Whether you’re building a ONE BILLION startup or a smallish web developement agency, as an entrepreneur you have one tough task: finding a technical co-founder. That’s probably one of the most important tasks in early days of your empire in spe. I’ve been there a couple of times and I can only say that choosing the right person will result in peace of your mind and growth of your business. But choosing the wrong one, you may end up with plenty of troubles.

Here’s a list of six things which I find important. Bear in mind one note: it’s an entreprenurial point of view. It might not match all situations.

Engineers are like doctors

You don’t go to the dentist if your leg is broken. So, if you think about building a large scale messaging app, consider co-founding with Erlang, not Rails, developer. It’s your job to understand basic technical issues behind your product and find the right engineer. Having said that, I must admit that sometimes you will be forced to co-found with people without the right skills. It will be harder, but not impossible.

Remember to check the level of experience. Are you trying to make a deal with a junior developer, lead developer or software production manager. Who exactly do you need?

He/she needs to morph

If your technical co-founder, apart from writing great code, can transform into managerial beast later on, it’s just fantastic. In the early days there’s plenty of coding, but your business will grow eventually and your roles will change. There won’t be time for code polishing or user interface tweaking. You both will need to manage your business. Therefore it’s important to team up with someone who is not 100% geeky. Someone who’s an engineer at heart, however is fascinated by the business side as well.

Someone you can trust

You will encounter plenty of risky situations and additional stress caused by co-founder ain’t what you’re looking for. You need someone you can trust. That’s why good buddies are best co-founders. They have history together. There’s a flipside to that coin: you can loose your friend if things go wrong.

If you’re not ONE HUNDRED PERCENT sure you’ve found the right person, but you want to start building your product as soon as possible, never give shares. Sign a contract with conditional options/shares transfer if specific terms are met. Communicate the terms clearly. It’s your safety valve. When running for gold, you want yourself in a comfortable position, having the ability to fix the bug and change your risky co-founder.

If none from your trust list is capable of co-founding a company with you, go out and date. There is plenty of development and startup events out there. Infect people with your idea. You’ll find someone. And when you do, test drive them. Preferably on a real-life project with deadlines.

Engagement

Watch closely how your candidate operates. It’s an employee versus entrepreneur fight. I want my co-founder to act independently, to approach problems creatively and to solve them on their own, if it’s in their area of expertise. Waiting for orders is not accepted.

Feeling good together

Since you’re going to spend A LOT of time together, you really need to have a lot in common. Think about it in terms of motivations you both have. What you value most in life. If you have doubts about your soon-to-be co-founder, observe. People lie with words and declare crazy things, even unconciously, so you need to observe really well. Especially if you’re about to start with someone you don’t know well.

Stress-test your co-founder. How he/she behaves when you’re low on money, without the right people on the team? Simulate such situations to learn.

Motivations and values are more important than engineering skills. If your motivations are the same, you don’t need to stress about your future that much. It will be much easier to cope with problems you’ll surely encounter.

Communication skills

Co-found with someone who communicates clearly and easily. It’s just necessary. There are exceptions, however remember that this game is for team players. You’ll have enough communication problems with employees, you don’t need such with a co-founder.

Naturaily’s search for CTO

When I started Naturaily, I was acting solo. It wasn’t a problem, I had plenty of experience in running web application development agency. However, after hiring the 5th developer, I felt I need an engineer at heart to take over software production management.

Around that time I came across an acquaintance, who happened to be a great lead developer. He wasn’t satisfied with his new job, so we quickly started chatting about possibility of taking Naturaily to the next level together. Though we didn’t have much history, I decided to risk. I took him on board.

It didn’t work totally.

What was wrong? Naturaily didn’t need a “corporate” lead developer, willing to work in a well defined role within a well defined set of processes. We were shaping the company at that time and needed an engineer who wouldn’t be scared by lack of procedures and a little bit of chaos. Last but not least, we needed someone who’s not afraid of risks bound to running a company. Apart from that I think there were more things that didn’t work for him at Naturaily, but our relationship was just weak and we didn’t communicate openly enough to learn about it.

After three months the cooperation was dead. I was on the hunt again.

Luckily for me, an old friend moved to Wrocław. An old friend with experience in running agencies like Naturaily. An engineer, but business passionate as well. We were “dating” for a couple of months and finally he joined the team. I felt he was THE ONE who can take the company to the next level and that exactly happened.

Why this time it worked? We have known each other for a long time. We share motivations and values. We have complementary skills. We were born the same year. You don’t necessarily need a technical co-founder who’s born exactly the same year, but your age matters. I’d find it hard to co-found with a person much younger.

Apart from the list above, there are some additional lessons that can be drawn from this story:

  • it’s good to be lucky,
  • you must learn how to spot an opportunity. Sometimes it’s really hard to notice it even when it’s laying naked in front of you. It was my wife who actually noticed my old friend can be a great co-founder,
  • have mentors. They don’t have to be professionals. Your uncle may serve as one as well.

Now go out and find someone to build things with!

PS If you have trouble with finding your CTO, you can always start building your dream web application with a remote team such as Naturaily