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.

12 responses
Well done. Thanks for the hilarious read.
@Amber Thanks!
All agreed, and it's something we all hear. Even then, it's not enough. I've worked with a non-technical founder who has worked at a startup (not a founder at the startup) and spoke all the right language, but in the end, he just didn't know web (tech) startup operates and was a horrible leader.
@Jack - Sorry to hear that. At what point did you/the company decide he had to go?
Thanks for writing this! You've made my decision between non-technical co-founders very easy!
@James - Glad it helped!
Primo! Spot on! "Multiple startups" and "rockstar language" are in my hot button hall of fame, from unfortunate past experience.
#12: He's an investment banker. First, they work long hours and don't have time for startups. Second, they're pampered prima donnas. Third, the IB career exists on the promise that if you suffer enough, you're guaranteed to be rich some day, so it attracts risk-averse people.
I really appreciate reading posts like this as a "business" person. I think sometimes developers lump everyone that's a "business" person into "omg nube can't hack and haz no skillz" when in reality startups can really use people with differentiated skill sets.

Now a business guy who won't learn even high-level product development concepts, that's just as bad as a developer who thinks they don't need to market or interact with users. Just my thought, but people from opposite ends of the spectrum who set out to learn and empathize with each other will always be the best cocktail.

@John - Thanks! I get hit most with the "just build it for" me one. The two you mentioned are definitely near the top thought too.

@Michael - I wonder what would happen if a investment banker quit their job and dedicated all their effort to a startup? They do work a lot.

@Chris - Thanks! I think a lot of these warning signs can apply to founders of all types (even if technical themselves). Awesome point about two people from opposite ends of the spectrum.

That NDA thing happened to me few times. Really a good read!
Looking for a "NON-technical" co-founder. Contact me at http://www.salescart.com if you are.