What A Nerd Looks for in a Non-Technical Cofounder

At least once a week, I meet someone who is nontechnical, but who is looking for a "technical cofounder." The problem is that these people never seem to know what makes nerds tick, and what they can offer that will draw the nerd to them (this isn't a one-way relationship, but they are usually looking for someone to build "their" idea, so the attraction primarily comes from their side). I also meet a lot of nerds who are looking for something new, but who don't want to deal with the non-technical aspects of the business, and don't know how to find the right person to work with. So, as someone who kissed a lot of frogs in a quest to find a business partner whose strengths complemented mine, I'm writing this post. Basically, it's a guide to how a nerd thinks, and it tries to help you give him what he is looking for.

The Things That Motivate Nerds
The first thing you need to understand is that nerds think quite differently than non-nerds. In a previous post, I talked about the difference between the way entrepreneurs and engineers think. Understand that the nerd is usually not doing a startup to get rich (although no one minds making money). He just wants the opportunity to build something really cool in an open environment. If he is worth his salt, he can probably get a job making more than you can possibly pay him, so the opportunity to build something cool is by far the most valuable thing you will offer him. It is possible to judge his reaction, and see whether he is excited by the opportunity you are pitching. If not, you may either decide to move on to someone else, or you may think about how you can modify or reframe the opportunity to suit his preferences. Do not try to hard sell him - this rarely works (and even when it does, you will probably have a dissatisfied engineer). 

Be Open To Feedback
So, going along with that theme, a good nontechnical cofounder should be open to feedback on both the product and the business. The hardest people to work with have a totally fixed idea of what the product will be, and aren't willing to change that. They are just looking for others to blindly follow orders. If you are looking for this sort of arrangement, you should probably just hire someone on oDesk to build it for you (and good luck, because you are probably going to fail). Rather, you should think of your engineering cofounder as a valuable and completely different perspective. If he is smart and analytical (which he should be), he may be able to poke holes in your business plan by viewing it through his own lens. Make it clear that you value his input, and try to actually do this rather than giving it lip service.

Understand that Engineering at a Startup Can Be Lonely
Another important trait is that the non-technical cofounder understands how lonely it can be to be an engineer. Even though a significant percentage of engineers I've met are introverts, not all engineers prefer to be by themselves all the time. Being the technical cofounder of a startup usually requires that you spend most of your time holed up coding, and that can get lonely. Remember that this is different from nontechnical work. If you are a solo nontechnical founder, you probably spend most of your days on the phone, on email, and meeting with random people. This is one reason why many engineers prefer to work at big companies - they get to interact with a lot of other people like themselves. In my case, this is the primary reason why I can't do a startup by myself - during the periods I have had to work solo, I have nearly gone crazy.

Befriend Your Cofounder
So I mean this in the best possible way, but it would probably behoove you to attempt to be your technical cofounder's friend (that's going to mean that you actually have to like him). If you guys are going to work together, you are going to be spending a lot of time together. This sounds far-fetched, but you will probably spend as much time with your cofounder as you spend with your girlfriend or wife. He doesn't just want to be your pet nerd who stays locked up in the coding cage while you go about your business. So make him comfortable with you as a person, and you have already won half the battle. It may be as simple as inviting him out for a drink some time early on in your relationship (maybe after the first day you work together). You would be surprised by how many people don't bother to do this, or who wait too long.

Here's a relevant story from my own personal experience. A while back, I was considering working with someone I had met at a social event, and we decided to test things out by going to a technology conference together. Right after we met up, he ditched me for several hours to go to lunch with some guy. I decided not to work with him (based on that as well as other red flags). When I met another potential business partner, we also decided to meet up at a technology conference. He had been invited to go to lunch with some people, and he asked them if I could come along (actually, he more insisted than asked). That made a really good impression, and we are still working together. He has made a lot of attempts to include me, and I really appreciate that (this is a shout out to you, Sam).

Measure and Report Your Progress
I think that it's also important to show your technical cofounder that you able to make regular progress at your tasks. It is relatively easy to evaluate an engineer's progress. Every day (or week), he should be building new features (or improving existing ones). If the product is not steadily improving, then he isn't doing his job. Likewise, you need to show that you are moving ahead at whatever your core competency is. I understand that sales has a lot of exogenous factors that can make progress uneven, but the best sales people can close deals at a fairly regular frequency, and can tell you what the status is of each deal at any point in time. I have spent a lot of time working with non-technical people, and a decent percentage of the time, it wasn't really clear what they were doing. Usually, I made the conclusion that they aren't actually doing anything, but were twiddling their thumbs waiting for me to build the product (you would be surprised to see how often this actually happens). So my advice to you is that you hold yourself to the same standard, and that you figure out some way to measure and report your progress.

Win His Trust
I think that the most important thing that a nerd looks for is someone that he can trust. To be blunt, a lot of non-technical "cofounders" are full of shit and unable to execute (just as many "engineers" are crappy programmers). If you want to distinguish yourself from the pack, you are going to have to earn his trust. You can do that by following some of the above guidelines, and by showing him that you are actually different. Another thing that I should probably talk about is compensation (even though I said that it is unimportant). A lot of nontechnical people undervalue nerds, and feel like they just want to hire a nerd to build out their grand vision. They kind of miss that the technical execution is a very important part of the startup, and that only the person who is building the technical product can understand some of the product implications (more on this later).

As such, the equity compensation for a "technical cofounder" can often be as low as 5-10%. It may seem like you are saving equity for yourself, but you are just screwing everyone. You are looking to give your cofounder a meaningful stake that will make him feel fully invested in the company's success. I'm not saying that you need to give a cofounder who comes on second an equal stake in the company, but remember that most of the hard work is likely still ahead of you, and that what comes around does go around.

Advice For the Other Side
If you are a nerd and are evaluating potential business partners, I would heed some advice given by a friend of mine. Make sure that you test them as much as possible. See how they measure up on each of these characteristics. And if anything feels even slightly off, run as far as you can. If you are worth your salt, you are a hot commodity, and someone else will come along with an offer that merits your participation (even if it takes you a little bit longer than you had hoped).