Every few days, I get an email or a Facebook message asking me if I know anyone who’s looking to be their technical co-founder. This post is an aggregation of responses and tips I give to college startups looking for a technical co-founder.
The most important thing you can do is to have many hacker friends.
Every hacker I know would never consider being a technical co-founder of someone they didn’t know. The “exception” is if you’ve already got a funded, successful startup, but those founders will never be looking for a technical co-founder, so it’s hardly an exception.
The logical conclusion is that you need to meet a lot of technical people. But there’s a clear difference between meeting someone and befriending someone. In college, meeting hackers isn’t hard – go to your college web development/mobile development club. The thing is, humans aren’t stupid – developers will know if you’re just there to shake hands and “network”, and it means you’re not going to fit in with the community.
Instead, I recommend you learn to code. Go to the web development club not with the intention of finding a technical co-founder, but rather with the intention of becoming a technical co-founder. You’ll find one of two things will happen: either you’ll get friendly enough with someone who likes your idea that they’ll want to work with you, or you’ll end up figuring out how to build your MVP yourself (and finding a co-founder after you have an MVP with traction is far easier, especially if you’re now technical).
I think college is both a blessing and a curse to aspiring startup founders. On the one hand, you have an extremely concentrated mass of co-founders all around you.However, college creates an incredible safety net. In the “real world” if you fail, it’s far more difficult to pick yourself and restart than it is in college.
I think Paul Graham said it best – “If you start a startup in the summer between your junior and senior year, it reads to everyone as a summer job. So if it goes nowhere, big deal; you return to school in the fall with all the other seniors; no one regards you as a failure, because your occupation is student, and you didn’t fail at that. Whereas if you start a startup just one year later, after you graduate, as long as you’re not accepted to grad school in the fall the startup reads to everyone as your occupation. You’re now a startup founder, so you have to do well at that.”
When looking for a technical co-founder, the strength of your network will matter far more than the size of your network. What I mean by that is you’re in a much better position if you’re good friends with 5 hackers than if you know 20 on a superficial, surface level basis. Thirty years ago, networking events were huge. Why? The internet wasn’t anywhere nearly as widely used as it is today. Now we have Facebook groups and mailing lists, and personal connections are all the rarer. Anyone can claim to be anything, and unlike before, credibility doesn’t come from business cards and hasty handshakes. Even if I introduce you to a technical friend, you’ll need something far deeper and more engaging than a superficial email introduction.
Startups are about sales. You’re selling your product to users. You’re selling your startup (and yourself) to venture capitalists. You’re selling your idea to your potential technical co-founder.
The alternative to involving yourself in the hacker community is to be an excellent salesman . Early stage startups should be doing two things: building product and finding users. If you aren’t the technical co-founder, then your usefulness lies in your ability to find users. Finding users is really just another way of saying convincing users to sign up for your product, which boils down to selling your product to users.
I’m not sure how easy this skill is to develop, and I’d argue it’s almost certainly harder to develop than technical ability. The key qualities of top salesman are the ability to empathize, and an ego drive . Empathy seems to be developed around the ages of 2-4, and although it’s almost certainly possible to develop empathy in your college years, there are many more resources on learning to program than on learning to develop empathy.
Interestingly, all the hackers I know build for the sense of accomplishment of building something. As a developer, it’s largely about yourself – you create to satisfy yourself. This is very different from the empathetic and ego driven salesmen, and I wonder if your early development decides which category you fit into.
I think the best solution to finding a technical co-founder is almost always to learn to code. The exception is if you’re an exceptional salesman – in which case it’s a better investment of your time to keep selling.
 If you fall into this category, then make sure you find a technical friend to look over your potential co-founder. If they can’t write good code, hiring new developers is going to be a pain in the ass – no-one likes dealing with crappy code.
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