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This is the first part of a series on becoming your own technical co-founder. In 2008, we couldn’t find a technical co-founder for Yipit.  I’m writing about how I became our technical co-founder. Hopefully, I’ll encourage other entrepreneurs with a dream but no technical co-founder options to take their destiny into their own hands.

Disclaimer: If you know a great technical co-founder that wants to work with you, join them. This series is intended for everyone else who has a dream but can’t find a technical co-founder.

We Were Screwed

As the summer of 2007 came to an end, I had one of the most depressing and humbling weeks of my life. Just a few months before that, I had left an office facing Park Avenue making an absurd amount of money for a 26 year-old to start an internet-based company. I was now sitting in my apartment realizing, for the first time (and not the last), that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

We had been working on a site to help people share links with each other in private groups and had been using an outsourcer to build the first version. We wanted to do something in local but thought this site would be an easy way to quickly test our relationship with the outsourcer and get our feet wet.

After handing them an 80-page product spec months earlier, we were able to finally test the site five weeks later than scheduled– so much for quickly testing our relationship. Nothing worked. In fact, you couldn’t even share a link. As depressing as that was, it was made worse by the fact that the outsourcer told us he had tested out the site and “found no bugs.” I remember reading the email and then looking over at the other tab I had open with 16-pages of bugs we had found in 4 hours of testing. We were screwed.

Learning Python

While we continued to work with the outsourcer for a month and a half, we knew it wasn’t going to work in the long run. It wasn’t even really the outsourcer’s fault, it was our fault. We definitely weren’t managing them well. But, more importantly, we didn’t know what we were doing as entrepreneurs. I started reading Steve Blank and Eric Reis and realized we were going to have to do ton of iterating and having an outsourcer in the middle was going to make it really hard to be successful. We needed to iterate quickly and, thus, we needed someone on the team to do the iterating.

So, it was now October and, after failing to find a good technical co-founder, we knew we had to make a decision. Either we give up or one of us would become our technical co-founder. Since I had taken two intro CS courses in college, we decided I would become the technical co-founder and Jim would help out on the front-end development (HTML/CSS) side.

I was terrified. I had never built a site and hadn’t written a line of code since my freshman year of college (7 years ago). I thought we were doomed.

But, to my complete surprise, six months later, I was able to build almost any prototype we wanted. Really.

Why You Can Become Your Own Technical Co-Founder

It turned out that it was a lot easier than I had expected.  At least it became easier when I realized that the goal wasn’t for me to become Yipit’s CTO.  My goal was to build a prototype that got traction. (By traction, I mean that visitors convert into users of your site, those users come back to the site and they refer their friends) Once we got traction, we had investors and great technical co-founders knocking on our door.

Another way to think about it is that you’re just going to be a temporary technical co-founder. You just have to know enough to build and iterate on a prototype to get traction.

Here’s what I found that makes it much easier than you would expect:

  • Minimum Viable Product (MVP). To get traction, you don’t have to build a complete product. You just have to build some small, core aspect of your idea and get people to start using that. That means you can get something out much smaller, get traction and then bring in a real CTO to help you expand the product. The version of Yipit that got us traction was built in 4 days. It took us a year of customer learning to know what to build. But, from a technical perspective, the MVP that got us traction took us just 4 days.
  • Don’t have to worry about scaling and security. Scaling and security are really complicated technical challenges that you don’t have to actually worry about (this assumes you aren’t working on a project where scaling or security are a core aspect of the business). Getting traction doesn’t involve signing-up 1 million users. By the time you run into scaling issues, you’ll have an awesome CTO to help you fix it.
  • Doesn’t have to be perfect. I used to worry that my code had to be perfect. Guess what? It’s going to get thrown away and re-built by your future CTO. It doesn’t have to be perfect or pretty, it just has to work. I remember playing with an early version of Foursquare and getting MySQL errors. It didn’t matter because they now have an awesome tech team that re-built it all.
  • User interface and experience is more important. You’re not going to be working on your own complex sorting algorithms or MapReduce. Most web startups are CRUD apps. The technology is simple in the back-end, the value created is primarily in the user interface and user experience. UI / UX is a real challenge, just not a technical one.
  • Django and Ruby on Rails. There are amazing advanced web frameworks out there that make building a website much easier. A lot of the stuff that would have been a nightmare 8 years ago is trivial now.
  • Community help. Whenever you run into bugs / issues when developing, do a google search for the bug and you’ll find someone has already posted it and someone answered it. With StackOverflow, that’s gotten even better.
  • Systems Administration help. Setting up your server, dev environment and production environment can be really frustrating and tedious. But, you can hire someone who has already done it and have them set it up for you in less than 10 hours. That’s what I did a year and half ago and that person became our awesome CTO.
  • Open source apps. It turns out that pretty much everything you are trying to do on your web app has already been done by someone else. Want to integrate with bitly, someone built that library client. Want to add comments to your site, someone’s built that plug-in. Best of all, they are all free and open source. Worried you’ll pick the wrong one? Who cares. As long as it works, move on. You can always change it later.

