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When You Need a Technical Co-Founder and When You Don’t

by Victor Purolnik
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When You Need a Technical Co-Founder and When You Dont

I. Introduction

Choosing to embark on the entrepreneurial journey can be both thrilling and challenging. One of the most important decisions you’ll face as a non-technical founder in the SaaS space is determining whether or not to involve a technical co-founder in your startup.

This decision can significantly impact your startup’s future, making it essential to understand when and if you need to bring a technical co-founder on board.

A. The importance of understanding when to involve a technical co-founder

As a founder with little to no technical background, you may be worried about making the wrong technical decisions or hiring the wrong developers.

A technical co-founder can alleviate some of these concerns, but it’s crucial to recognize that their involvement isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution.

Identifying the right time to involve a technical co-founder can save you from costly mistakes and set your startup on the path to success.

 

B. Brief overview of the content

In this in-depth article, we’ll delve into the pressing questions that non-technical founders often grapple with, addressing common fears and misconceptions about involving a technical co-founder.

I’ll discuss the different types of tech leads needed at various stages of a company’s growth, explore the technical complexities of startups, and outline alternatives to a technical co-founder.

By the end of this guide, you’ll be better equipped to make informed decisions about the role of a technical co-founder in your startup.

II. Common Fears for Non-Technical Founders

Non-technical founders often face a unique set of challenges and concerns when building their startups. In this section, we’ll take a look at some of the most common fears that may arise and provide insights on how to navigate them.

A. Making the wrong technical decisions

As a non-technical founder, you might worry about making uninformed decisions regarding technology or software choices.

To mitigate this risk, you must keep educating yourself on the basics of relevant technologies and seek advice from experienced mentors or advisors in the field. This will help you make better-informed decisions and reduce the likelihood of costly mistakes.

B. Hiring the wrong developers

Hiring the right development team is critical for your startup’s success. Non-technical founders may struggle to figure out how to find and hire the right developers or even assess their skills and expertise.

To overcome this challenge, make sure you conduct a thorough background check on the potential hires you have. Contact previous employers if you must, to get a better understanding of your potential hires.

You can also, leverage your network and industry connections to find developers with proven track records in similar projects.

At Trustshoring we connect businesses with the best development teams or engineers that match their exact business needs.

C. Starting something technically not feasible

One of the fears non-technical founders face is starting a project that may not be technically feasible or would require significant resources to develop.

To avoid this pitfall, you’ve got to conduct thorough market research and consult with technical experts before fully committing to an idea. This will help you determine the feasibility of your concept and identify any technical barriers that may need to be addressed.

D. Not being able to hold developers accountable

Without a strong tech background, it can be challenging for non-technical founders to hold developers accountable for their work. Establishing clear communication channels and setting measurable goals can help you stay on top of your team’s progress.

You can also consider working with a technical project manager or advisor who can help you monitor the development process and ensure your team stays on track.

This will not only help you hold developers accountable but also provide valuable insights into the project’s technical aspects.

III. The Myth of Smooth Sailing with a Technical Co-Founder

Many non-technical founders believe that having a technical co-founder will solve all their problems and make their startup journey smooth sailing.

However, this is not always the case. In this section, we’ll debunk this myth and discuss the potential challenges of working with a technical co-founder.

A. The desire to build and its potential drawbacks

Technical co-founders often have a natural inclination to “build.” They may focus on building a highly scalable product, assembling a team, or jumping straight into coding. While this drive can be beneficial, it can also lead to counterproductive and expensive outcomes.

For example, a technical co-founder may spend months building a feature-rich product, only to discover that the market doesn’t need or want it.

It’s essential to strike a balance between the desire to build and the need for market validation. Co-founders should work together to identify the minimum viable product (MVP) and prioritize testing and iterating on their ideas before fully committing to a particular direction.

B. Real-life examples of failed startups with technical co-founders

There are numerous examples of startups with technical co-founders that have failed due to various reasons.

Some of these failures can be attributed to an overemphasis on building at the expense of other essential aspects of the business, such as market validation, customer acquisition, and financial management.

In other cases, the technical co-founder may have taken too long to deliver a lean product, causing the startup to run out of resources and fail.

These examples outline the importance of striking the right balance between technical expertise and business acumen. Both co-founders need to work together to ensure the startup’s success, with each contributing their unique skills and perspectives.

