You will not find a technical co-founder

Rik Visser Lean Startup

Or why not to waste time looking for a snow leopard

I wrote this post together with Sven ten Hove and originally posted it on Medium.

I recommend you read it there, because the formatting/layout and comment function are a lot better.

This is Part 1 of our series on software development for non-technical founders. Part 2 is: Lean start ups: who should you ask to turn your idea into reality?

Recently I read The Science of Happily Ever After by Ty Tashiro[1]. One of the key take-aways is that everyone gets three wishes in a partner, because any more make it a mathematical impossibility to fulfill them all. (This is not the place for a book review, but I suggest you have a look.) Using some of his logic I thought about finding a technical co-founder[2].

What do you wish for?

Let’s look at the traits that business founders usually wish for in a (technical) co-founder:

  1. She must be “Co-founder material”
  2. She should be a great developer
  3. Personality and other traits must match

1. “Co-founder material”

Your co-founder needs to be good at things other than coding. She will need to come to meetings with customers & investors. She’ll have a team to hire and manage. She’ll write blogs, site texts & give you feedback on your writings.

Most importantly you and her together will determine the strategy of your company. Entrepreneurship, we feel, is about quickly recognizing opportunities, unique advantages and avoidable obstacles. Our main criteria is to what extent a co-founder can brainstorm and be a genuine sparring partner.

Let’s forget about geniuses (top 1%) and just wish for top 25% co-founders. You’ve just crossed of 75% of the population as potential matches


2. Good developer skills

Hell, you want a TECHNICAL co-founder. She better be good at programming and managing software development.

Figures for this one are a little hard to generate, but the Dutch government has a pretty awesome tool to look and filter census data on The latest data is from 2011. A little old, but it will have to do.

CBS has data on the education level of the 11 million people between 15 and 65 years old living in the Netherlands. The person we are looking for probably falls in the “ Mathematics, physics & information sciences” category [3]. That’s just 257,000 people. As an approximation we will say 257k/11M= 2.3% of the working population are developers. Assuming the Dutch education system is alright, we generously assume they all possess great programming skills.

Now this is dire! Only 2.3% of the population is a developer. And we already need to throw out 75% of them, because they’re not co-founder material. We are left with 0.575% of the working population after just two wishes. And we still have one more wish!

3. Personality and other traits

If you’re going to be working together 80 hours a week for the next 4 years, you better get along or at least be able to communicate professionally.

There are many things to consider in this category:

  • Introvert vs extrovert
  • Outspoken religious or political views
  • How you both handle conflict
  • Personal grooming, body odor, etc
  • And all the things that definitely DO NOT matter, but, sadly, are often taken into consideration (attractiveness, gender, race, hair color, accent, etc)

All our readers are social beings, so we’ll say on a personal level half of all the people you know are a match. Meaning we again lose 50% of contenders.

Using just three of our wishes for the traits our technical co-founder should have, we are left with just under 0.3% of the population.

But the world is huge!

Now you’re saying: “The world is huge! I have a thousand LinkedIn contacts with a thousand contacts each. Two levels deep I know more than million people! 0.3% of a million is 3000 potential candidates right there just on LinkedIn!” Fine. That might be true. Time to polish that PowerPoint, put up a cool WordPress site and start contacting them all!

Problem is, you don’t even know who fits your criteria. Even if you use the tools in LinkedIn to find only developers, you still need to get to know someone before you know if they are co-founder material and also a personal match. That takes days per person. Months in total.

Perhaps it can be done. Maybe you will find someone you like. But we think it is a lot of effort that is generally better spent otherwise.

And then you hit the other side of this problem.

Do they want to work with me?

Why would a smart, likable good developer with co-founder skills be unemployed and waiting for your LinkedIn message? The best potential technical co-founders already have jobs or their own startups. What are you bringing to the table at this stage that is so unique and will make her want to drop everything and join you?

Much has been written about this as well. A lot of it by technical people who hate to hear “I just need a technical co-founder!” Below this post I will include some links to the discussion on this topic. If you’re a non-technical founder, you won’t like it.

The odds of a technical co-founder wanting to work with a business oriented co-founder without a proven track-record, financing and/or customers are very slim. Let’s say one in a hundred. (Too high!)

Our point? You will need to have a list of 100 people you would want as a co-founder to find a single person who herself wants to join your startup. This just doesn’t work.

You (probably) will not find a technical co-founder

The odds are massively against you. Even if you’re not looking for a unicorn[4], it is certainly a lot like finding a snow leopard[5].

Now the question is: how much resources (time & money) are you going to spend on this? Theoretically, yes, it would be awesome to have a technical co-founder. And, yes, many successful startups do. But in the USA there are also five people per week who win over a million dollars in a lottery[6].

The frequency of these things happening (and you reading about them), has very little to do with the odds of it happening to you!

More on this soon

This article is not meant to break your spirit. We’re only trying to introduce some reality to the discussion. Why not consider the alternatives of finding a freelancer, hiring employees or outsourcing to a development house?

Next week we’ll be posting an article about what method is best depending on the size of your project.

Thanks for reading, follow us on Twitter!

@SUoutsourcing articles:

Smart Scaling: How to find the right technical cofounder

Further Thoughts on Finding A Co-Founder/Partner

3Biggest Mistakes When Choosing a Cofounder

Is Finding a Startup Cofounder Difficult? Yes, but it Doesn’t Have to Be

What I Did When I Couldn’t Find a Technical Co-Founder

Want to Know Difference Between a CTO and a VP of Engineering?

How do I find good technical co-founders?

Startups and “How Important Are Ideas?”: Programmers, what do you think when you hear “I just need a tech co-founder”?

[1] The guy has a PhD on love!
[2] Though not nearly as well as he did, surely. Then again, I don’t have a PhD on technical co-founder finding, nor do I have an entire book to expand on this.
[3] Of course not every great developer studied computer sciences or something similar. So, yes, we are ignoring a bunch of self-taught geniuses. However, this category is also too big, since a lot of physics majors and mathematicians are not developers. Let’s call it a tie for the sake of this discussion.
[4] They don’t exist.
[5] They do exist. But have you ever seen one in the wild?
How many lottery winners are there in a year?