As part of our Founders + Funders SF 2019 summit, held in partnership with Seneca VC, we brought together an exciting group of startup founders and investors for a day of learning, networking and growth.

Chantal Emmanuel, CTO and Co-Founder of LimeLoop, joined us to talk through the process of deciding whether you need a technical co-founder, and, if you do, how to go about the search.

Hey, everyone, I’m really excited to be here. I actually started getting Women 2.0 emails years ago before I even thought about being a founder at all. So it’s full circle to stand here before you and talk about my experience.

We’re going to talk about why you don’t always need a technical co-founder as told by me, a technical co-founder.

The reason why I want to talk about this is that I get the question all the time. I tell the people I’m a technical co-founder, and I’m always asked how to find someone like me?

I want to reframe this conversation. Think about like why you’re even asking that in the first place. Is that really the best route for you?

We’ll take a look at what the roles are of a technical co-founder, and think about how to realize whether or not you actually need one. If you don’t, what are some other structures you can put into place? And if you do, what are some things you can do to find one and make that process a lot simpler?

First a little bit backstory. I’m the CTO and co-founder of LimeLoop. We make returnable smart shippers, we’re trying to get rid of those piles of cardboard boxes I’m sure many of you have, like myself, by your garbage bin. I have an amazing group of founders who happen to be women.

So what’s the role of a technical co-founder? This is where people get stuck. I heard this really great analogy where someone said that looking for a technical co-founder is like trying to hire your own neurosurgeon. Where do you even begin? You have no idea what it means to cut into someone’s brain. How do you even start to look for that?

That mysticism we put around technology is actually harming non-technical founders. What happens when we break down what that role is and just see it as a technology role that exists no matter whether there’s a technical lead, a CTO, or a co-founder.

Karl Hughes has this really great list of 13 responsibilities he thinks are needed from a startup CTO. I feel like this can be applied to any technology lead you’re bringing into, especially an early stage startup, before you’re able to divide these things up.

Building the MVP, hiring that team, security, product management, application architecture, etc. But when a lot of people say they’re looking for a technical co-founder, they’re actually looking for someone to do these things. And someone who does these things can take a lot of different forms.

What’s important is that you ask whether or not you want that person to be a co-founder of the things besides the technical part of it. Break out the technical piece, and think more in terms of the co-founder aspect of it. When you do that, sit down, write it down, and think about it in terms of buckets. What type of commitment is that person expected to make for your company? Are they in the trenches with you, are they answering your Slack messages at 2a, are they available on the weekend? If not, that’s not a co-founder. A co-founder is in it with you in it.

A few more questions to ask:

  • Are you able to compensate them relative to that expectation?
  • If you want them their all the time, are you willing to pay them in equity?
  • Are you willing to pay them in the salary that warrants that level of commitment?
  • When are they coming in and how much say do they have?
  • Are they coming in really early and getting to decide the whole trajectory of that product? Or have you had enough expertise and enough time and research that you pretty much know what the solution is, and you need to execute to get to your vision?

When you start to write all these things down, you can answer your own question as to who this person is. The role will literally shape itself as you think about the expectations beyond the technical list, because anyone you bring in to be a technical lead should be doing those technical things.

I invite you to demystify that and stop thinking that technology is this magical thing that you can never understand. You can, it has terms, and you can figure it out.

What are some alternative structures?

Let’s say you make that list and you realize, no, you just need someone to execute against your product, but you don’t have the means to bring that person in right now.

Learn yourself

One of the things people shy away from is thinking about learning to code. That sounds crazy, but it’s not. It is totally attainable and if it’s mission critical, why wouldn’t you do that the same way that you would learn how to make a sales calls if you never did? And I’m talking about learning enough to make that prototype, to get user interest to make sure you actually have market fit. Something you could take in front of investors, that you can actually use to help market to a technical co-founder if you actually go that route later on.

But if you take the time to learn enough to understand it, you’ll use it forever. You’ll use it when you’re hiring technical people in the future, you’ll use it when you’re asking for a feature and they look at you like you’re crazy because you’ll understand a little bit more about what actually goes into making that.

For hiring a dev team, there’s a different time commitment and level of resources required for that, but if you have a pretty good sense of what you’re trying to build and you have the resources to do it, then you can work with a dev team to build out the first version before you bring it in-house.

Technical advisor

One thing people often overlook is bringing a technical adviser. If you’re in the stage where you’re not ready bring someone in full time, you can bring in someone who has a really amazing senior engineering role somewhere else to give you a couple of hours a week in exchange for a little bit of equity to get you to that point we can bring someone in.

Maybe you went the route of learning how to code and you want somebody come in for two or three hours a week to go through what you’ve been building and help you through bugs. That’s totally acceptable.

Maybe you went the route of hiring a dev team and you want an advisor to come in and help vet them and the work they’re doing. That’s totally within the wheelhouse of a technical advisor.

Thinking outside the box can really help you continue to move and not get stuck in a place where you’re waiting to build a product and move forward.

What if you really do need a technical co-founder?

On the contrary let’s say you make your list and it’s pretty obvious that you need someone to support you beyond just building the product. You want a partner, you want someone in the trenches with you, you want someone going out and doing pitches.

Take a look at a talk by Michael, he’s the CEO and partner at Y Combinator. He had a really great on how to find a technical co-founder.

The first thing is just make a list. Don’t overthink it. Think of anyone you’ve ever met, anyone on your Facebook, anyone on your LinkedIn, who could possibly, potentially, maybe be a good fit. Don’t try to figure out that one person right away.

You’ll start to see all the people in your network, or your two degrees of separation, or three degrees of separation, you’ll realize that your technical co-founder is not more than a person away from you already.

Once you make that list, you can rank them, and pick your top five. Who are the five people that you can actually see yourself emailing in the middle of the night – because you will be doing a lot of that – and who’s going to be with you from the very beginning and through to the very end?

Then make them real offer. A lot of people come and pitch me, “Oh look, I have this idea. Do you mind just like working on it on the side?” No. I don’t have time for that. If you’re going to make someone an offer to join your team and be in there with you, then make it a real offer. Have the list you made of all the expectations you want, and the compensation are willing to give.

Have an honest conversation about what joining your company is going to look like for them. Then they can start to see and envision it. Because right now, they’re probably in a very comfortable job making a great paycheck, and you’re asking me to take this giant leap into the unknown. Give it some stake, give it some parameters so they can actually get behind you on that.

Thank you so much everyone, it was great to be here.