Technical Co-Founder: first "hire"?

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Now that I have spent more than a year working with venture capitalists and startups in New York City, I have picked up on many subtle and not so subtle differences between the tech scene here vs. Silicon Valley where I have spent most of my life.  Some of the New York attitudes toward startups have been useful:  focusing on minimally viable products that produce financial results, focus on media and consumer traction as an integral part of the company plan, and conservative approaches to early company valuation.  But one of the uniquely East Coast rituals struck me as odd:  the quest of business-focused company founders to “find a technical co-founder” for their venture.  There are job posting for this position, there are events, there are discussions on forums.  All assume you can start with a business idea, hire a super-coder to implement the idea, and get the company off the ground.  VC’s often make “finding a technical co-founder” a requisite to getting a company funded which I find to be a naive and pessimistic view of the importance technology plays in software startups.

Although I am sure there are notable exceptions, the concept of “finding” a technical co-founder was something I had never heard of in my 15 years in Silicon Valley.  Maybe it’s because I am a three time company co-founder who is technical first and  business focused second, but, to me, the founding team always needed to be there from the start of the company — or it would not be a company at all.  Technology had to woven into the business plan and featured front and center before any VC pitches were given.  West Coast tech has seen its share of founding teams.  Some founders may have been more technical, some  focused on business (Wozniak + Jobs), but usually, it is the “business guy” that was sought after the company got going (Brinn & Page + Schmidt) , (Gates & Allen + Ballmer), not the other way around as often happens in New York.

Two days ago, I attended an amazing dinner hosted by David Kirkpatrick of  It was a chance to discuss some of the ways in which technology has influenced society and what’s in store for the future.  One of the guests on the grand guest list happened to be Kevin Colleran of Facebook — the man in charge of global partnerships and revenue and the second longest-tenured employee at the company (after Zuckerberg).    Kevin was asked about things he had learned during his work at Facebook.  One of the lessons, he said, was that (paraphrasing) “technology has to be there from the very beginning”  — which immediately made me smile.  He felt that Facebook could not have become Facebook if it was strictly a business idea driven by business guys with a business vision.  Technical innovation, he felt, was one of the keys to the company’s success.   Hmm…  how apropos.  Maybe Zuckerberg had a “find a technical co-founder” todo on his task list, but I doubt it.  Just as I am sure the Winklevoss twins had a “find a geek to code this thing” task on theirs.  The Winklevii today would probably go to a tech co-founder event, cast their net, and snag an engineer.  But, guess what?  The engineer would not have been Zuckerberg, and the company would not be Facebook.

Y**ou can not just “find a technical co-founder.”** You can hire a technical force of nature to move your startup forward, you can get him to bring an army of his friends… but it’s still a “gun for hire” vs. a co-founder. A co-founder is your friend, your colleague. It is someone you know and someone who helped you fine tune your ideas and make them into a technical reality. These relationships are nurtured and grown, not found at events. At events, you’ll get engineers. Your co-founder should be there before the company even exists, otherwise it’s not a company.