Technical co-founder and CTO: what’s the difference
Every startup business is unique in terms of the job titles and what employees really do there. Especially at the start, it’s hard to divide the fields of responsibility. But in most IT companies there is either a technical co-founder, or a CTO. Let’s find out who does what and whom to hire.
Technical co-founder is a person with solid development expertise ready to pour cash into the business and hold responsibility for the operations. Technical co-founders are responsible for product development and restrain non-technical co-founder’s fantasy, marking the boundaries of what is possible and what’s not. At the same time, both of them make strategic decisions.
The technical + non-technical founder duo works well because:
- The first one is an expert in mobile or web development frameworks and methodologies. Technical co-founders understand how long it takes to develop an IT product, which team composition you need and how much the development costs.
- The second one needs support: a technical co-founder invests money and fulfills the development task pool. Meanwhile, the non-technical co-founder focuses on marketing, customer acquisition, and search of investors.
CTO (Chief Technology Officer) is also a skilled developer with experience in team leading. As opposed to a technical co-founder, they don’t own part of the company but simply work for a salary. Accordingly, CTOs don’t take any strategic decisions. They consult, suggest, and take part in discussions, but don’t hold the veto right like co-founders. You need a CTO for hiring and managing developers and representing your company at tech conferences when needed.
Why is it better to find a technical co-founder?
There are at least 3 reasons to find a technical co-founder. With them you’ll:
Have higher chances to find investors
If you have neither a technical co-founder, nor a CTO, then most probably you will outsource product development. With such an approach, you’d need to clearly understand technical requirements and control intermediate results to get the desired product. It’s impossible to accomplish that without technical expertise. Experienced investors are aware of it and prefer to invest in startups with a technical co-founder on board. In that way, it’s clear who will take care of the startup development process. Also, judging by the co-founder’s profile you can forecast if they can bring the project to release at all.
Focus on your strengths
We all have the same 24 hours in a day. Even if you’re a time-management guru, it’s still hard to do everything solo: you need to delegate and share responsibilities. Code a product, set up a team, talk with investors, promote the product — and that’s just a tiny part of what a startup business owner must do. To have it all done at the top level, you need to focus on your strengths instead of developing weaknesses and expanding effort x10.
Have access to expertise
To launch a functioning and scalable product, you need somebody who will:
- consider all the development risks;
- mitigate them;
- control the development process.
A professional foresees all the bottlenecks and helps to overcome them and save time and money. You’d not need to delve deep into the startup development process, learn programming languages or hire developers. The weight of responsibility for startup development spreads evenly between two people and the product gets released faster.
What about disadvantages?
At the beginning of the article we divided the terms ‘technical co-founder’ and ‘CTO’ for a reason. You need to have the right expectations before making a decision: find a technical co-founder or hire a director. Partnership with a tech co-founder brings some disadvantages as well.
You should share the profits
Nobody likes to split the income, especially business stakes. At the initial stage, when you have nothing, there is also nothing to lose. Seems like you can give anything just to get some money out of the project. But when the startup generates the first profit, that’s when the gut check starts for cofounders. Whether both of them are going to hog the blanket is a huge question.
To avoid quarrels after the product launch, it’s better to settle issues at the start and seal the verbal agreement with a contract. That way, it’s more predictable and clear for both sides: in case of disagreements, you can recall the terms. Then either go to court or change the terms of cooperation.
Partner’s opinion may differ from yours
Supposedly, people try to find technical co-founders to get a different view of the product. Technical co-founders share their thoughts because they have a stake in the product’s success. But not all people are ready for it because, in fact, all they need is a CTO for managing a team and rolling out the project on time. So, if you’re 110% sure of your idea, you need a CTO indeed. They can also suggest new ideas but you have a right to listen and have it your own way. It won’t be possible to pull something like that with a tech co-founder.
Quarrels over who works more
The first one sits in the office until 23:00 while another one runs out of the office at 17:00 on tick and truly believes that it’s right to do so. It’s hard to define the workload standards for each of you because there is no work contract between you two. The only way to settle down the issues is to talk, find common ground and follow the agreements.
If you’re ready to share the profits, you’d better find a tech co-founder. They’ll risk their stake, not the salary as a CTO. Accordingly, the inclusion in the startup development cycle will be higher. However if you need a CTO, we have an article about how to find one ⬇️
But how to find a technical co-founder?
