How to evaluate a non-technical co-founder

You're a developer, and you've just been pitched a startup idea by a non-technical founder wanting you to join them in building a company. It's the 10th time this month this has happened, and you're getting more and more skeptical.

"Why shouldn't I just start something on my own? After I have a basic product, I can bring a non-technical partner on."

That is a completely legitimate line of thought, and one you should consider thoroughly. It's not the topic I'm focusing on here, but it is certainly relevant:

If you're joining someone else's company, the team has to be good enough for you to give up [100 - (your equity share)]% of the company. Let's consider the situation where there is a sole non-technical founder approaching you to be the other member of the founding team. How should you evaluate that person/startup?

First: As a developer you are worth a lot intrinsically and due to market forces: You're going to make the thing that your company is selling. Aside from that, there are relatively few of you. Do not sell yourself short.

As a developer myself, I'm always concerned that there are much better developers than me and that there's so much I don't know. You've found the right non-technical co-founder if you feel like a bit of a sham for not being good enough to work with them. This is not just speculation: from our position (Hirelite connects developers with companies looking to hire them via speed interviewing over video chat), startups value a developer about 50% more than a non-technical person with a similar level of experience/skill/etc [1].

With this much value, what qualities should you be looking for in a non-techincal co-founder to make sure you're getting your time and effort's worth? Few have all of these qualities, but your non-technical founder should have at least a few of these. Start off by requiring at least two of the qualities below, and for every two years of experience you have, add one more of these requirements.


Traction refers to the key metrics for a startup both in absolute size and growth rate (metrics around the number of users, user engagement, user acquisition, etc). It's kind of a fuzzy concept, but a startup with "traction" has limited the risk of a significant part of the business, specifically the will-anybody-care-about-what-we're-doing part.

Here are a few examples of what very early-stage traction might look like (remember the non-technical founder may not have much of a product built already):
  • B2C startup where engagement is a key metric: 30 people using a basic version of the product every day
  • B2C startup where user growth is a key metric: 200 people who have given the startup an email address in a month or 50 people who have given them an email address and (on average) recruited one friend to give an email address too. You want to establish that the concept has legs of its own and not just the non-technical person getting their immediate friends and family to use the service.
  • B2B startup that charges <$1,000 per month per company: 10 companies that have said they'd pay you money when you have a product (half the number of companies if the startup has letters of intent)
  • B2B startup that charges >$1000 per month per company: 2 companies that have said they'd pay you money when you have a product (half the number of companies if the startup has letters of intent)
Traction is the great equalizer. If the non-technical person has no other qualities in this list, but the startup has traction, just make sure you work well together (the subject of another post), and you're all set. 

Warning sign: The non-technical founder tells you they need you to build something before they get any kind of adoption.

Domain experience

A non-technical founder has domain experience if they've worked in the industry where the startup is addressing a problem. Three years of experience in that industry is good rule of thumb.

Warning sign: As someone with little market experience, you instantly see holes in the business model that the non-technical founder has not already thought about.

Marketing ability

Ask the non-technical founder how they'd market the startup with a minimal advertising budget. Make them dig deep and give specifics. Here are a few things that are not specific enough and how to approach them: 
  • "We're going to go viral." Why is the product fundamentally viral in nature? Why is the product more valuable to users who get their friends to join?
  • "We're going to get blogs to cover us." Which blogs? Do you have a relationship with them? Have you ever been written about on a blog before?
  • "We're going to SEO the hell out of it." Why can't other companies do this? How reliant will the startup be on content? Who will write it? Why can't other companies beat us at this?
  • "We're going to A/B test until we find a message that resonates." Do you see A/B testing as a mechanism for finding the vision of the company?
This post on Startup Marketing Ideas will make you impervious to the most suspicious startup marketing claims. The best way to evaluate someone's marketing ability though is to have done it on a small scale yourself. Try to get people you don't know using at a site you've built. It's tough work, but you'll learn a lot about what it takes to market something and you won't be fooled as easily by people who don't know what they're talking about.

Fundraising ability

Has the person raised a non-friends-and-family round before? 
Have they ever worked in venture capital? 
Do they have anyone committed to funding this company?
Are they rich?

If the answer to all these questions is no, the non-technical founder's ability raise capital is speculative.

Warning sign: The non-technical founder answers no to those questions, but thinks it will be easy to raise capital.

Product skill

Most non-technical founders think they're great product people because it's so easy to be an ok product person. You're going to have to decide whether you're dealing with a great product person or not. A great product person:
  • Is relentlessly focused on making sure you're making the right product for the right market.
  • Has a clear vision of what success for your product looks like and is probably addicted to metrics.
  • Knows when to cut features and can prevent you from wasting time on developing irrelevant features early on.
  • You can point to any piece of a product and ask "Why?" and they have an answer.
Warning sign: None. Everyone can make decent wire-frames. Be careful, and consider having a product person you respect help you evaluate the non-technical person.

