Before I covered the entrepreneur side. Now let’s do the developer side.
Do You Want It?
Do you want to do a startup? If not, then don’t even entertain the idea. There’s no point.
If you do want to do a startup, make sure it’s for the right reasons. If you can’t get a job offer, don’t go and do a startup as a backup option. Don’t do it to get rich. Don’t do a startup to prove how smart you are. Do a startup because you genuinely want to build something of worth. Do a startup because you want to solve a problem that you care about. Do a startup to create shit.
Evaluate Your Co-Founder
Before you even think about the idea, you should ask yourself if you want to work with the person who’s giving the idea. The person who you decide to work with is far more important than the idea. You can always change ideas. You can’t (easily) change cofounders.
Ask: Do you trust them? What skills do they have? What experience do they have? Do you have a pre-existing relationship (family, friend, romantic) with them that could be a potential issue?
If you do not want to work with them, then shut it down.
Treat this evaluation almost like a job application. If you want, ask to see their resume. Or snoop them on LinkedIn or their personal website. See if they have any experience in the industry related to their idea.
“Business” is not a skill. Ask them to clarify in terms of concrete actions.
Companies follow a very specific philosophy for hiring: It’s better to reject a good candidate than accept a bad one. Hence, if even one interviewer is hesitant or iffy on a candidate, the company rejects. You should follow the same rule when evaluating startup ideas. It doesn’t matter if the idea might be good. If you aren’t 100% sure that it’s a good idea, right this second, reject.
Some people may say that you only see the appeal of certain ideas if you’re in a specific niche. That may be true, but you don’t want to waste a year or two of your life (worth at least 6 figures in salary plus all the other missed opportunities) on an idea that could be good.
When evaluating ideas, you should always ask yourself if you would use the product. And be honest! Don’t say “maybe, yeah, I could see myself using xyz”. No. You either want to use it or you don’t. And if you don’t want to use the product, why are you working on it?
Let’s say you’re not interested. How do you get out?
Start by making some non-committal noises about how the idea looks very interesting and you can definitely see a niche. Do not criticize the idea, as that will only lead to a flurry of justification and debate. Often times people who pitch startup ideas to strangers are vigorously and viciously defensive of their idea. Don’t provoke them.
If you’re a student or early in your development career, you can make some small claims about how you’re not sure if you’re ready to work on such a big task. Play up how inexperienced you are. Make it sound like you don’t know anything.
If that doesn’t work, then just try to exit the conversation as quickly as possible. Sometimes this isn’t easy. Sometimes it’s a relative or family friend who you can’t duck. But just continue making non-commital but positive statements until you can leave.
If you feel it is necessary, send the person an email thanking them, telling them that the idea sounds great and that unfortunately you are just so busy and cannot work with them. Again, avoid critiquing the ideas, otherwise you will just end up in a passive aggressive email argument. Keep an open mind, it genuinely could be a good idea that you don’t understand.
Get Your Share
Let’s say you are interested? How do you get your share?
First, understand that you are holding almost all of the cards. You are the one who can actually make this idea reality. You are the one who will be writing code, who will be deploying and maintaining the product.
Therefore, you are not an employee. You are not, god forbid, an intern. You are a founder. Do not do the work of building a company without the position, equity and credit that comes with building a company.
Treat any such offer of unpaid employement with the contempt it deserves. Then, reevaluate whether you want to work with someone who is attempting to devalue your labor.
Be realistic, most importantly to yourself, but also to your new co-founder. Don’t promise them the moon, the sky and the stars.
Developers are remarkably bad at estimating tasks. Especially novice developers. Remember that non developers don’t always understand this. If you say 3 weeks they will take it as 3 weeks or less. Do not give exact numbers without serious thought, preliminary work and research.
Unless you are an actual professional with proper work experience, you should explain that you are a student and that you will have to take time to learn new tech, to make mistakes and to fix bugs that are new to you. Your co-founder should be understanding. If they are not, if they get angry, or if they start talking about making the impossible possible, reevaluate whether you want to work with someone who does not acknowledge reality.
Startups can be a great opportunity. But you should do your due diligence on the idea as well as the person pitching it before you commit your time, energy and code to the project.