There are at least 5 ways to find a technical co-founder. Let’s get into the details:
1. Use social networks
Social networks are an abundant source of information about candidates and also a way to let people know about your idea. If you want to find a technical co-founder, LinkedIn will suit you well. And if you want to broadcast your idea use Twitter.
LinkedIn works well for initial search: just type in ‘software engineer’ and get 13M profiles. The main point is to have in mind the selection criteria. Be it an experience of working in a blue-chip company like Google, or experience of launching a startup — add those criteria in additional filters and study the results. Next — send out DMs pitching your idea and suggesting to meet if a person is up for it.
People perceive cold messages worse but there’s still a chance that somebody will answer. For example, the Hubstaff owner managed to find a tech co-founder on LinkedIn. He had two important ingredients at hand: a clear vision of a promising idea and specific requirements for a co-founder.
You can post your idea and ask for feedback. Maybe, it’ll draw somebody’s attention. For example, Product Hunt started off exactly like that. The startupper didn’t know how to find a tech co-founder, shared his business idea on Twitter and asked for feedback. Not only did it let him validate the idea but also put in touch with people who helped him launch the product. In 2016 AngelList acquired Product Hunt for $20M.
2. Ask people on a forum
You can validate your technical idea on forums and find a tech co-founder along the way. The principle is similar to publishing an idea on Twitter: just open a relevant thread and drop a line describing your idea. Reddit is one of the most active forums.
There is a popular subreddit r/co-founder/ where you can find a tech co-founder. There users post info about their business and describe the desired tech co-founder. The chances of coming across a tech co-founder are high because the number of daily active users is 52M. But even if it’ll not work out, you’ll also get feedback like in the case of Twitter.
3. Address a business incubator
A business incubator is the hub where initiative and idea-driven people meet. Of course, most of the participants already have technical ideas that they truly believe in and hope to fulfill. But no one’s stopping you from finding the crossing points with those people and winning them over to your project. It may happen that your visions are actually pretty close and you’d not need to talk them over for long: a duo will form organically.
There are several international business incubators. Here are the 3 most known:
Probably one of the most popular business incubators that finances startups on the seed stage and helps to find a technical co-founder. Apart from initial investments, you may get access to startuppers passionate about their ideas.
Every year Y Combinator organizes an online startup school where participants:
- study business theory;
- track their startup development progress;
- score their first deals;
- find co-founders.
It’s a business accelerator with 20+ international industry-focused programs. The platform provides access to mentors, potential partners, and investors from various technical industries: IoT, fintech, foodtech. On the website, you can check upcoming events where you can meet other startuppers and find a tech co-founder.
One of the most known business accelerators in Europe. It helped Revolut start revolution on the fintech technical market faster. The Seedcamp Nation organizes workshops, one-on-one sessions with experts. There you may also find a tech co-founder.
4. Submit a request on special platforms
Y Combinator Cofounder Matching
Y Combinator recently rolled out a platform where users may find a tech co-founder. They just need to list their search criteria, e.g. business interests, skills, location. The platform is still young, but taking into account the community around Y Combinator, you can expect that the new project will be in the groove very soon. As the website states, in the first month more than 9000 users managed to find a tech co-founder.
On this platform, you can also find a tech co-founder, a mentor, or an investor. To find a tech co-founder you need to sign up, answer several questions about yourself and your business, and then proceed to search. The platform works on a freemium basis. There are currently 355.000 founders on the website.
A platform tailored to finding a tech co-founder in a startup business. The functionality of the service is similar to CoFoundersLab. To post your info, you should fill in 4 fields: who you are, elevator pitch, stage of idea, contact information. The platform also offers free legal, financial, technological, and marketing support through their partners.
A popular platform for finding a tech co-founder, business angels, or an IT professional. In the section AngelList Talent, you can sign up as a recruiter and publish a vacancy. Also, you get access to specialists’ profiles and you can connect with them. Now there are 2M job seekers on the platform.
The startup community focused on helping entrepreneurs increase profits from their projects. Startuppers describe their financial goals, product idea and find a tech co-founder for their startup. There is also a forum where users share the success stories and methodologies that they used. Also, they publish ideas and offer help in carrying out projects. Currently, there are 31,719 indie hackers on the platform.
