How to Find a Technical Cofounder

I have a technical background and get about an offer a month to join some engineering team or be a technical cofounder. Active software engineers probably get two or more offers a month.

If you are a non-technical entrepreneur, it can be very, very difficult to find a technical cofounder. But it is not hopeless. Here are some ways to find a technical partner for your venture.

Work for a company that is known to have great engineers
Be a great product manager, marketer, or whatever your role is, and foster deep connections there. Find like-minded people and fostering genuine friendships. Or, at least, solid & respectful working relationships. Also, do a kick-ass job in your role. If you are known as a sharp individual, others will more likely want to follow you.

I was lucky enough to have worked for Yahoo! (YHOO) in its second act. The dot-com bubble had just popped and amazing talent was all over the market. I was able to hire phenomenal software engineers and grow a strong team culture. Many of us have said we’d love to work with one another again. This means we all have access to a large pool of talent. With all the funded startups that are unable to hire, that’s a huge ace up our sleeves.

This is a relatively slow method, however, depending on how quickly you can connect with someone. But such a connection can be long-lasting and meaningful.

Learn to write code yourself
Go to hackathons and developer meetups. Or even contribute to an open source project. The development community is a friendly one (for the most part) and you will often find many people eager to help you out. You can earn the trust of other developers if they see you willing to do this. Also, you will be able to speak their language.

This can be a difficult journey for some. You may have little interest or patience to learn how to program. That lack of motivation can make this method fairly time-consuming. But if you are able to hack it (no pun intended), there are a ton of free resources out there for you. From Codecademy and Try Ruby, to free programming books and free online courses. If those don’t work, pay for a programming course at a local college or workshop. Sometimes having a human being who can answer your questions can help.

Be an inspirational champion for your cause
This works if your passion and business idea serves the community and the world in a greater way. Get yourself involved in various organizations & volunteer groups and be a recognized leader. Build up your personal brand both offline and online. Become someone that others want to follow.

I know of one charismatic individual who has done this via Quora, Twitter, guest blog posts, and various speaking events. He doesn’t have a technical background, but his charisma just radiates.

The common denominator of all these tactics is building meaningful relationships with others through proof of your abilities and talents. I will trust you more if I have worked along side you, seen you try to write a web app yourself, or know you to be an inspirational leader in your field.

What do you think?

Build it Backwards

There’s this philosophical exercise where you write your own eulogy, then use that as a model of how to live your life. By laying out your life’s goals first, you can better structure your life to reach those goals.

For example, if you want to be remembered as a good parent, reconsider ditching your child’s baseball game for another hour in the office and prioritize your child first. If you want to be remembered as a generous person, give generously to charities and those in need. Etc etc.

The same can be said about a startup.

I believe it was David McClure who I heard say the words, “build it backwards” during some startup conference. He talked about starting with a vision, then going backwards to build the business, the team, the offerings, etc.

That’s not quite the same as a eulogy, of course. Writing a eulogy for a company doesn’t make as much sense as for an individual. Instead, how about writing the About page for your company five, ten, twenty years from now? Or a Wall Street Journal article describing your company’s impact on the industry, your customers, and perhaps the world.

From that page or article, think about the steps needed to get you to that end goal, that vision. Then use that as the high-level steps for building your startup backwards.

And, as an extra bonus, consider writing your own eulogy too. It can be an intriguing and thought-provoking exercise.

Surrounded by The Unfamiliar

“How was your trip to Italy?”

I beamed. “It was amazing. We gave ourselves a schedule that had the right mix of relaxation, sight-seeing, and random wandering.”

“That sounds great. It’s good you guys had some time to relax too.”

“Hells yea,” I nodded. “I also stayed away from anything technology or business-related. It felt good to step away from all things Silicon Valley and take a break from for a while.”

“That must have been hard.”

“You know? It was at first. But after a few days, it was easy. We relied on paper guidebooks, advice from fellow travelers and people at the hotels, and some well-worn folding maps to get around. I’ll admit, I felt like pulling out my phone and looking at TripIt, TripAdvisor or Google Maps (GOOG) a few times, but I didn’t.”

“I would’ve been using those like crazy. I’ve grown so dependent on those apps.”

“Back in the States, me too. But I didn’t have an international SIM card and didn’t want to pay the roaming charges, so admittedly, the frugal side of me helped curb my app addiction too.”


“But you know what? I always enjoy being surrounded by the unfamiliar. Unfamiliar words, unfamiliar signs, unfamiliar cultures.” My hands waved around to punctuate each sentence. “I mean, Italy isn’t as foreign as, say, a village in rural China or the dunes of the Sahara desert. But it’s still exciting to be in a wholly different place than I normally am, then gradually learning enough of the language and customs to get around.”

“Hey, that could be a good analogy for a startup.”

“Oh yea? How so?”