What are some examples of unsuccessful startups with technical co-founders?

  • Color Labs

Color Labs was a photo-sharing app founded by Bill Nguyen, a serial entrepreneur, and Peter Pham, a technical co-founder with a strong background in engineering.

The startup raised $41 million in funding before even launching, thanks to the founders’ impressive track records. However, the app’s initial launch failed to gain traction due to a lack of market validation and a confusing user experience.

Despite pivoting several times, Color Labs eventually shut down in 2012, primarily because the co-founders focused too much on the technical aspects of the product without fully understanding the market needs.

  • Airware

Airware was a drone startup founded in 2011 by Jonathan Downey, a technical co-founder with a background in aerospace engineering.

The company aimed to build an operating system for commercial drones, attracting over $100 million in funding. However, despite the technical prowess of its founder and team, Airware failed to achieve significant market traction.

The startup’s downfall can be attributed to several factors, including the inability to define a clear product-market fit, the lack of a focused target market, and a high burn rate. Airware eventually ceased operations in 2018.

  • Clinkle

Clinkle was a mobile payment startup founded in 2011 by Lucas Duplan, a technical co-founder who had studied computer science at Stanford University.

The company raised over $30 million in funding and attracted high-profile investors. However, Clinkle struggled with several issues, including a high employee turnover rate, internal conflicts, and a lack of a clear product vision.

The technical co-founder’s inexperience in management and business strategy contributed to the company’s difficulties. Despite multiple attempts to pivot and relaunch, Clinkle ultimately shut down in 2015.

These examples highlight the importance of not only having technical expertise but also ensuring that other crucial aspects of the business, such as market validation, customer acquisition, and financial management, are addressed.

C. Balancing the roles and responsibilities of co-founders

When working with a technical co-founder, it’s vital to maintain balance and outline clear roles and responsibilities for each party. This will help prevent misunderstandings and ensure that both co-founders are aligned in their goals and objectives.

For example, the non-technical founder may focus on business development, marketing, and customer acquisition, while the technical co-founder oversees product development and technical strategy.

Regular communication and collaboration between co-founders are critical to maintaining this balance. Regular check-ins, progress updates, and discussions about the startup’s direction will help ensure that both co-founders stay on the same page and work together effectively.

 

 

IV. Types of Tech Leads for Different Stages of a Company

As your startup evolves, so do its technical needs. It’s essential to recognize that different types of tech leads are necessary at various stages of a company’s growth. In this section, I’ll dive into the different types of tech leads you need for each stage of your startup’s development.

The Three Types of Tech Leads
The Three Types of Tech Leads

A. Launch stage: the lean tinkerer

At the launch stage of a startup, the primary goal is to develop a minimum viable product (MVP) and bring it to market as quickly as possible. A lean tinkerer is the ideal tech lead for this stage, as they focus on rapid development, iteration, and delivering value.

1. Characteristics and goals

A lean tinkerer is a tech lead who is highly adaptable, resourceful, and comfortable with experimentation. They are skilled at quickly prototyping ideas and iterating on them based on user feedback and market demands. The main goals of a lean tinkerer are to:

  • Develop an MVP that addresses a specific market need
  • Test and validate product-market fit
  • Iterate on the product based on user feedback and data
  • Optimize the product for a smooth user experience

2. Importance of business understanding

In addition to their technical expertise, a lean tinkerer should have a deep understanding of the business side of the startup. This includes being aware of the target market, the competition, and the overall business strategy.

A well-rounded understanding of the business allows the lean tinkerer to make informed decisions about product features, prioritize development tasks, and align their work with the startup’s goals.

Having a lean tinkerer with a strong business understanding ensures that the technical development of the product is aligned with the market demands, increasing the likelihood of achieving product-market fit and setting the stage for future growth.

B. Scale stage: the architect or senior engineer

Once your startup has achieved product-market fit and begins to grow, the focus shifts towards scaling the product and the business.

At this stage, the ideal tech lead is an architect or a senior engineer who can help build scalable systems and deliver predictable results.

1. Building scalable systems

As your startup grows, so do the demands on its technical infrastructure. An architect or senior engineer has the skills and expertise to design and implement systems that can handle increased loads without compromising performance or user experience.

