It begins the practically the instance you learn an oodle of programming. It happens everywhere—a family reunion, a party, or really any social occasion. It always involves the same script.
“What do you study?”
“Oh awesome! Hey man, I have an idea for a startup”
You’ve been there, I’ve been there. We’ve all been there. What should one do in such a situation? To accurately answer this question, I’m going to write a post for both sides: the entrepreneur and the developer.
First up is the entrepreneur side.
Do Your Homework
I gain a lot of respect for someone who has done their research. Read up on topics such as finding startup ideas, why Uber for X doesn’t always work, etc. Learn the terminology. Learn common pitfalls in startups. There is an outrageous amount of ink spilled on being an entrepreneur. Go read some of it.
It always amazes me when the people who propose startup ideas to me don’t appear to do even a modicum of research. There’s nothing less impressive than pitching me ideas that are really kinda lazy. It doesn’t take much to come up with Uber for X. It takes a little more to give me exact numbers, research into product market fit, etc.
A great sign of someone who has thought their idea out is if they can provide insight into challenges and problems with the idea. If that person says that the idea has no problems or potential challenges, then they haven’t done enough research.
Learn a little about technology. A great signifier that someone doesn’t know what they’re talking about is when they ask me to build “an app”. Not an iOS app, not a front end application, not a cross platform app, just “an app”. Which is like asking if a chef can make “food”. It’s a little general.
If you’re going to propose a product, it’d be nice if you did your homework. Do you want a mobile application or a web application? Do you want to make a PaaS or a SaaS? These are essential questions that we need to determine.
If someone can articulate what they want to build concretely and provide a minimum viable product, then I’ll gain a lot more respect for them. Even if this info is wrong or misguided, at least they cared enough to look it up.
Let’s say your idea is a startup called Breakr, Tinder for break dancers. You need to find a developer to build your product. You’ve managed to corner a developer, whether at a party or via email or whatever. How should you sell them on the company?
First, make the pitch simple and concrete. As much as I love to hear about how “Breakr is a platform for fostering a community1 through love and intimacy”, it tells me nothing about what you want to build. I don’t want to wade through lofty nonsense just to get an idea of what you’re selling me.
And don’t purposefully keep the idea vague for fear that I will steal it. I know, you watched The Social Network and immediately became terrified of some nerd stealing your idea and becoming a billionaire. Your idea is probably not as important as you think. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t become a billionaire just because of the idea. Facebook wasn’t exactly a groundbreaking concept at the time. MySpace and Friendster were a thing, and even before that, someone probably thought “hey, what if, there were like a website where I could see what my friends are up to.” Chances are, your idea is also not new (but still may be worth pursuing). Second, so what? If I took your idea and made it into a company, it’s not like that company is a guaranteed success. I still need to, y’know, build the product, get funding, find users, etc. It’s not like the moment someone starts building a similar product it’s game over. To paraphrase Paul Graham competition isn’t the main arbiter of startup success: It’s you.
In that case, who are you? Why are you the person who I should work with? Because more than the idea, I care about you and what you bring to the table. I’d much rather work with a good person on a terrible idea. We can always change the idea.
What are your skills? Are you also a great programmer? Do you know a lot about a particular niche? Do you have business skills? What are these skills? What’s your work experience? I wouldn’t mind if the person just handed me their resume.
A lot of entrepreneurs treat finding a technical person like hiring an employee. They explain the company, then either the developer wants to join or not. But unless you can actually offer a competitively paid with benefits job, you’re asking for more of a partnership than an employee/employer relationship. And in that case you need to sell yourself as a potential business partner.
Even if you are hiring employee #1, the company is still fundamentally centered around you, the founder. I’d like to know as much as possible about the person I’m giving my time and effort towards.
Please don’t offer me unpaid work with a possibility of equity. That’s just insulting. Even if the person you’re approaching is young or a student, you need to offer something. Either offer them equity or payment. And not like a few percentage points. If you’re expecting me to build out this app, then I want to be treated as an equal.
I don’t know why this is hard for people to understand.
Get What You (Don’t) Pay For
Some people are probably reading this and saying “I haven’t done this and I’ve gotten people to work for me!” And sure, you can totally find people who will work with you without knowing the idea, or without pay. But chances are these people won’t be very good. Sure, there’s the one in a million chance you stumble upon a young, innocent and idealistic programmer who wants the “experience” to work on your project. And then there’s the one in a million chance they can actually execute your ideas and develop the softer. And the one in a million chance they’ll stay engaged for the lifetime of the company. And that they’ll leave the codebase in a somewhat decent state for other developers. Keeping track of the probabilities here?
What’s much more likely is that you’ll attract the sort of people who will accept terrible offers such as no pay and little equity: the desperate. What’s dangerous about a desperate programmer is that they will promise the moon if you just hire them. They will never push back and tell you something cannot be done. Which, contratry to the pithy mottos and inspirational anecdotes, will not lead to groundbreaking achievements, but instead to failure and disappointment for both of you.
You should have high standards for your developers. They should be smart people who could otherwise be gainfully employed. They should have some business acumen, or at least the common sense to not work for free. If you find a developer who you’ve tricked into working for free, well, the person who is now building out your company is a person who was just tricked into working for free. That’s not a great sign.
I’ve written a whole post about email. Read it. Reiterating one point, please proofread your emails. Use correct spelling and grammatical sentences. It may seem petty, but an email consisting of “i have idea. can u make it??” is a lot less appealing than a well formed, well thought out proposal. And sure, English may not be your first language. But there’s probably someone you know whose first language is English. Just send it to them.
Finding a developer is finding a partner, unless you can pay them a competative salary. Therefore you should treat each and every developer with respect, respect to their time, to their intelligence and to their monetary needs. The relationship between you and the developer will be the core relationship for the company. Act accordingly.
Yes, yes this is Torch’s motto too. But in my defense Torch isn’t a startup. ↩