Respect for development 

For any site with a strong software component, the non-technical founder needs to have a respect for software development. They need to understand that as the technical co-founder, you're going to be a key collaborator in the business not a code monkey. They get extra points if they've coded in the past or are eager to learn the basics from you.

Warning sign: The non-technical founder says at any point, "Now I just need someone to build it for me."

Startup experience

There not much that can replace having worked at a startup before: the constant ups and downs, the constraints of limited resources, the agility, the constant struggle to keep the business alive. Any role counts: sales, business development, marketing, product, software engineering, community management, customer service. Extra points for being on the founding team.

Warning sign: The non-technical founder tries to get you to sign an NDA before telling you about the startup or gives you the feeling that they don't know much about startups at all.

Relevant connections or following

Everyone has connections; make sure the non-technical founder's connections are relevant. The connections should contribute to market intelligence, fundraising, and user growth. Ideally, the person has some kind of blog or social media following in the market the startup targets.

Warning sign: Following 2,893. Followed by: 35.

Things that don't get any credit
  • An MBA: they don't hurt, but don't favor them over anyone else because of it for startups.
  • A career in finance or management consulting: unless your startup is in those industries, their big company tendencies could clash with a startup environment. They might not; just use your own judgement.
  • Someone who calls themselves a serial entrepreneur. People throw this term around only slightly less than "pivot". Look at their track record for successful exits or otherwise successful companies if they call themselves this; otherwise, disregard it.

[1] We're not trying to trash non-technical people here. This is largely based on market demand for developers and our experience seeing early stage startups (bootstrapped and funded up to Series B) and developers interact. We often see developers able to partner with non-technical co-founders who are far more experienced. Additionally, you can see this trend at later stage companies. Example: a developer with 3 years of experience in NYC can make $110k at a big company while a business analyst with 3 years of experience could make somewhere around $80k.

Comments on Hacker News too.
15 responses
This is a great bit of information, even for the non-technical (co-)founders such as myself. It points out, in a way, what we should know or find out before going out in search of a technical co-founder.
Why the aversion to NDAs ?
What if you're a technical founder who's got a product with some traction and you're looking for a marketing-oriented person who's going to be a team player?
@Gregory - Thanks! Glad it's helpful.

@Jeremy - Nothing is wrong with NDAs once you're getting deep into the details of the business or starting to actually do work together. However, when you're initially talking with someone about the idea, they're just a barrier that the startup world in general considers rude. Additionally, if someone tells you that you have to sign an NDA to get any deeper in to the idea than "it's a social network for pets", they're probably a bit naive about how much the idea vs execution matters.

@Paul - Congrats if you're in this situation. Are you looking for a partner or more of an employee? If you're looking for a partner, this post is still highly relevant for evaluating that person (if you yourself don't already have these skills).

If you're joining up with a sole non-technical person, I've got one good peace of advice for you. Don't. I just spent the last 18 months building a webapp with a non-technical co-founder. Trust me, both founders need to be technical. (Yes, we're dead. Our money ran out.)
The biggest item on there is respect. If you feel that they believe the engineering or platform choices are not critical, or they are less concerned with excellence than time-frames, then I suggest your relationship has a high chance of becoming fraught quite quickly.

Code quality is even more important when you have to keep changing tack. And you will probably need to keep changing tack as you discover more about your market. One thing I notice about experienced marketers - they are humble, and learn from the market rather than trying to thrust their own perception upon it.

Terrific post. As a non-technical partner in a software start-up I recruited the technical partner - so I've considered your thoughts from the other side of the table. You make good sense.

It would be useful for non-technical partners to have a similar filter set when considering their technical partners.

We don't have the ability to really assess one's ability to actually build what they say they can build, for the cost they say the can build it and in the time frame it's needed. Often times beyond reference checking, which isn't 100% effective, there is little one can do other than use judgement.

Beyond the technical abilities it then comes down to subjective measures like personality fit, trustworthiness, passion, commitment, maturity and ability to "roll with it" as the startup struggles.

Have to agree with rodney dawkins .......... the quality of what you do (and how you do it) is critical. It's the foundations on which you are building.

Quite a few people who come to me now asking "can you just finish this up" .. are projects that are garbage from the beginning, horrid execution and mind bomb code. And exclusively because the start ups were focused on concept and logos opposed to execution and quality.

Tracking change - tools - process etc, you have to get right from day one as it will protect you from technical debt (as much as you let it).

Also don't fall into the trap of thinking "agile development" is some kind of cure all that will speed you up, it will typically cripple good or exceptional developers (which is the kind you want for a start up right ?) and sacrifices any technical vision (i.e. architecture) for short term feel good feelings for over zealous project manager mind sets.

If you have any level of humility, It's hard to not to be self-conscious as the "non-technical co-founder" for all the reasons you've listed here. It inspires us NTCFs to go above and beyond and I think that disparity in technical ability should always inspire us to do better and keep learning.

