Make It Happen: How to find a Programmer

My weekly post on Seattle 2.0.

The number one thing holding back new startups is funding. The number two thing is lack of a technical co-founder. If you attend networking events, you’ve probably met a lot of entrepreneurs with an idea who need a partner to build it. You may be in this situation yourself, or perhaps you’ve already given up. If you have an idea, but no programmer, there are several approaches you can take.

Partner with a Programmer

After they have their big idea, most non-technical founders set forth to find an engineer to form a partnership. If your idea is so great, they will line up to start a company with you, right? Wrong. When you attend an event to find a programmer, you are competing against many others in the same boat, and you are competing against companies offering very high salaries. You are also competing with the programmer doing a startup on their own.

To find a programmer who will simply share equity with you, you need two things. First, you need a very good pitch. It needs to be a vision, not just an idea, and it needs to be inspirational enough to get someone to consider leaving their job and working for free. Second, you need to bring something to the table other than the idea. Many fail at the pitch stage, but almost all fail at pitching themselves. Most entrepreneurs I meet seeking a partner do not include who they are and what they bring to the project in their pitch. They don’t realize that programmers may reject them because they also have their own ideas; it’s not always about money. Ask yourself: what do you bring to the table?

Be honest with yourself about what you can contribute. If you do find a programmer and don’t bring enough to the table, Eduardo in The Social Network is an example of how things can go wrong (ignore the fact that Mark Zuckerberg approached him). He simply did not fit into the company: he had little to add, he couldn’t contribute to the product, and he had a differing vision. At one point, he admits he doesn’t even know how to update his relationship status. It’s no surprise he was pushed out of the company.

Be realistic with the amount of work you’ll each be doing when you discuss equity. If you do find a programmer and do bring enough to the table, another common problem is the non-technical cofounder wanting a lot more equity because they had the original idea. The fact is the technical co-founder will be doing more work at the start.

Be confident with the skills you do have. If you do bring a lot to the table, don’t worry about how you’ll be perceived approaching programmers. It’s good for founders to have complementary skills, and the average programmer you work with doesn’t want to deal with the business side of the startup. You need a programmer, and if you’re the right fit a programmer will also need you. In a post-mortem about the failure of devver, the founders wrote “Dan and I are both technical founders. Looking back, it would have been to our advantage to have a third founder who really loved the business aspect of running a startup.”

I was fortunate to meet a perfectly complementary technical co-founder for LazyMeter. Included in my pitch to him was what I bring to the table: five years of experience at Microsoft demonstrating skills in product management, customer service, sales, marketing, analysis and monetization. My co-founder wanted to be able to focus on the product, and my background allowed him to do so.

Hire a Programmer

There’s a reason funding is the number one thing holding back startups: if you have money, you can hire a programmer. But you still need to know who to hire, and even with significant funding you may struggle to find someone that wants to work with you. Your pitch is still critical, including why they should want to work with you. You need to make them confident enough to choose a lower salary and bet on equity over a much higher salary with a larger company.

If you’re fortunate enough to have money to hire a programmer, spend it wisely. You need to find someone to enter into a hopefully long-term relationship with. But more importantly, you need to find someone who is passionate about your project. Ideally, they’re like a partner and would even prefer it, but aren’t in a situation where they can work for equity only. I’ve seen many presentations and articles warning to never outsource a startup. I agree, but I think it’s just as bad to hire the wrong programmer locally. In fact, I’d rather outsource to someone I felt was passionate about the vision and not just working for the money.

Become a Programmer

What most entrepreneurs with ideas don’t consider is becoming a programmer themselves. It’s intimidating, but you can learn to build at least a prototype on your own. Even if you just develop some skills, you will gain a lot more respect from the programmers you eventually work with, and you may even be able to contribute to the product.

Brad Feld has wrote a series of articles on his blog about Nate Abbott and Natty Zola, founders ofEverlater and participants in TechStars, who decided to learn to program instead of hire a developer. One of my consulting clients made his first fortune 30+ years ago by investing his savings for a computer (very expensive at the time) and figured out the rest.

Anything is possible if you want it badly enough. When you’re looking for a programmer, don’t forget to pitch and interview yourself.  I have a background in computer science, but haven’t coded in years. I am starting a python course at UW in Python because I want to contribute to LazyMeter, and I want to be able to play with other ideas.

Make It Happen: Bring Whatever It Takes to the Table

In conclusion, the most important thing while searching for a technical co-founder is that you bring more to the table than an idea. If you don’t have enough skills to offer or just can’t find the right match, remember that you can always add to what you bring to the table. If you hit a dead-end in both finding a partner and financing, don’t forget you can learn to program and start the project yourself. Entrepreneurs explore all options to make their vision a reality. If you’re stuck, consider every possibility to move forward.



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