I’ve worked in startups my whole career, first as a software engineer and now as a Chief Technology Officer (CTO). In that time, the most common question I get from non-technical founders has been, “How can I find a CTO or technical founder?”
It’s nice to be wanted, but let’s be honest; 95%+ of these offers are worthless.
So much so that it’s sort of a joke among engineers in the startup world. I’ve met plenty who avoid going to networking events because they know they’ll be surrounded by “idea people” who need them to help build the next Twitter for squirrels.
While it’s difficult, it’s clearly not impossible for non-technical founders to find a CTO. The last two jobs I’ve taken have been with early stage startups, and I know dozens of others like me in Chicago alone. After having this conversation with many of them, I’ll offer you a few tips for finding your startup’s first technical hire or CTO:
1. Hone Your Vision
With rare exceptions, technical co-founders are likely not the visionaries. We tend to be more execution-focused, but we are still attracted to founders who have a strong vision for why their product needs to exist. People who join early stage startups tend to be idealists. We know the world doesn’t work the way it should, and we want to be out there making it right.
Founders who have a clear vision that is aligned with something their CTO cares about will get a huge leg up.
2. Hone Your Business Plan
On the other hand, few engineers are going to be sold on vision alone. The biggest mistake I’ve seen startups make is overbuilding before they validated their market. So when founders approach me, one of the first things I ask is, “How are you going to make money?” followed closely behind, “What have you done to prove that this works?”
Consultant Corey Haines presents it this way:
1) What’s your business model?
2) What does “traction” mean with respect to that business model?
3) What is your current traction in that context, and how has it grown over the past couple months?
4) What is your plan for accelerating that traction (give the context of the business model)?
Your technical founder will know the value he or she brings, so you’ve got to prove yours. As the non-technical founder, the burden is on you to prove that the business model works.
3. The Product is Not Your Biggest Barrier
If you had true market validation, investors would pour money into your startup and you could hire the best tech talent in the world. Unfortunately, a lot of non-technical founders think they must have a working app in order to validate their idea.
“If you can’t sell [your idea] without an MVP, what makes you think you can sell it with one? Honestly, the difference is smaller than you’d think.” - Josh Symonds
Get creative: build the MVP yourself, sell a prototype, build a huge email list of interested buyers, or hire a contractor to build your first version.
I joined The Graide Network because the two non-technical founders had built a business generating real revenue off email and spreadsheets. Hustle in the face of not having a product is extremely attractive.
4. Technical Talent is in High Demand
Most software engineers with more than 5 years of experience have little trouble finding a job. The trick here is to narrow your market so that your startup can stand out.
Limit your search to engineers who:
- Know and trust you personally,
- Have founded or been part of a startup before,
- Done open source projects in your problem space, or
- Work in the industry you’re interested in.
Most co-founders knew each other long before they started a company together, so it’s unlikely that you’ll find a random person on the internet who shares your vision. Limit your efforts on people who meet specific interest areas and you’re more likely to at least start a conversation.
5. Play the Long Game
Once you start having meetings, don’t lead with, “So, do you want to build my startup?”
“Do ‘this thing’ for equity because you love it” usually means “because I love it” - Griffin Caprio
Start small, ask their advice, get to know them. Ask for introductions, mention that you’re keeping an eye out for a technical co-founder, but remember, your business shouldn’t depend on it. Tell them about the success you’re having, the challenges your facing, and see what gets them excited.
End every meeting asking if there are other engineers you could talk to who might know about your startup’s problem space.
6. Put Skin in the Game
By taking a job with a startup, an engineer is forgoing all or some of a guaranteed salary in exchange for a piece of an imaginary company. Level the playing field by putting your money into the business. $50,000 might not pay a full-time engineer’s salary in many places in the United States, but it might be enough to attract a CTO to moonlight for you. If you can’t get that kind of money together, make pre-sales, borrow money, or raise money. You’re unlikely to find a technical co-founder who will work for free from day 1.
7. Success is the Best Way to Attract a CTO
Finally, keep moving forward. Never use your lack of technical skill as a reason not to move your startup forward. The longer you stick with it, the more you’ll learn, and the more likely you are to find a level of success that becomes attractive to a technical co-founder.