Three Must-Follow Principles to Attract a Technical Cofounder (Plus, Bonus Advice for Moving Forward on Your Own)

Written on 2015-11-03

Note: I’m a non-technical cofounder that was able to bring an awesome CTO to join the company while being totally tech lame at the time—so yes, I’m preaching something that has worked for me.

Opportunity has knocked on your door. You just had a brilliant idea that will change the world.

Good!

Now you need to ship the product lighting fast. (That’s written in The Lean Startup book, right?) But you can’t ship anything until you convince someone else to build it for you because you’ve never written a single line of code.

Sorry to tell you, but you’re in deep trouble.

The reasons:

  1. You have no network to introduce you to or help you vet a good programmer.

  2. You wouldn’t know how to spot a good programmer even if you came across one.

  3. You’re probably not going to get any (good or bad) programmer at all right now.

But don’t panic because there is hope. If I did it, then so can you.

I had my tricks, I admit. And these tricks (or tactics) can be summed up in three basic principles to follow which I’ll describe for you in detail in this article.

Before I lay out the principles, let me offer you some cautionary advice: Stop going straight after a cofounder in a desperate fashion (as I know many of you are). Instead, take a step back and get prepared first.

I know that you’re in a rush and “don’t have the time” to get prepared. And I also know that the competition is moving fast, so you need to ship your product even faster—yes, I get all that.

But you must understand that if you’re trying to build a “me too” company and you don’t have a tech expert working with you as we speak, you’re toast already. You jumped into the game too late, and this article isn’t meant to overcome that fact.

But if you, on the other hand, are on a mission to build something fresh and new based on a big insight you had about your market, then this article is for you—so, stick around and take your time. You know that it doesn’t matter what your competition is doing now because, even if they’re moving fast, they’re moving fast and in the wrong direction anyway, right?

Let me tell you: before the almighty Facebook, there was MySpace (RIP); and before MySpace, there was Friendster (RIP); and before Friendster, there was SixDegrees (RIP). So a couple of months of preparation won’t harm you; it will actually increase your chances to survive long enough in the game until the day you hit the jackpot.

Ok, enough with the backstory; let’s move on to the nuts-and-bolts approach that will make a difference in your hunt for a technical cofounder.

Principle 1: Accept that you are at a disadvantage (at least in the beginning).

Let’s face it: Programmers are the hot girls at the party. This means that there is a huge supply-and-demand imbalance going on in this market; as in, the demand for programmers is much bigger than the supply, which means the LinkedIn message you just sent to that programmer, which took you thirty-five minutes to write, won’t even be read.

No, your super idea doesn’t mean anything at this stage to the programmer you’re trying to convince to join you. The truth is, ideas have a pretty low face value while they're still just ideas.

Before Instagram, its founders’ first idea was a lame, HTML5-based Foursquare knock-off called Burbn. And guess what? It failed. Know Google? Google was initially a pet project that the founders, Sergey and Larry, tried to sell to Excite (RIP) for under $1 million in 1999 so they could get back to their studies at Stanford without being bothered. (Excite passed.) Cute story, uh?

Your initial idea is just a starting point and will definitely change—hopefully for the better. Don’t believe for a second that you’re the most important founder just because you had the idea. If that’s the only edge you have, then you have no edge.

Principle 2: Differentiate yourself.

Your first goal should be to get noticed by standing out from the masses of other people competing for programmers. You can begin to differentiate yourself by following these three suggestions:

a) Build an online reputation.

Chances are your cofounder candidate is going to google your name before considering doing anything with you (and this includes answering your e-mail). What will Google reveal about you? If the answer is nothing, this is pretty bad—you’re a nobody, and nobodies are boring. What if the search results return lots of things about you and they are all lame? That’s even worse because the cofounder candidate will be repulsed by you, and this is obviously a deal breaker.

A very common and effective way to build your online reputation is to start blogging. What should you blog about? Whatever you’re interested in and can write about from an unique perspective. It’s even better if you write about topics related to the idea that you want to build a business around. But beware: people who talk about their startup all the time are boring. And boring people scare away good programmers.

So if you decide to blog, make sure you don’t turn your website into a pitch deck for your startup (at least, not directly). The blog shouldn’t be about you or your company. Use it as an opportunity to share your knowledge with the world and get people’s attention by writing about something you’re passionate about. (By the way, that's exactly what I do at my own blog)

There are many ways to build your online personal brand, and blogging is just one of them. Be creative and willing to try different things, and you will find a cool way to showcase yourself. Online reputation is becoming more important everyday, to the point that soon, online reputation and reputation will be the same thing. Once you master this skill, you can even reverse the game so that programmers will start approaching you (instead of the other way around).

b) Become genuinely interested in programmers.

Don’t view your potential tech cofounder as just someone who is going to code “your” idea. A good programmer will do much more than that; he or she will join you in your journey, and you two will collaborate with each other in many ways. You may not realize this now, but your tech cofounder will be crucial in helping to trim your idea and deciding what features are essential now and what can be built later. His or her instincts on what to build will be as important as his or her ability to build it in the first place.

Learn about their passions; learn about their motivations. When you start to understand the programmers’ worldview, you’ll be able to talk with them about their interests as a peer rather than as an outsider. Not only will this make you more interesting to them, it will also give you a better perspective of who is a good programmer and who is not.

c) Be present and increase your network.

This one is quick and obvious. If you want programmers to notice you, get in their faces—literally. Attend events about topics that you know programmers are interested in. (Hint: These topics usually involve building stuff and are seldom about “business.”) And the more programmers you meet, the bigger the chance you will find someone that will click with you or at least introduce you to someone else who may be interested in your project.

3. Don’t be a creep.

Hopefully once you’ve put Principles 1 and 2 into practice, you’ll be engaging with good cofounder candidates. This is good, but don’t rush things yet. I have seen people scare away good programmers by trying to sign contracts at the first meeting.

I get that you may be desperate, and we all can be at this stage, but try to not look desperate, ok? Act cool and let things flow. It’s better for both of you.

Here’s the happy path: you start engaging with the candidate on a no-strings-attached basis. You two decide to do something together to see if the relationship has potential. You let the relationship grow until it becomes a bit battle tested. Once you both know that you’re a good match for each other, you begin to discuss a formal commitment. It’s never wise to think about a formal commitment until you’ve completed this introductory stage.

And remember, no matter what the outcome is, always treat the other person with respect.

Extra Advice: You may not realize it yet, but you are more powerful than you think.

Before I finish the article, I’m going to share you a secret: you don’t actually need a programmer to start turning your idea into something concrete.

Groupon, to this day the fastest company to reach a billion-dollar valuation ever, began with a skinned WordPress website, and the team would send their thousands of daily e-mails manually. If a giant like Groupon was basically born without "traditional” programming, what makes you think your idea can’t be started with a simple prototype, also?

Nowadays, there are tons of services that were created with the non-tech crowd in mind that can be used to easily prototype and create early versions of Internet services (with WordPress being just one of many). Utilize those services and create something yourself.

Having a working prototype will help you jumpstart your startup without outside help. And guess what? Doing that will change the game in your favor because you will begin to move forward, and good ol' momentum is very sexy to the people that you’re trying to pitch your idea to.

Be confident; stay on the move; and happy hunting!