Why Nobody Seems to Want Non-Technical Co-Founders

Steves: Jobs and Wozniak of Apple

The co-founders that shook the world Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak

Guest post by Paul Higgins*

How to find a co-founder

Everyone wants to be an entrepreneur at the moment, and resources such as WorkInStartups, Founder2Be and Enternships have sprung up to help people locate co-founders and create or work in startups.

Strikingly the vast majority of startup positions advertised are for technical co-founders such as CTO or Developer. My own pretty unscientific poll (looking at the current co-founder posts available on WorkInStartups) shows that around 90% are for technical roles. I wondered why there were so few people looking for a non-technical co-founder whose experience is primarily in marketing or sales.

I have no reason to think that non-technical people come up with more business ideas than technical people or vice-versa. I certainly doubt – across the board – that 90% of business ideas come from people with a non-technical background. It’s probably close to 50:50.

Why do technical entrepreneurs not want to find non-technical co-founders?

Every case will be different but at a high level it must come down to one of two things:

  1. Technical entrepreneurs don’t think that they need non-technical co-founders (in other words, they feel that they can do the non-technical roles themselves); or
  2. Technical entrepreneurs do realise that they need sales and marketing skills but they don’t think that they need them yet

I think that for most entrepreneurs both of these would be mistakes.

For every success story like Instagram (whose team of 7 engineers created a product which became one of the most popular apps on Apple’s iStore with millions of downloads) there are thousands of products being pitched to their market in the wrong way, targeting the wrong market altogether, or without a real market at all.

I’m not suggesting that there are no engineers with sales and marketing skills – I know many growth-stage companies run by CEOs with engineering or technical backgrounds who excel at sales – but I am strongly suggesting that bringing these skills into a startup is under-prioritised.

Why should technical entrepreneurs bother with non-technical co-founders?

Judging from the comments to Jason Freedman’s interesting post (Please, please, please stop asking how to find a technical co-founder), the technical entrepreneurs who don’t think they need help probably haven’t suffered through working out a precise target market, a proposition, a marketing strategy, a price point, and all the operational reporting that allows them to adjust those things based on customer interaction.

Technical entrepreneurs who think they need help (but not yet) probably haven’t suffered the pain of creating a product that nobody uses or cares about: and that was the primary driver of Eric Ries’ lean startup movement, which implores entrepreneurs not to build a product in isolation before finding out about the market.

It is these skills that a good non-technical co-founder would bring to the party, and finding an exceptional one is in my opinion just as valuable as finding an exceptional developer.

Where are all the non-technical co-founder opportunities?

Oliver Bremer, Co-Founder and CEO of Founder2Be, points out that a lot of startups created by non-technical founders now are typical web-based companies, in the sense that they really don’t have anything at all until they have some code. So creators of these companies either need to look for someone who can code or learn how to code themselves. Those that learn how to code through resources like Codecademy don’t show up on job boards at all.

I expect that a significant majority of non-technical founders would prefer to find someone else just because of the time it would take to learn themselves and the cost and uncertainty of outsourcing it to a development agency.

Then you have the startups created and launched by technical founders, whose projects either become huge successes (like Instagram), huge failures, or somewhere in the middle – and it is only this third category that end up eventually looking for marketing, sales, and business development expertise. This might go some way towards explaining the 90% bias towards technical roles on startup co-founder boards.

I think there is also an argument that it is easier for founders to tell whether they possess technical skills compared to non-technical skills, and therefore easier to determine whether they need help or not.

It’s trivial to say whether you can or cannot code Javascript; it’s not so easy to say whether you can sell your ideas to potential customers. The latter might seem to be something that people do naturally rather than being a skill, but this is no more convincing than the idea that anyone can type on a keyboard therefore anyone can code.

If you’re a developer then it might be easy to think that you can take care of going to market yourself once the product is built. But failure can happen in the market as much as in the technology so consider investing in people who can mitigate both of those risks from the very start.

***

Paul has been advising entrepreneurs on growth strategies since 2005 as part of Rapid Innovation Group (RIG), a strategy and execution firm that helps emerging tech-based companies accelerate their revenue growth and achieve market leadership .  Follow Paul on Twitter @paulhigginz.

Eze Vidra
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Eze Vidra

Chief Innovation Officer at Antidote
Eze is the Chief Innovation Officer at Antidote, a startup helping patients search and match to clinical trial, to accelerate medical breakthroughs. Previously, Ezewas a General Partner at Google Ventures Europe. Before GV, Eze founded and led Campus London, Google's first physical hub for startups, and was the Head Google for Entrepreneurs in Europe. He's an experienced product manager and startup mentor. In 2012 Eze founded Techbikers, a non-for profit supporting children education in developing countries.
Eze Vidra
Follow me

Eze Vidra

Eze is the Chief Innovation Officer at Antidote, a startup helping patients search and match to clinical trial, to accelerate medical breakthroughs. Previously, Eze was a General Partner at Google Ventures Europe. Before GV, Eze founded and led Campus London, Google's first physical hub for startups, and was the Head Google for Entrepreneurs in Europe. He's an experienced product manager and startup mentor. In 2012 Eze founded Techbikers, a non-for profit supporting children education in developing countries.

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