I wrote a blog post about it the other day:

Great read here BTW. Thanks!

@the_tech_guy - That's certainly a good option. It's rare that one person has every skill to make a business successful though. All startups require technical and non-technical skills during their lifetime. It's definitely possible for tech people to pick up non-technical skills, but sometimes you need to do things quicker.

@rodney - Thanks for the comment. It certainly is a tough to balance doing things quickly with maintainability and quality code.

@Mark - Thanks for the kind words. Great idea for a future post!

@Jeremy - The "can you just finish this up" position sounds very tough to deal with. Has it ever worked out well in your experience? Or any ideas on how to make sure it does work as well as possible?

@Christopher - great point. It's hard to find good people to work with whether their technical or not.

In the 5 projects to date, 3 were Drupal efforts that had to go in the bin and get rebuilt in a framework.

One was a projects that had passed though 2-3 development shops and being a LAMP surgeon myself, just looked like a mass of scar tissue. The 5th was hand built strangeness ....... though consistent strangeness so could be dealt with as long as you kept it strange ....... consistency was the key there.

Most development shops don't code or build in a quality way as it takes a longer view (i.e. documented code with test units is WAY cheaper to look after) of things. Though if time is money and you want to bleed a client …..... they do it. Hence why I advise against outsourced software, get a senior tech and give them a % of the equity. Then think long term, short term to market now and then sunk under technical debt is no win.

In *every* case there wasn't a CTO/lead dev/tech person at the top level either making or influencing decisions. It was either outsourced work by UI designers with an idea/product or companies that had gone to Drupal shops and got the quick and dirty (and incomplete) option (which the Drupal people had dropped - as the project came off the rails and the technical debt put the hours though the roof).

The execution of the work 4/5 times was more of an afterthought or see as a linear process of manufacturing – fairly depressing compared with working in the way I usually work.

Typically 3-4 times over time & cost budget though argued “Oh this is always the way software happens, developers just don't understand business” ….... which is typically amateur suits telling junior developers what to do (micro managing) and then blaming them for the outcome of the project.

You need the CTO / lead dev / whatever title …..... to get in the way of that.


My advice is for people on my side of the fence (i.e. senior tech) – if you get no sense of respect or humility from someone who is creating a business (which is essentially a software project) walk away. There are enough companies and choice out there that starving the bad companies of developers will let Darwin take effect.

For the non-technical people trying to hire (or more realistically partner with) people like me – understand that experience technical people will be able to make choices and give input to a project that you likely can't understand. I'm not being condescending – it's just having a depth of understanding in a technical area that others don't – it's what we do - in return they have their skills (art, marketing, finance, sales, etc) and we respect that.


It goes both ways – good business is about good relationships, with the people you work and then the customer. Get that right and the right stuff will follow. It's why I studied counselling and group psychology to complement my tech skills, opposed to an MBA they are fairly worthless.

Start trying to hire good people and then tell them how to do their job ….. you'll get what you deserve - understand it's a partnership of skills and desire bound with respect and once again …... you'll get what you deserve :)

The technical co-founder that has to be absolutely satisfied on all these points is not fit to be a co-founder. The person is likely too risk averse to handle the immense pressures of being a founder. In terms of NTCF's with all these attributes, you are describing people who are also likely smart enough to adequately vet technical talent (there are lots of ways to do this, even for NTCFs) and who will ultimately be convincing rock stars (or close to it) to join their team.

But 95% of technical guys in Silicon Valley are not rock stars. So if you're not and still want to be a technical co-founder, you might actually have to undertake a very substantial risk. If you're not comfortable with that, it may be best that you stay away from entrepreneurship and work instead on attaining rock star skills so you'll be recruited to work on the next Groupon.

@Jeremy - Thanks for that. It's amazing you were able to bring those projects back from the edge of destruction! Your point about humility is great. Everything is about making the right trade-offs, and the more humble people tend to take that to heart more.

@Mike - You are right that what I'm describing is rare. What I'm saying is that developers are so rare now, that they can afford to take a little bit of time to find an extraordinary non-technical partner.

So what happens when you've realised you've made a mistake? You're trying to raise the capital and the management team doesn't quite feel that strong. We've got non-execs suggesting that two of the founding team aren't up to the job and could hinder the raise. How do we a) reduce there equity stake without losing them, or b) lose them and not lose the friendship....
I wouldn't write off MBAs or management consulting experience. Experience working within commerce actually helps as it brings critical relationship development and interpersonal skills to the table. Not only that, but if you're looking to develop key strategic relationships with large companies, knowing the ins and outs of how these companies think and operate puts you in good stead to navigate the bureaucratic minefields. Finally, decision makers at such companies often prefer to deal with somebody who has an MBA or an investment bank on their resume or the like, whether this is justifiable or not. It gives them comfort they're dealing with somebody capable of delivering ROI and opens doors to many meeting rooms.