Do I Need a Technical Cofounder?
So, you’re thinking about starting a tech company. Among all the unknowns and anxieties that a startup founder faces, one in particular is nagging at you…do you need a technical co-founder?
This question has kept many non-technical founders up at night as they yearn to beat the odds and find success with their startup. The answer isn’t a simple yes or no. For startups, there is no universal formula for success or “right” way to go about it.
Having a technical co-founder can definitely be advantageous for non-technical founders, but it isn’t a requirement and is certainly not a guarantee of success. Bringing on a technical co-founder may also come with tradeoffs and risks.
Today we’re going to explore this question in more detail and weigh some of the advantages and disadvantages of bringing on a technical co-founder.
What does a technical co-founder do exactly?
Like any other founder, a technical co-founder is going to wear a lot of hats. In the beginning, they may be responsible for any and all work that falls in the tech arena. In this sense, they need to be versatile, adaptive, and willing to get their hands dirty. Some days they may be focused on engineering…laying the groundwork for your innovative MVP. Other days, they may need to figure out why your website just crashed, talk through a problem with an early adopter of your product, or assess different tools for your team to adopt internally. In this sense, they need to be as versatile as a swiss army knife in the early days.
An important consideration when evaluating a technical co-founder is that this person needs to bring not just technical skills but also strategic value and vision. They also need to be someone that can build and manage a technical team as the business grows. Just because someone is a talented engineer does not mean they will be a strong co-founder. If you want to bring on a technical co-founder, make sure they can evolve with the requirements of the role as the company grows or shifts priorities.
What are the benefits of having a technical co-founder?
Assuming you bring on someone who is the right fit, there can be many benefits to bringing on a technical co-founder. Here are a few of the big ones.
1. Technical Expertise
Obviously, there are benefits to having strong technical expertise in-house, especially when your goal is to launch a successful technology product. Having someone by your side who can make informed decisions on technologies of choice, develop your initial prototype or MVP, interview and manage additional engineers, craft a product roadmap that aligns with your vision, and more can be incredibly helpful.
Without access to that expertise, non-technical founders often find the technology side of their vision to be very daunting. A technical co-founder can bridge that gap and allow the non-technical co-founder to focus on other aspects of the business where their skills are better utilized.
2. Cost Savings
Designing and developing new software can be very expensive. If you have a technical co-founder who isn’t drawing a large salary (or any salary) in the early days and instead has equity, that person may give you a path to an initial prototype or MVP for a much lower cost. Whether they can truly do it all or just most of it, there may be cost savings from not having to hire or contract out all the design and development work required.
Moving quickly can really give startups an edge and having a technical co-founder can help. Depending on the level and breadth of their skill set, they may be able to get your initial product to market sooner, more quickly address bugs or user feedback, add feature enhancements, and more.
One reason a lot of founders feel they need a technical co-founder is to help establish credibility. There is truth to this even if it is an exaggerated justification for needing a technical cofounder. Investors, customers, and employees may all feel more optimistic about the likelihood of your startup’s success knowing you have a technical co-founder on board as it can give the impression the team has sufficient technical expertise to build a successful product.
5. Vision & Strategy
Assuming you bring on a technical co-founder that is a good fit, they will likely bring value in many ways, not just their technical skills. With a shared vision, a technical co-founder can help ensure the product roadmap aligns with the business vision and strategy. They can also help the team assess what is feasible from a technology perspective, what will bring the most value to your users, what motivates an engineering team, and more. In short, having someone in your corner who is not focused strictly on the technology but on how the technology can best support the business can be very valuable.
What are the challenges of working with a technical co-founder?
On the other hand, there can be major risks, trade offs, and pitfalls associated with bringing on a technical co-founder. Here are a few of the big ones.
1. Finding someone with the right skill set
One of the biggest challenges is that it can be very difficult to find someone who is the right fit. Do they need mobile development skills? Web development skills? Back-end vs. front-end development? Do they need UX/UI design skills? DevOps skills?
The reality is that even the most experienced and versatile engineer is not going to be strong in all of the skills above. Engineers, generally speaking, tend to specialize so it can be hard to find one person who “has it all” and will be equipped to navigate all technical aspects of new product development. Many founders rush to bring on a technical co-founder only to find the person doesn’t have the skills or experience they really need.
2. Finding someone with a shared vision
People say co-founder relationships are like marriages, and in a lot of ways, it’s true. Finding someone who shares your vision, values, and work ethic can be difficult and hard to identify. You certainly want to bring on someone you enjoy working with and who has integrity. But if you’ve never worked with them before…how are you supposed to know?
Misaligned vision, values, work ethic, and priorities can quickly sour any co-founder relationship. Startups are stressful and scary, which can easily fuel tension and conflict among co-founders who are not on the same page.
3. Loss of control
In all likelihood, bringing on a technical co-founder means giving up equity. This means you may no longer have full control over your business, and you’re certainly no longer entitled to 100% of the upside if the startup succeeds or has an exit.
For founders, giving up equity can sometimes feel like an easy lever to pull, especially in the early days when the company really isn’t worth much and you don’t have the budget to hire people. But giving up equity haphazardly can lead to major heartache down the road.
4. Agreeing on equity and compensation terms
Figuring out how to share equity can be challenging and can lead to long-term resentment or misaligned expectations. Should you go 50/50? That seems fair. But, hey, it was your idea…why should they get half? Should it be 70/30 since you’ve already been working on the idea for a while? There is no right answer, and it can be hard to make everyone feel like they’ve gotten their fair share.
A technical co-founder may also have compensation expectations beyond equity, namely a salary. And someone who has been working as an engineer for a long time may be accustomed to a nice salary. Not everyone can or is willing to work for no salary in the early days. So what should you pay this person? What can you pay them realistically? Should they be paid more than you?
Questions like these can make it really hard to navigate bringing on a technical co-founder.
5. Breakups are hard
Again, co-founder relationships can be a lot like marriages, and when they don’t work out, it can be painful and difficult to untangle. Many promising startups have been derailed or failed outright because of a co-founder relationship that went south.
Even when a co-founder leaves on amicable terms, sorting it all out can cost the company money and distract from business goals and priorities.
Alternatives to a Technical Co-Founder
Many non-technical founders have started successful technology companies without a technical co-founder. Alternate approaches involve bridging that gap by hiring technical team members, relying on advisors or mentors with technical expertise, or contracting technical work out to a firm.
Non-technical founders need to keep in mind that building a successful technology company is about so much more than implementing the technology itself. Having those skills in-house in the early days often isn’t absolutely necessary.
Also, nowadays, resources for non-technical founders are extensive. You don’t have to be a developer to set up a website, create a prototype, or, in some instances, create a functional MVP. No code or low-code solutions like Bubble.io are very empowering for non-technical founders. Of course, these resources don’t completely eliminate the need for a person with technical expertise but they certainly help.
The Bottom Line
In summary, bringing on a technical co-founder is something that should be navigated carefully. It can be very advantageous but can also create complexity and tension early on in your startup journey.
The most important thing is that if you feel you want to bring on a technical co-founder, don’t rush it. Resist the misconception that it is your only path to success. Take the time to weigh the pros and cons and to understand what you need and why. The “right” answer may all depend on you, the nature of your business, and who you’re considering for the role.
At Tyrannosaurus Tech, we help businesses evolve and grow with powerful and transformative technology solutions. Our team of experts is here to serve as a dependable guide, leading you through the launch of your product and beyond.For more helpful tips and insight, be sure to check out our blog. You can always reach out to us, and we promise to partner with you to make your next project a success.