Your Tech Startup Might Be Missing Something
By John Espey
April 03, 2018
First, a Bit of Advice
I am a firm believer that the number one requirement for successfully launching and scaling a company of any type is to build a great team and continue to invest in that team. One thing that amazes me is how many would-be tech entrepreneurs approach me with an idea, maybe even with a company, but with no founder with a technical background. My advice is simple: if you are building a tech company and do not have a founding member of your team that is technical, you are likely to struggle.
What About Contract Help?
The company I co-founded, Levvel, is an IT consulting company that helps companies large and small build game-changing technology solutions. Because of this, many entrepreneurs approach us with an idea and want us to act as their CTO. They are surprised when we tell them this a bad idea—not hiring us specifically, or outsourcing some of their app dev, design, or architecture to any consultant—but not having a technical co-founder means that they are forever going to rely on others who are not as bought-in as a founder.
Not having a technical co-founder means that entrepreneurs are forever going to rely on others who are not as bought-in as a founder.
We love our clients and will do anything in our power to make them successful, but we are not waking up every morning thinking about the client the way we think about our own company, or the way a co-founder will.
We do have clients with exceptional abilities and determination who have powered through in spite of not having a technical co-founder, but I think even they would admit that it would have been a much smoother path if they had the option of a technical co-founder.
If you are a tech company, you should have a technical co-founder. In the early stages they are probably building, installing, designing, and architecting every single piece of software you create—from your product to your CRM to email marketing. As you grow and scale, you will build a team and bring in third-party partners, and it will be much more effective if you have someone who can vet these people and companies and have skin in the game. If you pick the right technical co-founder, they will be able to do both of these roles.
What to Look For
If you do not have someone in mind already that shares the passion for your idea, is willing to put in the work required to make that idea a technical reality, and has the technical skills to build the product, it is not going to be easy to find someone—but it can be done.
First off, you need someone with at least two of the following skills: application development, cloud administration (AWS, Azure, Google), product management, project management, and UI/UX Design.
This person should also have fierce intellectual curiosity and an ability to multitask. I would recommend someone who is not a perfectionist because they are going to have to make a lot of tradeoffs to balance competing interests on often limited budgets.
Hire outside perfectionists and specialists where you need them. Your CTO needs to be able to lead a team at some point, so there needs to be some measure of likeability and leadership, and in my experience, many developers, designers, and product managers score very high on both of these.
Probably the most important trait for a technical co-founder is a passion for solving business problems. This is sometimes the hardest to find in people with the skills I’ve described above because they often love the technology so much that they lose sight of the business problem being solved in the first place.
At Levvel, we enshrined our belief in the importance of putting business problems before technology by making it one of our core values. You can and should do something similar to make sure that not only your technical co-founder but everyone you bring onto your team to build technology lives and breathes the business problem.
How to Treat Them Once You Find Them
Once you find the right person, you need to understand something if you hope to get them on board: you need to treat them as a partner. I would recommend giving them an equal share of ownership or very close to what you or any other founders are getting. If you are not willing to do this, you probably don’t have the right person.
More than the equity though, you need to delegate many decisions to this person. Again, if you do not trust them to drive the technology decision-making process, you probably have the wrong person.
I am not saying to give complete carte blanche—the right person will respect debate and vetting. The kind of person you want to start your company with and build the actual product you’re going to change the game with will only be bought in if they are treated as an equal. This also means they need to be included in and have a voice in nearly every strategic discussion. The right person for this role is in exceedingly high demand, and you need to treat them as such if you want to have any chance of convincing them to put in the sacrifice required to create something out of nothing.
The kind of person you want to start your company with and build the actual product you’re going to change the game with will only be bought in if they are treated as an equal.
I have also been asked about the wisdom of taking a coding bootcamp prior to starting a tech company. I think it’s a great idea, but it’s no substitute for having a deeply technical co-founder on your team. I myself am technical, having built production systems in seven or eight languages and being very familiar with cloud and legacy enterprise architectures, and I still sought out a more technical partner for both of the last two businesses I started (Reward Summit and Levvel).
And in the company I helped launch as COO before that (Nexgrid), the CTO, CEO, and I all came from technical backgrounds (application development, hardware design, and RF networking, respectively). The bootcamp will help you communicate better with the technical leader of your team but is not a substitute for bringing that talent into the inner circle.
John has helped lead multiple successful startups and large-scale consulting engagements throughout his 20 years in software development. As the COO of Amentra, he was instrumental in growing the company from a regional player prior to its acquisition by Red Hat in 2008. He also served as the COO of Nexgrid, an innovative smart grid provider. John’s deep technical skills and collaborative leadership style have been essential to Levvel’s evolution into a world-class consultancy.