This is the first part of a two part series. The second part will obviously be: what to look for in technical cofounders. This post is something that I’ve been meaning to write for a while, but after reading two nonsense articles on Hacker News this evening I was immediately prompted to write this. A startup is a lot of work and no one skillset can handle it all. When you’re bootstrapped, with little funding, and working against the clock, each individual needs to be laser focused on what they are best at. A well trained technical cofounders should be handling the engineering side of things and a well trained business cofounder should be handling the business side of things. So if you’re a technical cofounder and you need a business cofounder or have been approached by a potential business cofounder, here are the things that I would look at.
A good level of technical understanding
Too many business co-founder types have no technical understanding at all. If you’re in the software business you should understand the technical end of things, just as if you’re in the biotech business, you should have a good understanding of science. They should have an idea of how products are built, not be afraid of code speak, specifications, and architectural decisions. Startups are like cyborgs, where the technology is so interwoven with the business side of things, that separating the two out would just kill it. Make sure your business cofounder has a strong grasp on technology. They will not be able to make the proper business decisions without this.
A strong ability to communicate in copywriting and presentation
While you are writing the code behind the app and working on a lot of the design, they will most likely be preparing the sales copy, the site copy, the ad copy, and presentations that will be given at conferences/to investors. Your business cofounder should be able to strategically set the message that will be displayed. Look at Steve Jobs. He’s actually the business co-founder of Apple. Find someone who can communicate clearly with an audience and bring a strong level of passion and enthusiasm into the room.
A clear grasp of how to execute PR campaigns
Public Relations is a funny dance in the startup world. It’s essentially a sales process that requires a certain skill of persuasion. They are selling the journalist on the fact that your startup is worth writing about and unique enough that it will bring them more pageviews/interest than the other 100 companies pitching them that day. This takes practice and in some cases an innate talent for storytelling. While you are putting the final touches on the actual engineering, your business cofounder should be putting together a PR plan along with the pitch materials for the journalists themselves. +1 if your business cofounder has done this before and has relationships with journalists.
A strong understanding of operational headaches such as legal, HR, etc.
Paperwork and mundane operational stuff is such a pain in the ass. Payroll? Incorporation? Founders agreements? Fundraising details? All of these things take time and are a distraction to technical cofounders. Yes, they should be aware of what’s going on and have input, but spending a ton of time on these items is not optimal.
An ability to walk the walk with investors
Fundraising is such a hellacious pain that eats a startup’s time like none other. All cofounders should be present at pitch meetings, but the negotiations behind the scenes, constant emailing back+forth, setting terms, paperwork,etc. eats time. A good business cofounder will have dealt with investors in the past and know how to go through the fundraising process from pitch to term sheet.
A clear ability to translate user feedback and support requests into product decisions
You just launched. You now have hundreds of customers and thousands of users. Things are breaking and people are sending in requests left + right. Some are important and some are just silly. A good business cofounder knows how to deal with support and how to prioritize what problems are truly worthy of immediate attention or just things to add to the roadmap. Your business cofounder must also once again put his communication skills to good use by dealing with most support inquiries. This is also another area where your business cofounder’s tech background should come into play. By understanding the way the software works, they can start to prioritize requests. That “easy” fix might actually require a huge underlying architectural change. Your business cofounder will know this and move it down the list due to its larger than meets the eye impact.
A great filter of potential opportunities
People are going to want to partner with you, give you ideas on product direction, and who knows what else. Hell, your investors, the people that gave you lots of money will start to throw ideas at you. You can’t do them all and if you try to do them all, no matter how much you have raised, you will just drown in a pool of unfocused sorrow. You and your business cofounder have set a distinct vision, and your business cofounder must have a vicious appetite for saying no to most things that come through the door in order to preserve that vision.
A great talent scout
One person was not enough and two people will most likely not be enough. Guess what? You’re going to have to hire people and that takes a lot of time. The initial recruiting and scouting takes a ton of time. Both cofounders should be very involved in the interviewing and hiring process, but it’s the initial scouting of talent that matters. You won’t have enough money for a recruiter, so you will have to do it yourself, which is better anyway. The DNA of your first 50 employees is too crucial to leave up to someone outside the company. Your business cofounder should be a great scout of talent to build out the rest of the marketing, biz dev, and technical team (another area where being technical as a business cofounder is crucial).
A clear vision on how to develop customer acquisition methods
I’ve said it before and I will say it again: if you build it they will not come. A lack of customer acquisition methods and points of distribution is the single largest killer of startups out there. Getting a product to market is certainly difficult, but acquiring customers is even more difficult. Your business cofounder should have a clear vision for how to acquire customers. SEO and viral stuff shouldn’t be their only answer. Many customer acquisition methods include business development deals and channel partners. Your business cofounder should know how to develop those relationships.
An understanding of metrics, pricing, and A/B testing
Knowing the important metrics of your business are so key from even the early days. I’m not talking revenue numbers. I’m talking customer acquisition costs, acceptable churn, lifetime value of the customer, etc. Pricing is also an important decision making process that your business co-founder should understand. Your business cofounder should also be comfortable performing a/b testing on all of the beautiful copy he has put together.
A level of domain expertise in the business of your specific sector
Developing an enterprise SaaS company is way different than an ad supported niche consumer product. Your business cofounder should be well versed in the actual sector you’re going in to. It’s like saying an athlete should just play baseball if they play basketball. Sure Michael Jordan is a gifted athlete, but we can both agree his talents are best served in basketball. The same should be true of your business co-founder. If they are a former SalesForce employee, they would most likely be a great business co-founder for a SaaS startup. Former Facebook employee? A consumer driven application would be a good fit.
An ability to think fast
Just like you can iterate quickly on the actual product through code, your business cofounder should be able to make decisions fast. Startups have a distinct by being able to move fast. Your business cofounder should be confident and have the ability to make decisions fast. This is as true for fun decisions such as “Which investor do we go with?” as it is for not fun decisions “Do we let this person go?”
It’s possible that a hacker could do all these things, and vice versa where the business cofounder could do all the things a technical cofounder could. The problem is you can’t buy time with stock options. Focus on what you’re best at (design+engineering) and let the business cofounder focus on what he’s good at (customer acquisition, communication, and operations). Part two on what to look for in a technical co-founder will be coming sometime soon. (Either right before or after my next article, which I’ve already started writing).