How do you start a tech startup as a non-technical person? Originally appeared on Quora: the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.
When I originally started Bench (then called 10sheet) I was in a similar position. I felt like I had a great idea and money to invest in it, but no technical partner to help me execute. But within 18 months and we had a team of 5 fantastically talented developers, traction, and institutional backing. It’s very possible to be successful without a technical co-founder, but it takes a little strategy and a lot of determination. Here are my thoughts on the subject.
1. Find A Real Expert to Interview Your Applicants
Don’t harbor any illusion that you can discern the technical ability of your applicants. You can’t. You need a true hacker to interview the candidates for you. Your only role in the interview process is to assess cultural fit and soft skills, and then feed the remaining candidates to your interviewer
Find an interviewer who works at Google, Amazon, Facebook or a similar organization if you can. Someone who’s technical ability has been validated by an objective third party that you can trust. Don’t know anyone that meets that description? That’s where determination comes in. If you want to start a tech company, you need to know talented people. So make it happen. You will face challenges far more difficult in your startup’s life. If you can’t solve this, you should rethink whether being a startup founder is the right role for you. I don’t intend this last comment to be flippant, I intend it to provoke introspection.
Don’t settle for an interviewer that’s ‘good enough’. You are putting the future of your startup in this person’s hands. This person will make the most important decision in your startup’s early life. Don’t compromise on quality.
2. Generate A Talented Applicant Pool
Before you select a candidate, you need a pool of talented people to choose from. Use every weapon at your disposal to generate leads: oDesk.com, elance.com, craigslist.org, authenticjobs.com, local tech meet ups on meetup.com, house parties that your engineering friends throw, parties thrown by Computer Science and other hacker-y groups at your College.
This process typically takes a while. We spent months at it, generated over 300 applicants, and did 20 interviews before finding the right candidate.
3. Interview The Right Way
We’ve tried 10+ interview strategies and there’s only one that’s worked for us consistently over time: pair programming. Have your interviewer sit down (locally or remotely) and watch the candidates write code. You’ll test them for their real coding ability, not their ability to answer questions or present well. Plenty of people can blow hot air, few can back up the talk with real skill.
4. Fire Fast And Start Over
If a candidate passes your interview process but then fluffs the job, don’t be afraid to let them go and start the hiring process over. Until you have significant monthly expenses, there’s no real pressure to hit milestones. Even if it slows down your development in the short-run, you’ll be glad you did it. We fired our first two hires before we found our talented technical lead.
5. Give Them Equity Once They’ve Proven Themselves
To really keep your tech lead motivated, committed, and invested in your success, you need to give them substantial equity in the company. This doesn’t need to happen right away. But once that person is 100% battle tested and you know exactly what you’re getting, it’s time to make a permanent arrangement. You should set up Stock Vesting over a number of years, (which is an entire topic unto itself). The ownership amount should be up for discussion, but something in the 3-10% range should be sufficient if he’s taking a salary and you funded the company out of your own pocket at the beginnin
- Hiring a remote CTO can be a great solution. Eastern European countries (Russia, Ukraine, Romania, etc.) have fantastic untapped talent pools. Our CTO is from Russia and we relocated him here once we raised our seed round; it worked out quite well for us. We’ve hired 3/5 of our developers from Eastern Europe. oDesk.com is a fantastic platform for recruiting there. Hiring remotely from India, however, doesn’t seem to have worked for anyone that I know that’s tried it (including us). I imagine this is because the most talented candidates have already been hired.
- Don’t hire someone who can only work part-time. You want someone who eats, lives, and breathes your project. Anything short of that and they just won’t perform the way you need them to. If they’re only willing to work part-time for you, they’re clearly not passionate about your project. [Note: working part-time for a couple of months to wind down their other work is one thing. Planning to work part-time on an ongoing basis is another.]
- Resist the temptation to go with a development shop. They’re super expensive and not particularly motivated to make you successful.
- Don’t read dev blogs and think you know anything about what languages or solutions your dev team should use on your project. It’s fine to present ideas to your team, but don’t argue with your dev lead that he should use Ruby on Rails because “all the other cool startups are doing it.” Let your dev lead make the right decisions for your project with his superior knowledge and experience.