The following is a guest post by Hicham Amine, Head of Growth at Hidden Founders. This post originally appeared on Medium.
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 around the internet.
You have an idea for how to make a billion dollars! That’s awesome! Now, if you could just find someone to help you build it… But wait just a minute. The truth is, no idea is worth a billion-dollars, or even $1. 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, or more importantly, a strong founding team that will turn their vision into reality.
There is no harm in pitching an idea. You can gather good feedback when you do this. The issue is, nobody will take you seriously (except close friends and family), unless you translate your words to something people want. To achieve that, the common route is to find a technical partner to help you get this idea off the ground.
After helping founders get started on their products for the last couple of years, I came to realize that most founders are looking for a technical 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 make 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 of their own to build yours?
Your odds are very low if the only thing you can offer a potential partner is an idea. Even if you’re generous enough to split your equity, no one can trust that, because 50% of $0, which is what most founders have when they are starting, is still $0.
What you should do instead of searching for a co-founder, is prove the value of your business concept.
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 make sure you’re building something people want. The truth is, the primary risk for an early-stage startup to be concerned with is not technical, but market-driven:
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 to prove the value of your business concept. This shows that you will be an excellent person to partner with. Until then, you don’t need a technical co-founder, believe me.
Alright? Perfect. Now, let’s bring your idea to life so you can attract the best co-founders, partners, or even investors to join you on your journey.
Prove the Value Of Your Business Idea
Keep in mind, this is not a recipe to find a technical co-founder. However, if you do a bunch of this work, the chances are that technical talent will be coming out of the woodwork to talk to you when they see how far you’ve come in validating your business idea.
Do Some Customer Discovery.
Assuming you’ve made the effort to craft a business plan mapping out some assumptions about the problem your product solves, 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 into 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 into your target market and create a strongly qualified feedback group of 25 – 50 people so you can begin running your interviews, surveys and one-on-one conversations.
How to: Work your way down a list of: friends & family, colleagues, former colleagues, former classmates, fellow members in meetups or clubs, browse through your last couple hundred emails. Head into your Facebook friend list, LinkedIn connection list and check out your Twitter followers. Out of the people who express interest in your idea, ask them if there’s anyone else they know who would be excited about what you’re building and get more qualified referrals. Join online groups and communities and trigger conversation about what you’re up to. Send an email to the people who seemed most engaged in the conversation, asking them if they’d like to get updated on your progress. If they’re ok, get their email so you can keep them in the loop and ask some questions.
Now you have an initial community of early feedback subscribers, and maybe even potential customers. Don’t try the hard-sell approach though. The goal here is to gather enough data about the pain point you believe you might be solving and gain deep understanding of the customers’ needs. You want to make sure you’re documenting the biggest selling points, value-proposition and features that are most appealing about the solution you propose directly “in the words of your potential customers.”
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 does this experience costs you? Do you waste in it?
- Have you tried to solve it? How? 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 X & Y ?
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 into brainstorming sessions. Take notes of the words and expressions, and watch the body language, that one doesn’t lie.
Bonus: You want early adopters, right? You can conclude your conversation with: I’m actually exploring a solution to [insert the problem they 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.
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 were trying to do. They were able to get 75,000 users to sign up without writing a single line of code.
Setup a landing page to collect email addresses. You can do this without any technical know how using tools like Launchrock or Instapage. You don’t necessarily need a demo video. You just need to use the key messages and benefits generated from customer discovery to craft copy that reflects the value of your product and clear call-to-action (request for sign up) 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 as no surprise when you reflect real value. Customer discovery helps you do just that.
– Allocate a small budget ($200 – $500) for testing paid traffic: The paid channel you’re going to choose depends on which target you want to advertise to. But generally, Facebook ads are going to be your best bet in the beginning. With that budget range, you can generate hundreds of extremely targeted visitors to the landing page and see how they react to your pitch and call-to-action.
– Do some Guest Posting: Targeting blogs is an extremely effective channel, especially in the early-days, as it helps you build 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 what bloggers 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 channel group: Ask them about feedback. Some of them will share in their social media feeds, hopefully you’ll get new sign-ups from here too.
As your landing page receives traffic and sign-ups, make sure to monitor closely your key Metrics: Number of website visits, Number of sign-ups, conversion rates (Sign-ups/Visits), Duration spent in the website and traffic sources. Use Google Analytics and Mixpanel to keep an eye on the numbers and analyze the results to identify___________. Data doesn’t lie.
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 in 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 that people are willing to give you real, actual money puts your idea on a level that most ideas never reach. You’re no longer a “wantrepreneur” with a pie-in-the-sky idea; you’re a legitimate startup founder with a newly budding business.
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 qualitatively test that you have a problem worth solving 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.”
If you choose to work with a designer (don’t invest in a top notch designer, yet), and want to provide solid inputs. You can use tools like Balsamiq or moqups to draw a simple sketch that demonstrates what sort of things you can do in your design. This can be done by yourself.
Don’t try to be perfectionist about the look. The aim of drawing a wireframe is to focus on the functionalities you want to see in your MVP and the intent of the user. You’re just helping the designer.
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.
P.S. Based on our experience, The more you make a designer or a developer’s work easier by providing clear inputs, the more likely they can offer a discount or premium service.
Expected Results: Having a well-defined MVP scope (user stories and screens) will help re-affirm there is a need for your product and how it should visually be presented. This saves cost and effort and fine-tunes your product before investing in heavy design or development.
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 implement the necessary changes you see are 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 with prototyping, rather than after developing the real product. Once this is done, 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 wait-list of customers, maybe some data of the potential market and an amount of pre-orders. You’re up to something real. Your progress is worth listening to: Use it to pitch investors, co-founders and first customers.
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 some of the big market risks, and this is fair 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 when bringing an idea to market:
- Hire an in-house developers
- 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 you’re having to manage the project and be in constant communication with the team, which will suck your time and drag you from doing the most important thing: Talking to customers and investors.
Contracting a freelancer is similar to hiring a developer, except that this option is more cost-effective and you won’t need to worry about managing him/her to 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 in this option is the long term commitment that freelancers don’t offer since they always move from one project to another. After launch, when many updates and changes will be necessary based on the early adopters’ feedback, there is a big chance the freelancer won’t be there for you.
The last option is working with a dev shop (developer firm). 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 technical team from the beginning, one that has chemistry and history of working together on different startups for a long period. This helps bring extensive experience. Typically, they can get the MVP to the market faster. The costs of this option depends on whether you decide to hire a local dev shop (which can involve lot of cash if you’re in a major tech city in North America or Europe for example) or outsource to a firm overseas, that can be much more 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.
Some of the advice we give to our batch founders is: 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 moving 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.
Expected Result: Traction trumps everything. 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 a journey will be demanding, but no one ever claimed that starting a startup was going to be easy. None of these should seem like obstacles, rather should be perceived as challenges to overcome and move ahead.
Congrats, now you need a technical co-founder.