I hope this list gives you some confidence that becoming your own temporary technical co-founder is not as hard as it may seem. Of all the reasons I gave above, the most important one is to remember that you just have to hack something together that works. Once it works, get people using it and keep hacking till you get traction. It doesn’t have to be perfect, scalable or secure. It just has to work.

Like working with big data sets?

We’re aggressively expanding YipitData and looking for:

  • Data analysts (consultants, financial analysts)
  • Data product managers (technical and can work with analysts and engineers to build a system)
  • Data engineers (can build complicated systems to collect and process very large data sets)

Email me personally and we’ll meet up! I’m at vacanti at gmail dot com

This is the second post in a a series on becoming your own technical co-founder:

  1. Guide to Finding a Technical Co-Founder
  2. Why You Can Become Your Own Technical Co-Founder
  3. Should You Find a Co-Founder, Hire a Programmer or DIY?
  4. Big Picture Overview of All the Components of a Web Service
  5. More to Come…

Steve Job’s Technical Co-Founder

Vinicius Vacanti is co-founder and CEO of Yipit. Next posts on how to acquire users for free and how to raise a Series A. Don’t miss them by subscribing via email or via twitter.

“I’ve got this HUGE idea. I just need to find a technical co-founder.” Ugh. I’ve heard that too many times over the last few years and it almost always ends badly.

I was in this situation and we barely escaped. I write this post to put you out of your miserable technical co-founder search and give you some realistic options.

The Challenge of Finding a Technical Co-Founder

To find a great technical co-founder, you need to convince them of the following:

  • Your idea is better than all of their ideas
  • The equity is worth spending all of their spare time working for no money
  • You are worth 50% of the equity of the company
  • You will execute and convert an idea into a big successful business
  • You’re better than all of the other biz people pitching them

This is a pretty daunting list. You see, good technical co-founders are like the attractive people at the dance. They’re hot, they know it, everyone wants to sleep with them, and they can also go home and sleep with themselves (the analogy got a little weird there, sorry). So, why should they pick you?

Your Options

Here are your options for finding a technical co-founder. Notice how little control you have over most of them.

Getting Traction is a Catch 22

  • College Roommate or Co-Worker. Your best bet by far is if you have personally known someone for a while and preferably worked together. They are the ones that know you well enough to believe what you are capable of. If you don’t have someone like this, and most of you don’t, you’re in big trouble.
  • Have Experience. If you have already started a successful start-up, you’re probably not reading this post because your struggling to find a technical co-founder; you have your pick.
  • Have Domain Expertise. You’re starting a new photo sharing site and you were the project manager for Facebook’s photo app; you’re starting a music label disruptor and you worked for a music label for the last five years. As a personal example, when we told people Yipit was going to be a Kayak for the Daily Deal industry, we would have been way more convincing if we had actually worked at Kayak.
  • Traction (the Catch 22 option). This is the only one you can, in theory, control. You’d have a lot easier time getting a great technical co-founder to join you if your initial prototype had 20,000 users and growing. Unfortunately, it’s a bit of a Catch 22 in that you sort of need a technical co-founder to build you the first version to get traction.
  • Social Proof (the other Catch 22 option). If you had Ron Conway/David Lee from SV Angel or Chris Dixon/Eric Paley of Founder’s Collective investing in you, potential technical co-founders would be a lot more interested. Unfortunately, this is also a catch 22 because without experience, domain expertise or traction, it’s highly unlikely they are going to invest in your start up. In many ways, good technical co-founders and angel investors are looking for the same thing.

