You Don’t Need a Technical Cofounder



A ferret.

It’s standard practice these days to have a weird, bearded man in your startup.  A guy you can cite when someone says something innocuous like “Everyone likes kittens!”, and you say “Well, except for Jason ….”.  Everyone nods.  Yeah, he makes the code magic, but what’s the deal with Jason and the pet ferret?

But do you really need Jason?  Or put more precisely, is the value of a bearded man worth the price you pay to buy him?  I’m going to make the case today that it isn’t.  This flies in the face of the advice you’ll get from angels, VCs, accelerators and of course bearded men everywhere, so I’m tilting at a windmill that will continue to turn no matter what I say.  Left to their own devices, that’s what bearded men tend to do.


A bearded man.

Let’s say you’re a non-technical founder – an MBA or Subject Matter Expert.  You have a product idea.  The standard route to MVP is that you recruit a technical co-founder, give him half the company and he makes it happen. I enjoy this state of affairs.  As a bearded man, I need people like you to need people like me because in a just capitalist world, a guy like me who couldn’t sell fire to the Eskimos and doesn’t play well with others would starve.

To you, the non-technical cofounder, the benefit of having the bearded man on-board is that you can go deep on customer development and shallow on product development because, theoretically, your bearded man has that covered.  You do what you like, and are good at, Jason does what he likes and is good at … your path to IPO is clear.

But consider this … the base salary for guys like Jason at jobs that he can do blindfolded is 150k-250k.  The entire time he’s working for you, recruiters will be knocking on his LinkedIn reminding him of this.  And he can land those gigs without trying.  True story: I once showed up late for a job interview wearing torn jeans and a black Jack Daniels sweatshirt with the sleeves hacked off,  rocking an epic unkempt biker beard and got the job.  You have to overpay to get a bearded man and even if you do that’s no guarantee that you can keep him because it’s so easy and profitable to leave.

Consider also that really hard technical work comes in fits and starts at many raw startups.  When the MVP ships and your critical path to survival is sales and bizdev, not product development, a huge chunk of your equity, cash and mindshare may be tied up doing non-critical-path make-work because “Jason doesn’t sell”.  The more stereotypically technical Jason is, the uglier that period of time is going to be for you and the more bad decisions you’re going to make just to “keep Jason’s head in the game” or to serve his misconception that product development is the be-all, end-all.

And finally, think about how hard it really is to build the thing you want to build.  I’ve talked to dozens of non-technical co-founders over the last decade or so, and 90% of them are pitching pure execution plays – no new science involved.  Everything is work, but not everything is hard work.

You’re pitching yourself to investors as a scalable CEO – someone who can figure out when, and how much, to pay up for the things you need and when to find another way to get it done.  If you start your venture by overpaying for a technical cofounder, you’re not a scalable CEO.

What’s that “other way”?  That’s your problem.  Remember, I’m the bearded man.  I like things the way they are.  But I have seen a few different approaches that work.

Be creative.  One non-technical cofounder I know took his idea to undergrad CS classes, more than once, and had them work up versions for him.  Is this textbook, ideal-world product development?  No.  Did he enjoy it?  No.  Did it work?  Yes – he made it work.  Remember your Lean Canvas (and you have done your Lean Canvas, right?)?  What’s your unfair advantage?  If you have a way of making this happen without overpaying a bearded man, that’s an unfair advantage.

Find actual volunteers.  Non-technical co-founders scam free work from friends and randos all the time.  As a bearded man I find this annoying and, in another mood will tell you “Don’t be that guy”, but today I’m here to actually help you.  So yes, sometimes you need to be that guy asking people to do stuff for you for free.  You will be rejected a lot.

Find equity volunteers.  Face it, paying people with equity is the equivalent of not paying them at all.  That said, there are way more equity volunteers out there than you think.  And there are reputable, proven contract houses that will work for equity if they believe in the founder and the business.  The trick is in finding them and making them believe.

Pay up.  Find a contractor at someplace like toptal and pay them to do the work.  This is actually harder to manage than actual volunteers or equity volunteers.  It’s also, in my experience, least likely to succeed.  The more I think about it, the less I like this option.  I take it back.  Don’t do this.

And now, having wasted a lot of your time delivering you something you almost certainly didn’t want and can’t use, I will say what every true bearded man says when he does something like that:

You’re welcome.