5. Hire a CTO and turn them into cofounder
Let’s say, you found a credible software developer with 15 years of experience on the stack that you need. Everything seems to be okay, but you still doubt whether the nominee can cope with the tech co-founder’s responsibilities or not. Because they never had such an experience before. You don’t need to endanger startup development. Just hire the candidate as a CTO and see the results of work in such a format. If you won’t manage to find a tech co-founder by that moment, you may offer your CTO the ‘all-in’ option.
Examples and the fruits of such partnership
It’s a database platform that accumulates podcasts. There users may find new podcasts, evaluate them or add to profile. The website helps podcast listeners to easily find decent podcasts. Now there are 8.5M podcasts in their database.
One of the founders wanted to create such a platform and was sure that there’s some demand on the market. He realized pretty early that doing it solo will be darn hard since there are too many things tied with information infrastructure. To find a tech co-founder, he asked the Reddit community if somebody would be eager to help him build such a platform, and the one who wished replied.
Now it’s hard to believe that there are some people who have never heard of Apple. It’s the №1 company in the world by market capitalization. Products like iPod, iPad, iPhone, and iMac in their times revolutionized their markets.
Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak stand behind the success of this company: a classical example of a mix of technical and non-technical co-founders. For them the question ‘how to find a technical co-founder’ was an easy one to answer — take a look at what your peers do and find the one who shares your interests. Both Jobs and Wozniak were keen on electronics with one difference: the first was a visionary while the second liked to dig into electronics. Jobs knew which products the market needed and what to focus on. Wozniak was a wizard who turned his partner’s vision into technical reality.
Steve Wozniak put the first computer Apple I together. Steve Jobs was the one who saw the potential in it, founded a company, and suggested scaling up. Wozniak admits that he never wanted to do two things in his life: politics and business. Jobs took the business stuff on his side while letting his partner focus solely on technical product development.
It’s also one of the pioneers in the consumer software market. It goes right after Apple by the market capitalization. Its success is mostly credited to Bill Gates, who strongly associates with the Microsoft trademark in public mind.
Surprisingly, the story of Microsoft foundation is similar to Apple’s. Gates was also responsible for the business while Paul Allen was more of a technical co-founder. At the same time, you can’t say that Gates didn’t know how to program, he was also involved in the development process. But formally the distribution of responsibilities was as follows — Allen was doing technical development, Gates — negotiations, and customer acquisition.
Snapchat is a messenger for exchanging instant photos and short videos that get deleted 10 seconds after users watch it. At first, investors didn’t believe that the idea would succeed, but the app quickly won popularity among American youth. Even when the app wasn’t generating any profit yet, Mark Zuckerberg noticed the potential and suggested acquiring it for $3B.
The story of Snapchat started off in the Stanford dormitory. Reggie Brown, one of Snapchat’s founders, sent a photo that shouldn’t have been sent at all. But the thing was that he couldn’t delete it. So, he turned to Bobby Murphy and Evan Spiegel for advice and that’s how the idea was born. The co-founders distributed the power like that: Murphy became a CTO, Spiegel — a CEO, and Brown — a CMO.
Dropbox — a file hosting service that lets users store their files in the cloud. The idea is simple: upload files in a special folder and get access to them from any device with Internet access.
The idea for creating such a service crossed Drew Houston’s mind on the road. He wanted to elaborate on several technical startup ideas on the way from Boston to New York but forgot to take the USB stick. So, he realized that it would be great to access files from anywhere in the world without being bound to HDD or a memory stick. In 6 months, Drew headed to Y Combinator to present the concept. The startup accelerator believed in the idea but made a provision: find a tech co-founder as it would increase the startup’s chances to succeed.
How to find a technical co-founder in 2 weeks? — that was the challenge that Dropbox’s founder took on. Through the grapevine, he got in touch with Arash Ferdowsi and in 2 hours persuaded him to become a tech co-founder. Now the market capitalization of Dropbox is $12B.
Checklist: how to find out if the cofounder fits you well
Now that it’s clear how to find a technical co-founder, we need to understand whom to look for. There is a list of general criteria that can tell you if you’ll get on with the tech co-founder or not. The technical co-founder will fit you well if they:
See the potential in the idea
Seems like it’s the most obvious but often people forget about it. It may turn out that you found a tech co-founder but they don’t see the future of your product, and still decide to take on your project thinking: ‘My partner is bulletproof sure that it’ll work out. He probably knows it better’.