Your Realistic Options

Most people find themselves here. You don’t know anyone, you don’t have experience, you don’t have traction and you don’t have investors. You just have an idea and a dream. Here are your options:

  • PayPal Offspring

    Go Work at a Start-Up

    • The Hope: You can get some experience and you’ll find your future technical co-founder
    • Why You Should: You don’t have any money saved up and you have no idea how to product manage, acquire users or fund-raise. If I had to go all the way back to 2007 when I left my wall street job, I would have done this option.
    • Why You Shouldn’t: You’re postponing your dream for at least two years. It’s actually pretty hard to find a good start-up job if you have no real engineering or user acquisition / product management skills. There’s no guarantee your future technical co-founder will be there.
  • Become a Key Member of the Tech Community
    • The Hope: You’ll form friendships with potential technical co-founders and work on small projects together.
    • Why You Should: You don’t have to quit your day job. You have good community building skills and quickly become other people’s friends.
    • Why You Shouldn’t: This is easier said than done (I wrote a post on how I became a member of the tech community). I’ve also seen many people become key members of their community and still not find a great tech co-founder because, ultimately, being their friend isn’t enough.
  • Blog About Your Idea
    • The Hope: Your potential technical co-founder will find your blog, really like your idea and admire the way you are thinking about the problem.
    • Why You Should: You don’t have to quit your day job. You already have an online following. It can be good for you to express your ideas on paper and build some domain expertise credibility.
    • Why You Shouldn’t: It’s a good idea to start a blog but it’s really hard to get mindshare and attention for your blog if you don’t already have a following.
  • Hire a Programmer
    • The Hope: You’ll use the programmer to build a prototype that will get you traction and experience.
    • Why You Should: You know what an MVP is and you have a great vision for what it should be. You know how to product manage and you’ve hired programmers before.
    • Why You Shouldn’t: This is really hard and littered with start-up bodies. We tried this at Yipit and failed. I recommend you start by reading this post on how to hire a programmer. This will cost you some real cash- at least $5K for your first version. I say first version because you’re likely to not get it right at first and now you need to fork over another $2.5K for a second version assuming the programmer doesn’t flake on you.
  • Roll the Dice on a Stranger
    • The Hope: You’ll learn to work together and trust each other and they’ll be a great technical co-founder
    • Why You Should: You have no other options and believe you can get anyone to work well with you. This does work occasionally. I highly recommend starting with a small project first.
    • Why You Shouldn’t: This is a desperation move. Start-ups are full of risks, you’re about add on another huge one. Also, think about the self-selection bias, if this person was such a great technical co-founder, why are they responding to your craigslist post. They would have probably been scooped up by someone else. Even if you are able to get some traction, you’ll probably be stuck with a less than desirable technical co-founder.
  • Learning Python

    Build Your Own Prototype

    • The Hope: You can hack together a prototype to get traction and experience.
    • Why You Should: You’ll be able to build any prototype you want and will be able to pivot your company. It won’t cost you real money other than your living expenses. You’ll have full control over the destiny of your project. If you are fully committed, this will work.
    • Why You Shouldn’t: This requires the most commitment  and will require you to be truly dedicated to your cause. You’ll have to quit your day job and do this full time (you’ll need savings to support yourself). If you don’t quit your day job, you’ll have to take a 9 to 5 job and spend 6 to 2 am every night and every weekend working on it.

What We Did

We tried to hire a programmer and it didn’t go well. So, we decided that I would become our company’s temporary technical co-founder. It took me about six months of working full time before I could really build any prototype we wanted. Four prototypes / pivots later, we landed on the current version of Yipit. (BTW, going to be speaking to a few groups about my experience of becoming our temporary technical co-founder. As part of that, will be writing a series on this blog about what I did exactly.)

What Did You Do?

What was your approach to the problem of not being able to find a technical co-founder?  Did you try an option I didn’t list above? How did you find your technical co-founder?

I hope you now have a much better understanding of how “I just need to find a technical co-founder” is actually really hard. But, not all is lost.  You do have some options, just remember to choose wisely.

This is the first post in a a series on becoming your own technical co-founder:

  1. Guide to Finding a Technical Co-Founder
  2. Why You Can Become Your Own Technical Co-Founder
  3. Should You Find a Co-Founder, Hire a Programmer or DIY?
  4. Big Picture Overview of All the Components of a Web Service [To Come]
  5. More to Come…