“When you start a company, you’re doing something unfamiliar, right? Maybe it’s entering a new market or creating a new spin on something. Either way, it’s something new and unfamiliar. Then you gradually learn about the market, and as you do, you compete in it that much better. You navigate in it that much better.”

“Right, right. Traveling someplace unfamiliar involves some level of risk, just as entering a new market does. Some cities and countries have less risk than others, just as some markets have less potential than others. The companies that do well are the ones who have the ability to learn and understand their market. The people who enjoy their trips are the ones who have enough of an understanding to get around and not wander into a back alley somewhere and get robbed or something.”

“Yup, totally.”

“That IS a good analogy.”

“You should blog about this.”

“I think I will,” I smiled.

Cafes vs Coworking Spaces

I’ve been debating the use of coworking space. If you aren’t familiar with the term, coworking is the act of working in a shared space with other people who aren’t necessarily in your company or organization. It typically is held in some kind of office space and includes independent contractors, startup entrepreneurs, freelance writers, and those who travel frequently.

Within San Francisco, there are dozens of coworking spaces. I’ve listed all that I could find below alphabetically. Some have certain entry requirements, others are affiliated with investment organizations. The prices listed are for 24/7 first-come, first-serve seating. There’s a higher fee for dedicated desks.

Coworking Space Price per month Entry Affiliations
Citizen Space $300, $150 for 9-5 access Open to anyone None
Dogpatch Labs Not publicly stated Interview required Polaris Ventures
Hub Bay Area $445 Application required, social change startups preferred Hub Ventures
NextSpace $285, $235 for a 12-month pack Open to anyone None
pariSoma $275 Open to anyone None
Sandbox Suites $345, $295 for 8-6 weekday access Open to anyone None
Founders Den Not publicly stated Invite only None
Mission Social $300 Open to anyone None
RocketSpace $650 Open to anyone Kicklabs and Kauffman Labs $275 Open to anyone None
Reactor SF Not publicly stated Open to anyone None
PeopleBrowsr Labs $600 Application required None, but offers the use of their products
Social Venture Technology Group Not publicly stated Interview required None
The Summit SF Not publicly stated, though the 8am-10pm cafe area is free Interview required through I/O Ventures I/O Ventures
Krux Labs $500 Open to anyone, 3-month contract minimum None

The alternatives for me happen to be cheaper: working from home or working in a cafe. Working at home isn’t effective because I tend to get distracted easily. It’s just too easy to get up, get a snack, or take a nap. Bad me, I know.

I love working in cafes though. I luckily found a great cafe near me that has free wifi, friendly proprietors who know my name, and available seating. It is also relatively quiet, yet has enough stimulation to keep me energized. That’s important too; I love cafes because of the buzz of activity there. The people-watching, the conversations, the music, all of it adds to this vibrant ambiance that helps me focus. It’s relatively cheap too, though I don’t skimp on making drink and food purchases to pay for my fair share of their space.

The downside is that it’s not easy to work with others in cafes. There’s no guarantee that a colleague will find a free table next to mine. Add two to four more colleagues, and it becomes near impossible.

Enter coworking spaces.

Coworking spaces aren’t as cheap as working alone in cafes. But with colleagues, having a guaranteed space together is important. As is the energy of the community within many of the coworking spaces listed above. They all have a particular vibe. Some are more professional, some are more scrappy, some are more artsy. But all offer a community of like-minded people who could help my colleagues and I in unexpected ways. And us them.

So it’s time to start winding down my cafe days and find a new home in a coworking space. Goodbye cafes, hello coworking spaces!

An Example of Critical Thinking

Homer Simpson's Brain At the heart of critical thinking is Why? To examine a topic critically means to examine and understand the currently-held beliefs and challenge them in an objective manner. Are the beliefs based on facts or opinions? Where did the beliefs originate? Why are these beliefs in place today? Does modern research and knowledge refute any of these beliefs?

Let’s look at the task of organizing a new conference in the Internet industry. We can start with a single problem statement and go from there.

  • It is difficult to get a lot of people to a new conference.
  • Why?
    Some don’t know about it, some can’t pay for it, and some don’t want to pay for it.
  • Why don’t some know about it?
    There are a lot of conferences in this industry and we haven’t been able to distinguish ourselves yet.
  • Why haven’t we been able to distinguish ourselves?
    Our topics and speakers are not unique or famous enough.
  • Why are our topics and speakers not unique or famous enough?
    We have chosen common topics that our immediate friends and colleagues can speak about.
  • Why have we chosen common topics by our immediate friends and colleagues?
    Those are the topics we thought mass audiences would want to hear, and we don’t know any famous speakers ourselves, so we chose our friends and colleagues.
  • Why do we think those are the topics mass audiences want to hear?
    We assumed those are mass appeal topics, but aren’t sure exactly.

