Warning signs in a non-technical cofounder (can you spot them?)

As a software engineer, if you've been to a tech event, you've probably been asked to cofound a company with a non-technical founder. We've collected a number of warning signs that come up in these types of conversations here.

We've included 11 notable signs in this video. Can you spot them? Anything we didn't include?

[Text of the video is at the bottom of the post if you aren't able to watch it]

Multiple startups in the works
"I'm in the process of launching a couple of startups"

Many first-time entrepreneurs ping-pong between startup ideas without market-based justification until they burn themselves, their money, their cofounders, or all three out. Be extremely careful about getting involved with someone like this. Make sure that the non-technical cofounder is serious and committed enough to a concept that they're willing to test it in the market. Writing a bunch of code and finding out your cofounder doesn't care about the concept anymore is not fun.

No experience in your startup's domain/market
"leave my finance job to build a social networking site that will revolutionize the marketing space"

Ideally, the non-technical cofounder's skills will complement your own. Someone on your team needs to have experience or reliable contacts in your target market, and if that's not you, it needs to be them.

On a more time-sensitive note: technical people are in huge demand right now! If you're very interested in a certain space, why not partner up with someone who does have experience in that area? Right now you're the tougher person to find, and whoever you approach will probably be thrilled that a technical person wants to start a company with them.

They don't have a web presence for their web startup
"need someone to buy the domain"

A non-technical founder who registers a domain and has a basic web presence communicates, "I'm willing to do things outside of my comfort range for my company". Buying a domain and putting a simple page there requires commitment to an idea and some technical persistence (especially if they choose GoDaddy). It's well within their capabilities to have a basic web presence for their web startup. 

If they don't, it often translates into a lack of respect for technology and a lack of willingness to understand how things get built or work.

"Just need someone to build it now" mentality
"... and build it for me now"

A non-technical founder needs to know that websites don't "just get built". They get crafted. They get tested. They get maintained.

A technical cofounder is not a code monkey. You are a cofounder, and you're taking an idea and making it viable by building something. You understand how the business works just as well as the non-technical founder; however, you have chosen to focus on the technical implementation of your product instead of business development and fundraising, for example.

Poor interactions with other technical people
"Actually, it's the third one that has bailed. They've all been idiots."

Sometimes things don't end up working out between cofounders. Nothing to see there. The technical cofounder could have been completely wrong for the project, could have lacked technical skills, or could have embezzled money from the company. 

At some point though, it's more likely the non-technical founders' fault. That point is probably somewhere between two and three cofounders who have bailed. If there's any way you can get in touch with the previous technical cofounders to get their perspective, do that. Hint: the commit logs usually have their email address.

Rock Star Language
"This time, I'm really looking for a rockstar though. A real ninja guru."

"Rock star" may have communicated a trendy vibe at one point, but those times have passed. Now it communicates a desperate attempt to seem cooler than they really are, a sign that they're too full of themselves, that they're a slave driver, or that they're just naive. For more detail, see What developers think when you say "Rock Star".

"Build it and they will come" mentality
"They're going to come flocking to us."

Your non-technical founder should express a strong desire to get market validation of their concept. If you're making medicine, you can build it and they will come. The need is so undeniably visible. Websites are different. 
If your non-technical cofounder can't see any possible way that their concept might not catch on, they are dillusional or naive. They'll probably compromise your ability to ship without things being perfect, further delaying your ability to test your product's viability.

Ethics that don't jibe with yours
"we'll just buy a bunch of followers on twitter"

It's unlikely the non-technical founder will suggest something outlandishly unethical (like "let's use our users' credit cards to make company purchases"). But at some point, they may suggest something that doesn't quite click with your ethics (like "we can trick the user in to signing up by suggesting the product is free but after they try it out, they actually have to pay for most things!"). Pay attention to these feelings you have. You need to be able to trust your cofounder, and these types of ethical issues tend to get magnified in times of trouble (which most startups run in to frequently).

Reluctance to tell you terms of your equity allocation
"It's 100,000 shares!"

This is typically a later stage conversation, but when it comes up, they should be willing to tell you how much of the company you're getting. For more on this topic, see these posts from Chris Dixon and Venture Hacks.

How much should you expect? It's a function of how much risk they've eliminated from the business (having just wireframes eliminates ~0 risk). Think of it from this perspective: Is it worth giving up [100 - (your equity share)]% of a company to have them join you?

Some other good resources on equity allocation:

Premature NDA
"This idea is so good though, I'd really appreciate it if you'd sign this non-disclosure agreement."

In the early stages of a company, non-technical founders need to validate their concept. If they're not telling everyone they talk to about the idea, they're probably not getting enough feedback. Asking you to sign an NDA very early in your conversations indicates a naivety about startups, recruiting, and development. At some point you may need to sign one, but it will be well after you know what the company's product does and how the business model works.

No questions for you

If the non-technical founder doesn't ask you anything about yourself, your interests, your tech skills, etc, they're probably either desperate or lack empathy. Both are problems. Desperation can lead the non-technical founder to hire people who aren't a good fit for the team. A lack of empathy can make it hard for the non-technical founder to understand future users, clients, partners, and employees.

This post has been a follow up to our previous post - How to evaluate a non-technical cofounder

About Hirelite

Hirelite is on a mission to put headhunters out of business. We host speed interviewing events using video chat where 20 job seekers talk to 20 companies for 5 minutes each. If you're looking to evaluate the software job market or looking to hire, check out our upcoming events focused on San Francisco/Silicon Valley and New York City.

Text from the video
[T = technical founder, N = nontechnical founder]

T: Hi, I'm a software engineer at Initech. What do you do?
N: I'm an investment banker, but I'm in the process of launching a couple of startups!
T: Interesting. Tell me about them.
N: I am going to leave my finance job to build a social networking site that will revolutionize the marketing space. I've got all the wireframes and planning done, and just need someone to buy the domain and build it for me now. I'm actually looking for a technical cofounder now because mine just left.
T: I'm sorry to hear that. How did that happen?
N: Actually, it's the third one that has bailed. They've all been idiots. This time, I'm really looking for a rockstar though. A real ninja guru.
T: How are you going to get people to use your service?
N: We have all the features. Every single feature our users want, we have. They're going to come flocking to us. If that doesn't work, we'll just buy a bunch of followers on twitter!
T: You have every feature? How far along are you?
N: 90 percent of the site is built. It's been TONS of work, but we've got to make sure it's absolutely perfect before we release it.
T: Hmmm. Tell me again... what does your site do?
N: I'd love to tell you! This idea is so good though, I'd really appreciate it if you'd sign this non-disclosure agreement. Then I'd love to dive in deeper. This is such a great idea, we know someone will copy it the instant they hear it.
T: Just curious. How much are you going to pay your technical cofounder?
N: I'm offering 100,000 shares of a company that is going to be huge.
T: How much of the company is that?
N: It's 100,000 shares!
T: But how much of the company with the technical cofounder own?
N: Listen, this thing is going to be huge. And we're offering so many shares! Come on. Sign this non-disclosure agreement. I'd love to tell you more!

Note: These conversations are typically spread over weeks or months, so you will have to watch more closely on your own.

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.