What to look for in a technical co-founder

Written by Kamil Nicieja

Kamil Nicieja’s photo

What to look for in a technical co-founder

If you want to launch a startup and your expertise lies in a non-technical area like sales or marketing, you’ll need to find a technical co-founder.

At an early-stage startup, a technical cofounder is responsible for actually developing the product that you envision. But here comes the difficult part:

How do you know if someone will be a good technical co-founder?

The following are five key traits to look for.

Hacker 🕵🏻

A hacker is someone who can make a 20% effort and reap 80% rewards. You’ll need someone who’s great at finding workarounds, picking low-hanging fruit, and achieving quick wins. These successes will matter much more than you think, because at the beginning of every startup—before the product, the market fit, and before profitability—morale is all you have. The work of a good hacker can help you keep going in conditions of extreme uncertainty.

Full-stack 💻

Finding a versatile full-stack engineer helps a lot. The best technical co-founder is someone who can quickly design a screen from Bootstrap components, create the back-end architecture, and write the HTML, CSS, and JavaScript—even if that means trading off speed for quality in the short-term.

Master of ruthless prioritization 🚩

As an early-stage startup, you’ll get a lot of unsolicited advice. People will tell you what product to build, what features to include, and what business model to use. These people mean well, but you can’t let them distract you. A co-founder must be able to work through contradictory feedback and develop a clear list of priorities for the product and the technology you use.

Opportunist 🐈

If you’re like a typical startup, you probably will pivot at some point of your journey. Pivots have the potential to be most difficult for technical members of the team, since driven technologists can spend months designing the perfect architecture for the most elegant solution they could be proud of. While I understand the sentiment behind it, this approach is foolish in an early-stage startup. You will need a co-founder who understands that technical decisions are temporary, and knows that MVPs are sometimes just placeholders for the real product. Such a co-founder will be able to jump ship and move on to the next prototype without holding a grudge.

Neither a CTO nor a VP of Engineering 👔

Titles aren’t important in an early-stage startup. Before you can build a company—and giving titles is something that companies do—you must first build a product. Don’t get ahead of yourself: just be founders for now. You won’t have to look for somebody who can manage a huge team of software engineers if you’re not able to secure funding first. You just need someone who can build a prototype quickly.

A few final thoughts ☝️

This checklist is probably most relevant for Lean Startup-style companies, which rely heavily on the customer discovery phase that can take months and yield unexpected results.

I only addressed criteria related to technical expertise.

Please keep in mind that there are a multitude of other factors to consider, such as personality fit.

Some may be even more important than those I listed here—but you gotta start somewhere, right?