Key responsibilities in building scalable systems include:

  • Identifying potential bottlenecks and areas that require optimization
  • Ensuring the system architecture is robust and can handle increased traffic, data storage, and processing needs
  • Implementing best practices for code quality, testing, and deployment
  • Planning for future growth and making strategic technology choices to support long-term scalability

2. Delivering predictable results

In addition to building scalable systems, an architect or senior engineer plays a crucial role in delivering predictable results as the startup grows.

This involves establishing processes and standards that ensure consistent product quality and efficient resource utilization. How is this done?:

  • Setting up development processes, such as Agile or Scrum, to facilitate clear communication, effective collaboration, and regular progress updates
  • Implementing tools and techniques for tracking project progress and measuring team performance
  • Defining and enforcing coding standards, testing methodologies, and deployment practices to ensure product quality and stability
  • Collaborating with other team members to allocate resources effectively and maintain a healthy balance between product development, maintenance, and innovation

With an architect or senior engineer on board during the scale stage, your startup can effectively manage its growth while maintaining high-quality technical output and meeting the evolving needs of the business.

C. Expand stage: the CTO-type person

When your startup enters the expansion stage, it’s essential to have a tech lead with a broader set of skills that go beyond technical expertise.

At this stage, a CTO-type person is the ideal choice, as they can effectively manage and lead the technical team while overseeing systems, processes, and hiring.

1. Managerial and leadership responsibilities

As the startup grows, the tech lead’s role evolves from primarily focusing on technical tasks to managing and leading a larger team.

A CTO-type person should have strong managerial and leadership skills to ensure the success of the technical team. Key responsibilities in this role include:

  • Setting the technical vision and strategy for the company
  • Creating a culture of continuous learning, innovation, and improvement within the technical team
  • Mentoring and coaching team members to help them grow professionally
  • Establishing clear lines of communication within the technical team and with other departments, such as product, marketing, and sales

2. Systems, processes, and hiring

In addition to their managerial and leadership responsibilities, a CTO-type person is responsible for overseeing systems, processes, and hiring to support the startup’s continued growth. This involves:

  • Ensuring that the technical infrastructure is scalable, secure, and reliable and that it meets the needs of the expanding business
  • Implementing and refining development processes, quality assurance measures, and deployment practices to maintain product quality and minimize technical debt
  • Identifying skill gaps within the technical team and leading the hiring process to onboard new talent as needed
  • Collaborating with other departments to align technical initiatives with overall business goals and objectives

D. The risks of working with the wrong person at the wrong stage

Choosing the right tech lead for each stage of your startup’s growth is critical to its success. Working with the wrong person at the wrong stage can lead to various challenges and setbacks, potentially jeopardizing the startup’s growth and stability.

What are some of the risks associated with selecting the wrong tech lead for a particular stage of your business?

Inefficient resource utilization

Working with the wrong tech lead can result in inefficient use of resources, including time, money, and talent. For example, a tech lead who is not experienced in building scalable systems might struggle to adapt when the startup enters the scale stage.

This could lead to bottlenecks, performance issues, and costly technical debt, which can hinder growth and affect the startup’s overall stability.

Negative Impact on Team Dynamics

Hiring the wrong tech lead can also affect team dynamics and create friction among team members.

If the tech lead’s management style, communication skills, or technical expertise do not align with the team’s needs, it can lead to misunderstandings, conflicts, and low morale.

Potential Loss of Equity

Bringing on a tech lead, especially a co-founder, often involves giving up equity in the startup. If you work with the wrong person at the wrong stage, not only do you risk hindering your startup’s growth, but you also stand to lose valuable equity that could have been better allocated to a more suitable tech lead.

To avoid these risks, it’s crucial to carefully assess your startup’s needs at each stage of growth and select a tech lead with the right skills, experience, and mindset to support your business in its current phase.

V. Identifying Your Startup’s Technical Complexity

Understanding the technical complexity of your startup is crucial in determining whether you need a technical co-founder or if other alternatives will suffice.

Let’s take a look at the simplicity of most online businesses, the importance of product-market fit, and when a technical co-founder is necessary.

A. The simplicity of most online businesses

Many online businesses and software products have relatively low technical complexity, so it’s possible to launch and maintain them without requiring a technical co-founder.

Off-the-shelf tools, platforms, and software solutions can often be used to build and manage these businesses, allowing non-technical founders to focus on other aspects, such as marketing, sales, and customer support.

B. The importance of product-market fit

The success of a startup often hinges on achieving product-market fit, which refers to the alignment of the product’s features with the needs of a specific market segment.