Ah ha, our first insight! With the power of Why?, we’ve drilled down to a fundamental assumption that was made. This assumption could be true or false, but it is nevertheless an unproven assumption.

Let’s say it is not true. The topics chosen for this make-believe conference aren’t the only ones with mass appeal. With that in mind, we do some brainstorming and come up with a list of topics not commonly covered by other conferences. Our list includes somewhat obscure or difficult – yet unique – topics.

And voila, with critical thinking, we have a potential differentiator. Go through this exercise a few more times, perhaps with the questions, “Why can’t some pay for it?” and “Why don’t some want to pay for it?” as starting points, and we may uncover additional insights. With enough effective insights, we may be able to make this conference a success.

It’s All About Asking Questions

Curious Perhaps the most important question in the world is: Why? This question leads to all kinds of insight, and occasionally, innovation & invention.

Why? Because questioning the reasons behind “the way things are” allows you the opportunity to usurp the status quo and find interconnections that you otherwise may not have realized. This curiosity digs deep into the foundations of assumptions and beliefs. Armed with such a tool, you can unearth some very interesting artifacts.

It’s also one of the main tools I use in my Serenity Philosophy of Entrepreneurship. This philosophy is all about accepting what cannot be changed, changing what can, and knowing the difference between the two.

Why do we have to carry all these heavy books around? Think: Amazon Kindle.

Why do the screens on electronic devices have to break if we accidentally bend them? Think: Electronic paper.

Why do I have to worry about losing all of my data if my computer is stolen? Think: Dropbox.

These example questions are perhaps a little too specific, but you get the point. Start with a why and keep on asking it until you get to the foundation of the issue. Ask it relentlessly, like a wide-eyed seven-year-old. You may end up with a dead end, more questions, or perhaps some ingenious insight.

Such curiosity is the impetus for two types of thinking: critical thinking and lateral thinking. As an entrepreneur, these modes of thinking give birth to creativity and can separate the boring & useless businesses from the delightful & useful businesses.

Photo by: re-ality

The Serenity Philosophy of Entrepreneurship

Toji Temple in Kyoto, Japan One of the main guiding principles of my life is the Serenity Prayer:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

As an entrepreneur, the line that impresses upon me the most is the third: having the courage to change the things I can. It encourages me to challenge the status quo, to know that “the way things are” isn’t an immutable rule.

Just because we’ve always had to buy shoes from a shoe store doesn’t mean that’s the only way to purchase them. Think: Zappos.

Just because we’ve always gotten the latest news from a journalist doesn’t mean that’s the only way to get the news. Think: Twitter.

Just because we’ve always had to charge an electronic device in a wall socket doesn’t mean that’s the only way to keep a device powered up. Think: Inductive charging.

That’s what I call my Serenity Philosophy of Entrepreneurship. The title is perhaps a little misleading. It’s not about being serene and accepting things the way they are. It’s quite the opposite.

There are things we cannot change. The laws of mathematics and physics, for example. And taxes. Those are things we must accept. But to be a successful entrepreneur, you will need to know what you can change – and there is often more you can change than you think.

Biz Idea: Travel Deal Finder

Airplane Imagine if there was a site where you could enter in your home city, a set of travel dates, and a maximum spending price. Then you’d get a list of travel deals matching your criteria.

There would also be an option to find only airfare deals, or airfares + hotels, or the big three: airfares, hotels + car rentals.

Wouldn’t this be great for vacations and weekend excursions? You know you’re free on a particular set of dates (they’re inflexible), you know how much you want to spend, and you know where you live, of course. What you don’t know is where you want to go. But you’re open to suggestions. That’s what this site would offer. It’s part travel destination discovery, part price comparison shopping.

This idea came from my wife’s coworker. When I first heard it, I thought this kind of service already existed. They insisted it didn’t. Sure enough, after a few web searches, I discovered they were right. The large travel sites – Expedia, Orbitz, Travelocity, Kayak, etc – have similar functionality, but all require that you enter in a destination. And that’s the problem. We know our origin city and travel dates, but not our destination. We want this service to solve that for us by offering suggestions – then to book our selections.

Seems like an obvious idea, huh? So why haven’t the big travel services built this yet? Have they already examined this business model and found it to be unprofitable? Is there a lack of travel deals? And if this were built, what’s to stop the big guys from duplicating this feature?

This would be an awesome product, but I haven’t done any deep research to know how viable of a business it is. Sounds great on the surface, but may be a quagmire in the details. Or business defensibility. I’ve found lots of great deals on the big travel sites and the deals all seem to have a specific set of traits (dates of use, price, etc). So technically, this is doable. But I don’t know if there are business restrictions or requirements around the procurement or use of this data.

Still, if anyone wants to pursue this, let me know and I’d be glad to help!

Photo by: xlibber