I’ve talked to a lot of people who really need a technical co-founder. Unfortunately, people who have a grand idea, but can’t do the programming or engineering, are a dime a dozen.
Are You a Clown? Do You Have a Good Idea and Understand the Risks?
So let's say we've met, talked for an hour, what goes through my head? I’m trying to figure out if you’re a clown, whose idea is so grand that it’s biggest value is entertainment and laughs. Most people who I talk to, unfortunately, are clowns! Don’t feel bad if you realize that you’re just clowning around instead of building a sustainable technology business. Every successful entrepreneur has been a clown at one point or another. I certainly have. I’m sure you don’t have to think very hard to find examples of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon musk, or Jack Dorsey being a clown.
Why would I think you’re a clown? Maybe you are trying to build a business that would try to compete with a company like Apple on a shoestring budget. Maybe you are doing something silly, like putting the engineering before finding a good solution to your problem, like a guy who I met who wanted to build a modular car that would seat either one person or have a clip-on module to seat six people. Maybe, your management philosophy seems a too hard to work with. Maybe you’ve cornered me at a networking event and tried to chew my ear off with ridiculous ideas because your Adderall prescription is too strong. Maybe you want to build a submarine with a carbon-fiber hull, and just won’t listen to reason.
I hope you realize that the odds are against you. All high-tech startups are, at some point, an odds game. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to know the odds going in, but if you don’t seem to have a good understanding of the odds: you’re a clown. An important part of running a high tech startup is managing your risk to keep the odds in your favor.
Will You Expect Me To Work For Sweat Equity Only?
So now let’s assume that I’ve decided you’re not a clown: Your idea is solid, you’re a reasonable person, (IE, you’re not building a submarine with a carbon-fiber hull,) and you understand how to manage your risk. The next thing that I’m going to look for is, is your idea interesting to me? If it’s not, don’t feel bad. There’s a lot of high-tech startups that just have no appeal to me whatsoever, but probably could be very successful.
So now let’s assume that you’re not a clown, and you're working on something that is interesting to me. I bet you’re going to want me to quit my job right? I'm probably going to tell you my current salary and say that I can’t quit my job unless you can pay me. I hope you realize this is a bluff, sort of. Before I explain why, I will eventually be willing to quit my job and go a period without income. I’m not ready to put “sweat equity” on the table… yet.
Why am I so fixated on money? There’s many reasons. Remember how I mentioned that in high tech startups, it’s an odds game and the odds are against you? It's extremely hard for me to play the odds. Chances are I have a well-paying job that I like, (unless I am between jobs.) It probably took me a lot of time to find my job and get to a good amount of respect and clout in my organization. I’m not going to squander such a position unless I am fairly certain that I the startup will “work out” for at least two years. One way to do that is to have income at day one. I’m at a stage in my career where being on the job market is unpleasant. (Why? I’ve been around the block a few times and I have very tolerances for poorly managed engineering groups.)
But I know the startup game, I know that it is very difficult, or impossible, to raise enough money to pay me the salary I want very early in the lifetime of a company. I know that what I ask is almost impossible, which is why I say it's a bluff, sort of.
I have quit my job before to try and run a company, so I know what it’s like to chase my dream on no income. I have no intention of chasing your dream. That's why I bluff about the money. It's a control thing. Specifically, it’s about your control about what we are building.
Will You Be Willing to Give Me Creative Control in Return for my Sweat Equity?
If you want me to quit my job, to be a technical co-founder, you need to be extremely flexible about what we’re building! One thing that I’ve encountered over and over is that someone is so rigid in what they are trying to build, that it will only work out if it’s an employer employee relationship. In that situation, I will happily take whatever title you want to give me and do my best to build whatever you want! After all I’m getting paid! As long as the money lasts for a few years, I’m willing to take a chance on you.
But chances are that you have very little money and very little resources.
The only way we are going to be able to build a company is if you trust me to take your ideas and research and figure out how to do it on a shoe-string budget with no resources. This is going to require an extremely high amount of flexibility on your part: You will need to trust me completely and let go of control over the product. There are many areas of the business that I will have minimal control over too, but I trust that you will do your part.
Why? Engineering is always about compromises.
I will probably compromise the product based on my comfort level about working with certain technologies. You might think, “oh well, I’m going to keep looking until I can find someone who is going to build every detail exactly to my specification, purely for equity.” You might get lucky, but I think you will miss your market window before you find such a person. I encourage you to compromise your dreams with pragmatism and let me riff on your ideas: An MVP is always a compromise.
Can We Trust Each Other Enough to Collaborate Versus Fight for Control?
We need to be able to develop a great rapport where I trust that you to do your part in building a great company. It’s more than you being an awesome salesman or an awesome procurement person, or awesome marketing. The only way we can build this rapport is by spending time together; where I can figure out how to build something that balances:
- Your vision
- The very short time we have to build an MVP
- What is buildable in that time.
It's only when we can build the rapport that we can discuss me working for sweat equity. Without such a rapport, I’m going to hold firm that I need income.
To summarize: if you want me to be your technical co-founder, and you’re not a clown, and you want me to quit my job, and you can’t pay me the salary I want, we’re going to have to make a compromise. You’re going to have to give up the control over the product and give me a lot of your attention. In return, I can guarantee you that I will get as close to your vision as I reasonably can.