This process generally involves extensive research, experimentation, and iteration, and can be more important than the technical complexity of the product itself.

In many cases, non-technical founders can leverage their industry expertise and market insights to find product-market fit, without needing a technical co-founder to guide the process.

C. When a technical co-founder is necessary

However, there are cases when a technical co-founder is necessary for a startup’s success. Startups that involve cutting-edge technology, such as blockchain, artificial intelligence, machine learning, or specialized infrastructure services, require a deep understanding of the underlying technology and its potential applications.

When is a Technical Co-Founder Needed?
When is a Technical Co-Founder Needed?

In these instances, a technical co-founder can bring invaluable expertise, vision, and guidance to the startup, ensuring that the product is technically sound, innovative, and well-positioned to compete in the market.

So what are some of the startups that need technical co-founders?

1. Blockchain technology

Startups that are built on blockchain technology, such as those developing decentralized applications (dApps), digital currencies, or implementing smart contracts, need a technical co-founder who has a deep understanding of the underlying technology, its potential applications, and the unique challenges that come with it.

Their expertise can help guide the development of secure, efficient, and innovative blockchain solutions.

2. Custom AI/ML solutions

Startups that integrate custom artificial intelligence (AI) or machine learning (ML) into their solutions require a technical co-founder with expertise in these areas.

Developing and fine-tuning AI/ML models, ensuring data quality and privacy, and integrating these solutions into the product requires a solid understanding of the technology and its complexities.

3. Infrastructure services

If your startup offers infrastructure services, such as hosting, cloud computing, or other specialized technical solutions, a technical co-founder with experience in these areas is crucial.

They can help design, implement, and maintain robust and scalable infrastructure that meets the needs of your clients while ensuring security, compliance, and optimal performance.

4. API-first businesses

Startups that are focused on providing APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) as their primary offering need a technical co-founder who is well-versed in API development, documentation, and management. They should have a deep understanding of best practices for designing, building, and maintaining APIs, as well as the ability to create a seamless experience for developers who will use your APIs to build their applications.

In each of these cases, having a technical co-founder can provide invaluable expertise, vision, and guidance to ensure the startup’s product is technologically sound, innovative, and well-positioned to compete in the market.

VI. Alternatives to a Technical Co-Founder

While a technical co-founder can bring significant value to a startup, there are alternative options available for non-technical founders who need technical expertise and guidance.

Here, we will explore two alternatives: working with contractors at different stages and engaging a fractional CTO.

A. Working with contractors at different stages

1. Benefits and challenges

Benefits:

  • Cost-effectiveness: Contractors can be hired on an as-needed basis, allowing startups to save on full-time salaries and equity.
  • Flexibility: Contractors can be easily scaled up or down based on the startup’s needs and project requirements.
  • Access to specialized skills: Startups can work with contractors who possess the specific expertise needed for particular projects or stages of the business.

Challenges:

  • Less commitment: Contractors may have multiple clients and projects, which could impact their availability and commitment to your startup.
  • Intellectual property concerns: Ensuring the protection of your startup’s intellectual property when working with external contractors may require additional legal measures.
  • Management overhead: Coordinating and managing multiple contractors can be time-consuming and challenging, particularly for non-technical founders.

2. Finding the right fit for your business

To find the right contractors for your startup, consider the following steps:

  • Clearly define the project scope and requirements to attract the right talent.
  • Seek recommendations from your network, industry peers, or online platforms specializing in matching startups with contractors.
  • Assess potential contractors based on their portfolios, client testimonials, and relevant experience.
  • Conduct interviews to evaluate their technical expertise, communication skills, and alignment with your startup’s culture and goals.

B. The role of a fractional CTO

A Chief Technology Officer (CTO) is a top-level executive in charge of overseeing the technological strategy, development, and implementation within a company.

They ensure that technology aligns with business objectives and provides competitive advantages. In the context of startups, a CTO often plays a crucial role in shaping the technical vision and building the product or service.

A fractional CTO, as the name suggests, is an experienced technology leader who provides part-time strategic guidance and oversight to your startup.

This arrangement allows startups to leverage the expertise of a CTO without the commitment of a full-time position or the need to offer equity.

At Trustshoring we provide fractional CTO services for startups in need of technical support, providing objective tech leadership and guidance that matches your needs.

