.

Below are 7 steps that I think are key to finding and retaining a great technical co-founder. By no means is this an exhaustive list, and I am sure I missed a few, so please feel free to chime in below.

1.  Figure out your value, early: It’s clear what value a tech co-founder will bring: he/she will build the product. Without the product there is no company. But there is significant value you can add to the yet-to-be-created company even before the first line of code is written. You can create mockups using tools like Balsamiq or Photoshop, you can start to generate strong interest within the investor community, and heck, you can sign up a pilot customer or two. The more progress you can make solo, the more credibility you have as the “business co-founder” and the easier it will be to attract a tech co-founder.

2.  Look where no one is looking: While you may be tempted to use sites like Techcofounder and kofounder or hanging out at startup events in the community, I have found the hit rate to be relatively low. I think it’s because the tech talent here is either willing to go solo or has another tech co-founder lined up, i.e. they are not looking for an additional business co-founder. You will have much greater success convincing someone that wasn’t seriously thinking about starting a company. Go to tech companies and find engineers that have made some money (too much == not hungry) but are not confident enough to venture out on their own. You can be the comfort they need. Use LinkedIn to find 2nd and 3rd degree connections.

3.  Kiss a lot of frogs: I probably met over 50 engineers before I found my tech co-founder. Granted I had easier access because I was in the CS program, but finding a co-founder is a like finding a partner. Not everyone you meet will be a mutual fit, and the more potential candidates you meet, the higher the odds of finding a fit. You will also learn a lot about what you like/dislike in a co-founder through this process. This will take time and it can be painful. Manage your expectations and stay diligent.

4.  Try before you buy: Related to the above point, there is only one sure way of finding out if there is a mutual fit. Have your strongest candidate start hacking on the side. This way the tech co-founder doesn’t have to quit his/her job and you can figure out if there’s a fit without giving up money or equity. That’s what we did and it worked well.

5.  Paint the 300-year vision: Great technical talent won’t quit his/her comfy job for creating another run-of-the-mill smartphone app. Google’s famous for having a 300-year vision of organizing the world’s information. Figure out your analog and make this an opportunity not-to-be-missed for your potential co-founder.

6.  Treat him/her well: Based on what I have heard, we at HBS have made huge progress on this front. But I still hear comments such as “developers are dispensable and mostly a commodity”. I can tell you unequivocally that a good technical co-founder is worth their weight in gold. They are more than just a source of code. A great tech co-founder helps chart out the product strategy, is the technical face of the company to investors and customers, and is a role model to the development team. Make sure this is reflected in their compensation, equity and how you treat him/her in all aspects of the company.

7.  Empower him/her: If you are a non-technical CEO, understand that there will be quirks on the technical team that may not be natural to you. The technical team may want to start the day later, dress more casually and have “LAN parties” that you may not understand. Instead of trying to impose the culture you want onto the team, empower your technical co-founder to take the lead here. Let him/her feel like they lead the technical/product side of the house while you are out there closing deals and raising money. Treat them like an equal in most aspects of the company and you will have a long and fulfilling relationship.


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