April 24, 2019
Spend minimal months in tech or startup social media orbits & you’re bound to bounce into a nontechnical-founder horror story. Or worse, a public mocking of a poor business soul trying to build the next Uber for X or AirBNB for Y that’s yet to discover the inspector console.
The scene itself has evolved into a meme — a post on a college bulletin or collegiate Facebook group with the enticing pitch of working on their idea for 10% equity & pizza (NDA signed first, of course).
The truth is, my fellow business school friend, most prospective technical partners, particularly young, arrogant programmers, are laughing mid-way through your pitch. They’re exhausted of seeing the same, exact failure points in these pitches & are therefore highly wary that you’d be an incompetent co-founder. The technical co-founder you’re so desperately seeking out asks him or herself one simple question while reading your pitch:
If I’m building the entire project, then what are you doing idea guy?
The most important principle overlooked by these pitches is that they simply ignore a core truth: you’re pitching yourself as much as the idea.
If you’re a non-technical wannapreneur in your late teens or early twenties, then breathe easy — I’m about to drastically increase your chances of seeing an MVP (minimal viable product) all the way through. 90% of the time these attempts at luring a technical co-founder fall flat on their face for two core reasons:
There are likely a hundred more faux-pas that’ll land you on the top post of I Can Handle The Business Side, however, if you can succinctly approach the two largest hiccups displayed above, you’re in a much better position than most.
There are three main steps that a nontechnical founder should take before reaching out publicly or privately to potential tech co-founders:
I. Plan An End Goal In Mind
II. Fill Your MVP Knowledge Gap
III. Prepare A Realistic Budget
Recall the statement made above: you’re pitching yourself as much if not more than the idea itself. Yes, this means work on your end. But it also means you’ll likely stand out. Note, as a completely nontechnical founder when I first started down my path, a lot of what follows is both a culmination of my personal experience & a decade-worth of observations in startup & technology circles.
Unlike most dreamers that have yet to taste the sourness of a flat launch, any application veteran will confirm: launching an app does not guarantee reliable traffic. Read researched articles on the subject. Talk to dev shop owners that launch countless client experiments. Take my word personally on tens of sunsetted passion-projects. I’ve been there, pitching straight-faced to investors with my garbage spreadsheet projections showing 500K downloads by the end of Month 4.
The first turn-off I see in nontechnical pitches is a lacking sense of reality. Most business people start their projections with researching (or worse, guessing) market sizes & then extrapolating down through a series of convergences to a projected EBITDA (total market -> direct market-> views etc…). While it’s highly recommended that you know these market numbers, I’m going to offer paradoxical advice here: do not tie MVP goals with projections distilled from marketing research.
The margin for error is simply too high & the final value-added for your efforts is quite low. It goes against expected advice, but for an MVP goal, you’re much better off following your intuition — if you think your MVP goal is laughably small, you’re on the right track to sounding realistic. Take the following examples:
Example 1 — Clearly In The Dark Dude
“Statista claims this is a $10B dollar market, so our goal is simply to capture 1% of the existing market — which would already be a $100M business!”
Example 2 — Researched & Realistic Dudette
“Understanding this is an MVP, our goal is to attain ten paying customers with an above industry-average churn”
“We’re testing a new market, so we need to prioritize organic feedback — our goal is to attain one hundred early-adopters that we can leverage for a v2.”
Realistic expectations, well-defined goals & an understanding of industry norms (“churn” & “early-adopters”). The second set of examples are significantly better positioned to attract the attention of a potential tech partner. Bonus here, technical co-founders are mainly sales-averse & therefore highly-value a competent salesman — you can’t go wrong by including a section on how you’ll drive sales to reach the MVP goals.
Assuming you’re truly nontechnical, you don’t know what you don’t know. That’s a dangerous spot to start a venture that requires time & money. In order to sound semi-competent in any pitch, to customers, investors, or partners, you, as the assumed entrepreneur/business-side, need to know the basics.
The more specific you are in detailing your exact needs to a technical partner, the more prepared & professional you come across. An obvious caveat here is that spewing buzzwords without a rudimentary understanding is likely to land you in a heap of embarrassment. Do your homework.
First, figure out what you need in order to launch an MVP. Do you need a website? A mobile app? Both iOS & Android? At the very minimum I’d suggest conducting some research on the native languages required for each app-type needed; in the case of web development, read a bit on the most popular web frameworks. Let’s again review two contrasting examples:
Example 1 — Not Prepared Dude
“I need an app programmer that can build a website & an Apple app” yikes
Example 2 — Very Prepared Dudette
“Flexible & willing to default to your expertise, but for the MVP we’d prefer a React engineer for the web front-end & a native Swift developer for the iOS app.”
Tread this line carefully but don’t overlook it entirely. You’re now starting to come across as someone semi-technical, or at the very least someone that’s quite diligent & well-researched; again, you’re pitching yourself as much as the idea.
I know it hurts to see, but I’m flat-out confirming that any equity-offer void of moola is a no-go. Despite the real progress in product tools intended for nontechnical people, one still needs a solid $5,000 to $10,000 budget for a single MVP (web app OR iOS app OR Android app). It’s possible, maybe, that some young college dreamer or Upwork contractor might stretch into the $2,500 area; but, at that point, you’re haphazardly approaching the you-get-what-you-pay-for territory. Again, I know it’s frustrating, possibly even momentum-crushing to see those figures.
So let me introduce one of the final, yet most sought-after characteristics in non-technical partners: they figure it out. Raising from friends, families & fools, entering school competitions or applying to accelerators. Sense the seriousness here — as the assumed CEO, one of your most important jobs is to always keep the project funded. If you can’t climb this first mountain, attaining a realistic budget for a realistic MVP, you’re not ready. Can’t scrape together $5K to $10K? God forbid the day arrives that you’re weeks out from missing payroll for an entire team & freeze-up.
But What If I Really Don’t Have Access To A High-Value Network, Business School Competitions, etc…?
You still figure it out. This isn’t a school test with a singular right answer — this is the startup world. Creativity, tenacity, persistence, & a hunger to learn is the name of the game.
Can’t raise enough to reach the realistic budget amount? Fine. Find a way to decrease the total budget needed. How? Require less work from your potential technical partner by taking on a product role, specifically, designing. Speaking from very personal experience here, the only sure-fire way I’ve found to deviate from the figures posted above is to come to the table with documentation, designs, & more designs.
Most developers don’t like designing whatsoever, yet your product undoubtedly requires an entire design process. Want to shave 10% to 34% off the prices posted above? Show up with a full prototype fleshed out. Yes, this might take massive action on your part. You’ll have to download Adobe XD or Sketch, watch tens of hours of YouTube tutorials, & then spend another hundred hours tweaking ux wireframes, greyscale mockup, & high-fidelity mock-ups.
Either way, get it done because this is the litmus test — if you can’t approach a technical partner with a realistic budget, or a lesser budget but completed designs, forget about it.
And there, we, go. Setting a realistic goal. Researching MVP requirements. And attaining a realistic budget. As a nontechnical entrepreneur, if you follow the three steps detailed above before broadcasting your search for a technical co-founder, you drastically increase your chances. At a bare minimum, if you still fail to find a co-founder, you at least have enough documentation & knowledge to approach micro & small development shops without getting eaten alive.
While the steps above result in tangible changes to a pitch, again, the most important part of the pitch is you. In general, most programmers have a significantly better gauge than most non-technical people on what launching a new product truly requires; by putting in the time & care to understand the world through their eyes, you’re much more likely to excite someone to join you along for your journey.