1. Making decisions and keeping developers accountable

A fractional CTO is an experienced technology leader who provides part-time strategic guidance and oversight to your startup. They can help make crucial technical decisions, keep the development team accountable, and provide valuable input on technology selection, architecture, and best practices.

2. Advising and strategizing

In addition to their technical expertise, a fractional CTO can act as an advisor, and help startups gain funding, which they may have missed out on due to the lack of a CTO in the team.

They also collaborate with the founding team on strategy, business development, and overall direction, helping identify potential risks, evaluate opportunities, and provide insights on emerging trends and technologies relevant to your startup.

Evaluating alternatives to a technical co-founder can help non-technical founders access the technical expertise and guidance they need while retaining greater control over their startup’s equity and overall direction.

 

VII. Evaluating Your Startup’s Needs

Before deciding whether to involve a technical co-founder, work with contractors, or engage a fractional CTO, you’ve got to evaluate your startup’s needs thoroughly.

In this section, we will take a look at how to assess your technical requirements, understand your current and future growth plans, and identify the right person for your team.

A. Assessing your technical requirements

It’s important to analyze the technical aspects of your startup, including the product’s complexity, the technologies involved, and the level of expertise needed for development and maintenance.

Consider whether the skills required are within your capabilities, or if you need external support. Make a list of the essential technical tasks and the corresponding skills needed to accomplish them, which will help you determine the type of expertise you require.

B. Understanding your current and future growth plans

Have a look at your startup’s growth plans, both short-term and long-term. Identify the milestones you aim to achieve and the resources needed to reach them.

Be realistic about the timeframes and the level of technical support required at each stage. This will help you determine whether you need a full-time technical co-founder, a part-time fractional CTO, or contractors for specific tasks.

C. Identifying the right person for your team

Once you have a clear understanding of your startup’s technical requirements and growth plans, you can start to identify the right person for your team.

Below are some factors to consider when making your decision:

  • Skillset: Ensure that the person you choose possesses the necessary technical expertise and experience for your startup’s needs.
  • Cultural fit: Evaluate whether the individual aligns with your company’s values, work style, and long-term vision.
  • Commitment: Assess the person’s commitment to your startup, taking into account their availability, dedication, and willingness to contribute to the company’s success.
  • Growth potential: Identify if the person has the potential to grow with your startup, adapting to new challenges and responsibilities as the company evolves.

Once you’ve carefully evaluated your startup’s needs, you can then make well-informed decisions about whether to involve a technical co-founder, engage a fractional CTO, or work with contractors, ensuring that you have the right technical support to successfully grow your business.

VIII. Conclusion

We have explored the various aspects of involving a technical co-founder and the alternatives available for non-technical founders.

What are the key takeaways?

A. The importance of recognizing when a technical co-founder is needed

Understanding when to involve a technical co-founder is critical for the success of your startup. For businesses with complex technical requirements or cutting-edge technologies at their core, having a technical co-founder can be invaluable.

On the other hand, for startups with simpler technical needs, alternatives such as contractors or a fractional CTO may be more suitable.

B. Strategies for finding the right person or alternative solution

Finding the right person or solution requires a thorough assessment of your startup’s technical requirements, growth plans, and the skills needed to achieve your objectives.

Whether you choose to involve a technical co-founder, engage a fractional CTO, or work with contractors, ensure that they possess the necessary expertise, align with your company’s values, and are committed to your startup’s success.

C. Emphasizing the need for continuous evaluation and adaptation

As your startup evolves, so do its technical needs and challenges. It’s crucial to continuously evaluate your startup’s requirements and adapt your strategy accordingly.

Be open to reevaluating your decision about involving a technical co-founder or exploring alternative solutions as your company grows and its needs change.

In conclusion, recognizing when a technical co-founder is necessary, finding the right person or alternative solution, and emphasizing the need for continuous evaluation and adaptation will help ensure that your startup has the technical support it requires to thrive in today’s competitive landscape.

Interested in learning more about your options and how to level up the technical leadership in your business?

At Trustshoring we provide fractional CTO services to provide startups with the objective and trustworthy tech leadership they need. Get in touch with us today!

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Victor Purolnik

Trustshoring Founder

Author, speaker, and podcast host with 10 years of experience building and managing remote product teams. Graduated in computer science and engineering management. Has helped over 300 startups and scaleups launch, raise, scale, and exit.

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