Identify, test, assess. Repeat as required.
My startup path started with frustration. As a former TV producer, I wanted a better way to find experts who could be interviewed for segments. I obsessively researched for a solution. When I realized the tool didn’t exist I was determined to build one.
Next, I studied the mechanics of a startup. It became clear that if I wanted to reach for the stars I needed a technical co-founder. Technology is at the heart of the solution I envisioned, not an add on. I grew up around small business and partnerships can be a pain, but when they work, 1 + 1 > 2. (Plus it’s more fun to have someone to talk to and it’s healthy having your assumptions challenged.)
Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham may have put the case for a technical co-founder the best when he said in 2010, “Empirically it seems to be hard to start a startup with just one founder. Most of the big successes have two or three. And the relationship between the founders has to be strong. They must genuinely like one another, and work well together. Startups do to the relationship between the founders what a dog does to a sock: if it can be pulled apart, it will be.” (From “What We Look for in Founders”)
The following is a step-by-step guide as to how I met Ebrahim, worked with him and how we eventually co-founded Media Spot Me together. Others have used our “story” to help build partnerships.
1. Meet a coder: you don’t need to find the “perfect” coder, but start a conversation with a programmer. If they are potentially interested move to step 2.
When Ebrahim and I met at a startup event we spent the first hour chatting about history, politics and some other things unrelated to business or programming. The fact that we were able to talk was the first sign that we should chat more. My idea or his programming skills at this point was secondary.
(Note: If you don’t know how to meet people you have a fundamental problem. Google “find a co-founder”.)
2. Put money on the table: at this point you’re in test mode.
Ebrahim and I met for a chat, followed by me proposing a narrow project, or the essence of a working prototype. Right away I proposed paying him, I didn’t mention an amount. We talked about what it would look like and came to a tentative agreement that included the cost. As I was paying I would own all the rights, so it was like contract work. We signed a short contract I put together from the web, no lawyer involved. He was living in Waterloo, I was in Toronto.
If the coder is serious, this initial project will not cost you a lot of money.
Why should you pay? By spending your own cash you’re making it clear that you’re serious, which builds confidence. Creating confidence between the two of you is a major step in building the strong relationship Paul Graham believes is so crucial.
As well, don’t sweat the small stuff at this stage. Testing the relationship and assessing skills is best done while working together. If you can’t afford to pay anything then it might be time to save as you will need something to start a company, and getting investment without a technical co-founder is unlikely. If you are too cheap to pay then business may not be for you. Frugal is not the same as cheap.
Ebrahim and I had a hard coded prototype. It gave us insight into the business and each other. I watched as my idea started to become our startup. At this point I started showing journalists the prototype.
So far it had been a smart use of time and money, but now we had to decide if moving forward was worth the investment. There was no specific discussion, which in hindsight would have saved time.
From this point on I never gave Ebrahim another penny. We didn’t sign another agreement, but we nonetheless moved forward. We rolled with things, something I realize now is a must for a startup in constant flux.
Getting this far doesn’t mean you need to have formed a partnership just yet. Consider adding another limited project to further test the relationship if it will help you move forward. It does or does not have to involve money. An entrepreneur finds a way to make it work when they smell potential.
Ebrahim was not (yet) a coding wizard, and I overstated his ability in my head as I wanted it to work. (This is playing with fire, as planning around the skills of your team is essential). Early on we got into using some technology that ended up talking more time to learn than expected, and looking back it wasn’t necessary. We were both learning and fell a bit in love with the process, thus losing focus on what matters: an outcome in a reasonable amount of time.
While Ebrahim and I are different, we get along well on a personal level, and it turns out that we complement each other. Through each other we saw new possibilities. I joined the Waterloo tech scene and we continue to work out of the VeloCity Garage.
Ideally you test the partnership early. If you don’t do “what a dog does to a sock” as Paul Graham warns, then you may have something. If not, go back to step 1.
5. I’m in a relationship
When Ebrahim and I decided to work together we had developed enough trust and confidence that we could continue to work informally as we came up with plans (and change them along the way).
If you get to this stage then you should be able to have a respectful discussion around something all couples can’t avoid talking about at some point – money. This is a good sign.
In the end
A great technical co-founder is a key ingredient, and it greatly increases your odds of success. But it is still only one piece of a complex startup puzzle.