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

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.
Notes

[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.

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