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How to Find a Technical Cofounder

During my 4 years as an undergraduate computer science student at USC, I received hundreds of recruiting emails from business students looking for a technical co-founder or somebody to build their idea. Many of them were undeniably bad. Although I applaud all of these entrepreneurs for making an effort (however small), it bothers me that so many ideas die on the vine due to awful recruiting emails.

In order to help future entrepreneurs seeking technical help, here is a rough primer on how to find a technical cofounder for your next big startup.

Let’s start by examining the average recruitment email:

LOOKING FOR A STUDENT TO WORK ON APP DESIGN PROJECT

Must be able to create a fully functional social app from scratch

Position responsibilities: will initially include building the front end and back end of our beta site. Must have a hacker attitude. If you are a Rockstar with machine learning, natural language, and data aggregation experience, you are amazing. Alright, we will talk to you if you could do only one of the three.

Compensation: Will be negotiable but ideally we are looking to bring someone into our team with programming expertise who really believes in our idea/business model. Candidates must sign an NDA before discussing the idea.

Duration: The initial duration will basically be as long as it takes to build the beta site with further opportunities available down the line.

Skills required: We believe they will need skills in PHP, MySQL, Ruby on Rails, Backbone.js, Angular, Databases, and Cloud Computing

Although initially the email looks organized and thorough, a more careful reading shows some glaring issues that immediately qualifies it as garbage.

The mistakes:

  • Mystery Product – There are exactly zero details on what the idea or project is about, resulting in exactly zero interest being sparked.
  • The NDA – Do not ask people to sign an NDA. Ideas are a dime a dozen, it disrespects whoever you are sending the email to, and starts the conversation in a distrustful tone.
  • “Hacker attitude / Rockstar / Amazing” – These buzzwords illustrate an ‘us’ vs ‘them’ attitude towards people with technical skills. Nobody in CS calls themselves a rockstar hacker.
  • Compensation – The explicitly stated negotiation makes the relationship transactional, signifying the business student’s belief that technical skill is a mere commodity to be traded for money and equity, neither of which are incredibly satisfying on their own.
  • Skills Required – Name-dropping frameworks and languages without any context demonstrates a total unfamiliarity with anything technical. Who would want to write software with someone who knows zilch about software?

Contrast this with an email that successfully recruited me to join a startup that would later be known as Tint

The Job

We are seeking an experienced back-end web developer to join our web startup. Our main shortage in talent is back-end development, and if you are passionate about making web applications and are looking for real-world experience, we are looking for you.

About Hypemarks

Hypemarks is an incubator-backed startup temporarily based in New York, started by five USC students. We see a huge problem of the amount of sites appearing everyday. With so many sites, how do you know which ones are relevant to you or worth your time checking out? Simply put: your friends.

We are a social bookmarking platform that collects all the sites you like and organizes them so you can share with your friends easily. Our vision is to allow people to define themselves based on their online experience when they share it with their friends. See an attached mockup to get a clearer idea of our vision: http://bit.ly/jYAJlg.

Ideal Profile

You are an experienced back-end developer not only excited to be part of a small startup co-founding team, but also motivated by personal ambition. You are flexible and learn quickly. As a co-founder, you will have tremendous ownership and responsibility on development. Communication will be key since we will be working remotely for the summer. We are a team of diverse USC students and alumni who are laid-back, yet focused on working to build something big and hope you will believe in our vision as well.

Desirable Skills

Passion for building web apps
Desire to learn a web application framework (or have knowledge in web application frameworks)
CS Fundamentals
Interest in start-up culture
Strong database skills, preferably with MySQL
Experience in building web applications

What got me to respond to this email?

  • Clear Product – Giving a clear picture of what the product vision is conveys both honesty and confidence in the idea. It also demonstrates that the business guy is capable of contributing to the project. The more links to prototypes / product decks, the better!
  • No Buzz Words – Clear, down to earth language that is conversational, but professional. Increases the trust factor.
  • Impact & Ownership – A clear overview of what is being offered, and an understanding that most technical people are interested in making an impact and taking an ownership. Being able to identify what motivates the person on the other end of the email is key to success.
  • Technical Understanding – The “Desired Skills” section shows a good understanding of the general knowledge necessary without resorting to name-dropping frameworks or languages. Clearly the writer did the necessary homework to learn a bit about web application programming, an excellent sign.

Being able to clearly convey value proposition doesn’t just help sell your product, it helps build your team. At the early stages, it’s easy to think of finding a team as an afterthought to your brilliant startup idea. However, what I’ve learned in building Tint is that team is everything. Put as much effort into finding quality people as you would in finding a potential mate. If all goes well, your email might be the first step to building a lifelong work relationship.

Additional Reading

My friend and CEO of Tint, Tim, has a good blog post from the other side of the table about how to convince developers to join your startup. Check it out.

Also, Drew Houston, Founder of Dropbox, has a few words to say on the topic of how to find a technical co-founder.

And a brief survey by Andrew Chen explaining what developers are looking for when choosing to work as a technical cofounder. Hint: It’s traction.

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