Back in May 2013, I was a finalist at Seedcamp Week in Berlin, with my startup Satago, and I was somewhat of an anomaly: a solo, non-technical founder of an Internet startup. I already knew that most investors were not keen on solo-founders, nevermind non-technical ones. By the end of Seedcamp that had been well and truly drilled into me. The most common feedback I received can be summarised as “we like you, we like what you’re doing with Satago, but we won’t invest in a solo non-technical founder”.
Nevertheless, after Seedcamp week a top-tier VC took a particular interest in Satago and I had several meetings with the partners. Ultimately though, their feedback was the same: “we invest in teams and you’re just too high-risk”. Who can blame them?
From that moment on I devoted a significant portion of my time and energy to finding a technical co-founder. I found out firsthand just how difficult and demoralising it can be. Six months later, however, I have a technical co-founder, was a finalist in Techcrunch Disrupt Battlefield, and have just been accepted to Seedcamp. Here’s my experience…
Supply & Demand
The problem with finding a technical co-founder is basically one of supply and demand. On the demand side there are loads of “business guys” out there with ideas that are looking for someone to build them. Many of these ideas are pretty rubbish and at first glance it’s tough for anyone to separate the wheat from the chaff. What’s more, the perception is that many of these “business guys” have the wrong attitude, thinking that they need someone to work for them, rather than looking for a partner to work with them (I don’t necessarily agree that this perception is fair).
On the supply side, developers that are good enough to be a startup CTO are not short of opportunities. In London, as in Silicon Valley, these guys can command healthy six-figure salaries, with decent stock options, in big tech companies. Moreover, most tech guys have a few ideas of their own that they would like to try before having a go at someone else’s vision. The chances are pretty slim for you to find the perfect co-founder, who believes in your vision and is willing to bootstrap alongside you.
Fortunately for me, I had a few factors that differentiated me from the “business guy pack”. I have an MBA from Oxford University and was then working for (in)famous e-commerce incubator, Rocket Internet. Depending on your point of view, that either made me the anti-Christ of the startup world, or if you were slightly more pragmatic, someone with a decent educational background and practical experience of at least one style of launching startups.
More importantly, I had by then raised some crowd-funding on the UK platform Seedrs to build a MVP of Satago and had already been a Seedcamp week finalist. I found it was the Seedcamp participation that most helped as a differentiator – if I was good enough for Seedcamp to look at, I was probably worth a look at to join as a co-founder.
The first thing I did was post an “advert” on a few Europe-focussed startup boards, including Angellist and WorkInStartups.com (you can see my original posting here). I think here my tone was important – I was trying to convey that I had at least a reasonably clever idea, with good credentials and a decent idea, but I was not your cliche’d MBA type A psycho. Indeed many of the replies I got back said I was one of the few credible “business guy” ideas they had seen on such websites.
I also started working my network, asking every startup guy I knew if they knew of anyone that might be interested in joining me. Unfortunately, the answer was often along the lines of “you’re the 5th person to ask me that this month”. Not a good sign.
One of my earliest hot leads was from my own network after I just updated my LinkedIn status to say that I was looking for a technical co-founder. Somebody I had briefly worked with at Rocket was interested and a lot of our personal circumstances lined up, so we talked in depth. We had a few Skype meetings and an in-person meeting, even getting to the stage of agreeing equity split, but in the end he decided the opportunity was not right for him. So close to the altar – first time jilted!
From then on, and for the next few months, I met about a dozen people and interacted with many more over email. Organising my “pipeline” using Streak, it was more or less like a sales process. I would estimate it was constantly taking up 25-50% of my day, a colossal amount of time, which was time not spent building the actual business.
My next hot lead came via a referral from my network. This guy seemed almost perfect, we met in person several times, over several weeks, but again he decided that Satago was not the opportunity for him. I was now realising that if I thought someone would make a top-notch technical co-founder then I was unlikely to be the only one thinking that. Jilted again.
Shortly after my last jilting, I wrote a blog post saying that “Finding a technical co-founder is like trying to get married”. The post clearly struck a nerve as it hit the front page of Hacker News and got several thousand hits in one day. I actually ended up with several good co-founder candidates contacting me on the back of that blogpost, including Y Combinator alum, and the CTO of one of Europe’s leading tech companies.
Time to make a decision
Hot lead number 3 came via a Venture Capitalist I had been talking with about Satago. Yet again, another dream potential co-founder with even more relevant domain expertise. We met once, then over some deep and meaningful emails sounded each other out about joining up together. It seemed like I had now found my match – the only question was whether we could work out a deal between us.
With my mind nearly made-up, I decided I should be diligent and take one clean sweep through my co-founder pipeline – there were quite a few good people who had contacted me, but with whom I had not yet managed to have a proper conversation. One of these leads who had found me via WorkInstartups.com did get back to me, saying he’d been meaning to get in touch but had been away working overseas. We arranged to have a Skype video call that weekend and once we spoke I knew I had a connection with this guy and could probably work well with him.
I now had two potential technical co-founders who were both keen to work with me and I had to make a decision. From a technical point of view, both were excellent – their technical backgrounds could not have been more suitable. The first candidate had slightly more startup experience, but the second candidate’s personal circumstances made him slightly more suitable. From a personality point of view I knew I would be happy to work with either of them, so it was a tough decision.
In the end I decided to go with my gut feeling – the second candidate – Adam. Previously I had slightly under-estimated his technical chops – first UK engineer at Palantir Technologies and a background that included working on the technical side of investment banking at Barclays Capital. Most importantly I could tell he was a sound bloke and that he shared the same startup ethos as myself.
This did, unfortunately, mean I had to let the other candidate down, which felt pretty bad as I knew from experience how it felt to be jilted. I was able to reassure myself that someone as good as him (who was already employed) would easily find another good startup to join.
Adam himself took a giant leap of faith and decided to join me before we had even met in person. I suggested he not actually resign until we had met, and so a few days later I met him in London, and a few hours later his resignation to Palantir had been submitted.
It takes time
The biggest lessons from all of this was that it takes time to find the perfect co-founder: it took me nearly 6 months to find Adam. It really is like getting married. I could have teamed up with the first decent technical guy I met 6 months ago, but it would have been a quickie Las Vegas-style marriage and almost certainly ended up in a messy divorce.
By being patient, and keeping my standards high, I really have found the perfect technical co-founder. So perfect, I should add, that some other naughty London FinTech company has already tried to head-hunt Adam due to the “great work he’s done on Satago so far”! Guys – Adam is great, but he has barely even touched the code yet!