No Technical Co-Founder, No Love

Mystery achievement
You’re so unreal
Mystery achievement
Where’s my sandy beach yeah
I have my dreams like everybody else
But they’re out of reach
I said right out of reach
I try to ignore you
Your demands are unending yeah
I got no Ts on my skin,
But you know me: I love pretending.

– The Pretenders, “Mystery Achievement”


From the first issue of British punk fanzine “Sideburns” in 1977

Entrepreneurs do one thing. They find a way.

As a non-developer, sole founder of a tech startup, I am often asked how I am going to overcome not having a technical co-founder. Β My answer: I just will.

How else would you expect an entrepreneur to answer?

I know a lot of startups that have non-developers as the only founders. They do what I’ve been doing, outsource their software development, usually to offshore talent. Β And, yeah, it never goes as well as it does for startups who have a developer on the founding team. That’s putting it mildly.

I know, absolutely, that my startup’s journey has been hampered by the fact that I am outsourcing its development. It’s been painful. Expensive. Frustrating. At times, maddening. And I’m in a better position than most non-techies. I AM technical. I understand code and architecture. I can sling html, css and javascript (even if it’s awful) in an emergency. I’ve been building things on the web for 16 years.

There is an epidemic out there. There are no developers who want to work for free on somebody else’s idea. In this startup tsunami, everyone has their own idea that they want to work on. Why would the very person who can execute on an idea throw in with somebody else for an experience that is going to be wickedly challenging and gut wrenching? Most of us really need to believe in the dream to sign up for that. And that dream typically needs to be our own.

If I waited until a developer was ready to stop working on her own great idea and join with me to work on my dream for free, I’d never start.

I would never start.

But I have started. I have a product, and people are using it. It has cost tens of thousands of dollars more for me to get where I am now than it would have cost me if I was an even mildly skilled developer. It’s taken too long (and continues to take too long). But I have something. Imagine what I’ll be able to accomplish once I can attract a great developer.

The bias against non-technical solo founders is almost total when it comes to obtaining funding, incubation, acceleration. There are exceptions. I’ve been very lucky to find people who believe in me and my company despite my “handicap.”

But how many great non-technical entrepreneurs and their ideas would never get off the ground if those entrepreneurs let a little thing like not having a developer in their back pocket stop them?

Not a day goes by that I don’t think, “My next startup is going to help non-technical founders get their ideas off the ground.” But I hope by the time I start my next company, someone else will have solved that problem.

In the meantime, I can’t let a little thing like that stop me. I find a way to pay contractors. And I’m learning to code.

Got brass in pocket
Got bottle I’m gonna use it
Intention I feel inventive
Gonna make you, make you, make you notice

– The Pretenders, “Brass In Pocket”

  • Fuck yeah.

  • Uh – bear with me. I think I broke the Disqus display… fixing…

  • I’m in a similar position. I also outsourced my work and I just finished my prototype.

    • Cheers, Leonardo! I hope you’ll share what it is (when you’re ready). I love helping beta test and whatnot, however I can.

      Curious: did you offshore your project? Where?

      • India. I got lucky and found a developer who was hungry and motivated and did it at an amazing price. I’ll definitely shoot you a message once I’m up and running.

  • leapy

    I hear your pain but wonder if you are missing something.

    When you buy in the tech then you have some advantages:

    You have a clear commercial relationship with obligations defined.
    You have objectivity /sanity check introduced.
    You can move on a lot more cleanly when you need new skills (scaling, etc) or things don’t work out.
    You retain more equity.

    • Really good points there.

      I do often refer to Mark Suster’s take on the solo founder and remind myself that it comes with many advantages. In fact, it may be that I am better suited as a solo founder until the right developer comes along.

      • panterosa,

        I hear that!

  • Two thoughts Kirsten – first, you *will* find a technical co-founder, somebody who has the same passion for your idea as you do. That may make the talent pool seem even smaller, but I claim it makes it larger. The biggest drawback of solo founders is the echo chamber – you need somebody to bounce ideas off of – even technical people need that! So keep looking, and the fact that you have something tangible to show potential partners is a huge plus.

    Second – you *can* learn how to code more deeply – if it really comes to that. Like you said, you’ll find a way. If that means slowing down or stopping progress on the site for 3-6 months to learn what you need to build something out in Ruby/Python/etc, why not? Better than stopping?

  • This is great, Kirsten. I’m not even a tech founder and I feel your pain. But I also admire your willingness to just do it.

    These words resonate:

    If I waited until…I’d never start. I would never start.

    A lot of things could be inserted after “waited until.” Oooh, it burns us.

    • Ain’t it the truth, Donna.

      I’ve never been a ‘wait until’ type. Investors are definitely ‘wait until’ types, ha!

  • panterosa,

    As solo founder who outsourced and didn’t wait, I still struggle to scale. Would be great to have my tech full time.

    But until then, as @jlm said to me “you already jumped out the plane. we just need to get you down safely”.

    • Thanks for commenting πŸ™‚

      One of the things that got said more than once in the comments over at USV was that technical founders have the same problem (believe it or not).

      I keep thinking there must be a way for us to all help each other. Apparently, some people have agreed to work part time on each others projects until they can get a co-founder. I’ve only tried that in earnest with one person, and he had too many pots on the stove already to add me.

      Where are these technical founders who need help with the non-technical side of their startup? How do we find them?

  • Kevin Stecko

    I totally feel your pain. I’ve been running an ecommerce business since 2000 and not being a developer has cost me very, very dearly. I’ve gone the outsourcing model and have never been satisfied with the results. Even last year I hired a new company to develop our website and I thought I did such a great job of vetting them and making sure what I would get would be crystal clear. But here I am now looking back at all the mistakes I made in vetting. Things that are only visible in my rear view mirror.

    • Hi, Kevin. Thanks for coming by πŸ™‚

      At the end of the day, no one cares as much about your company and software as you do. Now that I’ve leveled-up my skills enough to work on my product, myself, things are moving much faster and I’m much happier with the results.