It’s a direct way to nowhere. You won’t have that drive and energy needed for launching something new. Especially, it will become visible before the release when the whole team will be emotionally sucked out. In this moment, tech co-founders would need to cheer the team up so they don’t fall down right before the finish. If a technical co-founder doesn’t believe in success from the ground up, you’d better not even start such a partnership.
See eye to eye on life values
Good internal chemistry with the tech co-founder guarantees that you two will focus on the client and the product instead of squabbling. Practically, it’s like marriage. You need to trust the person and have a shared vision of how your business should develop.
We don’t say that you must be identical copies. The trick of partnership is in bringing diverse expertise and examining the product from different angles. If a technical co-founder principally doesn’t want to conquer foreign markets, but in your perspective, that’s the only possible scenario of development then such a partnership won’t work long. There will always be fundamental tensions and disputes: one will try to outmuscle and re-educate another.
Think in the business perspective
There are developers who simply enjoy to code, experiment with frameworks, and generally research. In the IT business, developers build a profitable product in the first place and educate themselves in the meantime, not the other way around. That’s why a technical co-founder should be able to balance between the team’s development and achieving business goals.
The key question that a technical co-founder should keep in mind is — where’s the money
Lebowski? Who will pay for the IT solution and why should it be interesting for anybody after all?
Know how to meet the deadlines
The time-to-market is crucial in IT development. If the market niche is developing fast, most probably somebody already develops a similar product. To eat the ginger, you need to be the first on the market. If a technical co-founder follows the ‘if one’s luck changes’ approach to deadlines, then there will be no discipline in the team. With such a structure and approach to work, you can’t make long-term plans and enter the market fast.
Often you can meet team leads who know technologies inside out but can’t explain their thoughts and ideas simply. A technical co-founder is a rare type of professional. They know what’s what in terms of technologies and at the same time can communicate with the team and co-founder. Find a technical co-founder who communicates clearly so that everybody in the team is on the same page and happy.
Have strategic vision
Usually, senior developers think in the borders of their technical project and work with the information given by a project manager or a product owner. Such developers don’t always need to delve into why the software should be built in a particular way. So, they mostly participate in the development process.
A technical co-founder thinks strategically in terms of the product and skillfully balances between short-term and long-term tasks. They don’t forget about what has to be done now. At the same time, they look at the product from the users’ shoes and if needed, change the development plan.
Have experience in the area of your startup
For those who don’t know a thing about the technical part of IT it may seem as if experienced IT techies are magicians who can do anything. Partially, that’s true. But they can do a lot in the stack they have most experience with. It’s better to find a technical co-founder who has experience in launching products like yours. Because eCommerce app development differs a lot from, say SaaS or IoT.
So, what to do?
Before finding a co-founder and starting a partnership, you should understand what you really need from this cooperation: just the technical implementation of the product or all-in inclusion into the project? We have likened the partnership with the marriage for a reason. You’ll have to listen and hear your partner, sometimes meet halfway, and not always do as you wish. If you aren’t ready for it and just want to give orders, then you’d better find a CTO or outsource the development.
Good CTOs are most probably busy with other projects and there’s no point for them to risk by switching to a young startup. Taking on the risk is only worth it if you get a decent paycheck. Otherwise, why should they risk a stable workplace for a doubtful promised world? But are you ready to pay a high salary indeed? If you’re not, then you will hire an inexperienced CTO trying to take on any opportunity. In such a case, the stakes are high and it’s not clear if the project will take off or be deadborn.
That’s why when you don’t have a technical co-founder and don’t want to play Russian roulette in the CTO selection process, you can outsource the development. One of our clients did that. He wanted to create a platform for shared investments in real estate. We developed an MVP, the project started to generate profit and the client afforded to hire a professional CTO. Now they work with us on an outsource basis.
The same story happened on the project Energo. We created a turnkey MVP and got the project going. Then the client got his own team together, hired a CTO, and stopped outsourcing, as he managed to align product support on his side.
If you have an idea, but no team to implement it, you can follow the scenario of Energo: the idea is on you, the turnkey solution is on us. Got interested? Then describe your idea in the form below, leave us your email, and we will contact you within 12 hours.