Should I fire this technical co-founder?

I am a well-recognized expert in a field. Over several years I have built a very solid rolodex and worked with several prospective customers to outline a commercial SaaS product. When time came to deliver I did not want to seek outside funding, so instead searched for a technical co-founder to execute. I ran a wide search and found one that seemed to fit the mold: previous experience as a founder, worked at name brand bay area software companies, experience in big data, etc.

We ran a trial period, got along well, and agreed on a 3-month period where he would phase out his full-time role at his current employer before he jumped in with both feet. During that ramp up he would commit part-time engineering to build the product.

He started part-time work in February with a jump date of June. As someone with famaliarity to coding (I build front end perfectly fine), I expected the product to take a full-time, full-stack engineer 6-8 weeks to complete. I verified scope and timelines with full-stack friends at Facebook, Google, et. al. Given a part-time effort I doubled the expected timelines.

In June, we had customers waiting for the product and it had not yet been completed. Further, he pushed back his start date until July. Once he left his job – though to be honest I have no real way of verifying this since we work remotely – he took a week off for his bachelor’s party.

Delays continued, and we kept having to cancel orders to customers. Despite the set backs that, at least to me, fall squarely on his shoulders, he takes a 3-week honeymoon and has not corresponded at all during the first five days away.

It is now nearly November. He’s had 5 months of part-time work and at least 3 months of full-time work. There are a couple scenarios running through my mind

1) The guy is legitimately crazy, even though his peers vouched for his abilities

2) He hasn’t actually quit his job and that explains missing deliveries

3) I’m crazy for letting this happen this long

I’ve been advised by VC friends that the best approach is to bring in a neutral third party, let them hear from both of us, and basically make this engineer confront the facts.

I’d be grateful for any constructive feedback, including running this process and if my position is unwarranted: have I lost it or is his behavior totally unfit for a startup?


  • I was in a similar situation, but didn’t have the development background or knowledge to intelligently challenge him on it like you do. Bought into the delays and excuses until the bitter end.

    Looking back, I can say that sticking with my developer, in spite of the clear signs, was the worst decision I made.

    Don’t be afraid to move on like I was.

  • First find out if he has quit, that should be your biggest red flag. You should be able to call his job and ask for HR, just pose as mortgage underwriter looking for job verification.

    If he has left, then the marriage stuff has put his and your priorities out of alignment. The neutral 3rd party is a good option.

    Also, as a technical co-founder, I’ve run in to numerous technical people that can’t “complete” a project or an MVP. Their brains don’t work like a business with deadlines and orders needs to operate. The project is never complete and is always missing something.

    Good luck. Keep your head up and keep grinding.

    • Since his background has been as a CTO for a startup, plus affirmation from colleagues of his, he has executed in the past…

  • It doesn’t sound like an ideal situation, but you left out some key information. What’s the current stage? Is it nearly complete? Has he given you a roadmap of any kind?

    Have you discussed doing sprints?

    • I have managed engineers in the past, and sprints are great ways to keep 9-5 employees accountable. For senior levels (ie founder/CTO), you shouldn’t need sprints to keep people on the ball. I feel like there’s some serious cultural misalignment if that’s required.

      Having looking at the code, it’s probably a good month away from QA for delivery.

      RE roadmap, we’ve agreed on timing for things and have had customer meetings scheduled, but then we continue to push back because his side of the bargain is never held up. I’m not talking about 2-3 day delays – I code, I understand how bugs pop up – but rather literal months. We’ve even lost customers/partners because out outward incompetence and failure to deliver.

  • I like the 3rd party idea as well but it sounds like they’re likely going to reaffirm what you’ve already felt and saw. How does this play out with IP and equity to-date?

    • His 12-month cliff would start in December, so we’re early before needing to deal with IP/equity issues. I’m an ex-ibanker, so I am VERY attuned to financials.

  • Expect setbacks and struggles when doing a startup. So don’t panic and do something drastic.

    Yes, you made a mistake by letting it drag on so long. You’re likely also at fault for communicating insufficiently about your expectations.

    Mediation by a neutral 3rd party is a good idea, and it’s unlikely to make matters worse.

  • So, there are two separate issues here. The first is that you have no way of monitoring the time spent by the tech guy. This is likely the real root of the problem–this person isn’t actually working on your product. The second is that you think minimal front-end dev experience gives you insight into the full-stack process time; it doesn’t. In fact, it probably gives your tech guy enough knowledge to talk around your concerns while placating your belief that you know enough.

    • I don’t need to know everything if I have very good friends that are full stack engineers and can rationalize through things. Given I’ve talked to 5 different full stack friends and 3 outside developers on Toptal, and they’ve all come away with the same timeframe for product completion if starting from scratch, I can’t be that insane.


      • I don’t see anywhere in that reply that says you needed to know everything. Insight and thorough knowledge are not the same thing. Also, with that many friends and other outside sources, how did you end up like this so many months down the line? BTW, appeals to authority to support your position are logical fallacies (“I have very good friends that are full stack engineers and can rationalize through things. Given I’ve talked to 5 different full stack friends and 3 outside developers on Toptal”)

  • I think it depends on your expectations. You could always hire thoughtbot or converted or any of the other hundreds of friend to take it in. Be prepared to spend some cash but you will at least have something to go with and they will also help you hire the next person at thoughtbot to take over after

    • Yes, it’s probably $30-40K to build from the ground up. Trivial amount of money in the scheme of things, and I perhaps should have just done that first. Thanks!

  • Proceed cautiously: He who controls the code base (& the URL) controls the future outcome. Didn’t you guys watch the Facebook movie?

    First thing I would do: Get a copy of the code under whatever premise you can without causing him concern (say it’s for a client to review, say it’s in case he gets hit by a bus, whatever). If he’s using Github, get added as a Collaborator, then you can download the code easily. If you go into “3rd party” or whatever discussion, if he has the code and you don’t, then you really having nothing — only ideas (maybe screenshots/mockups and contacts?)

    Next, monitor his daily output on Github (as a Collaborator). This should’ve been a requirement from the start. He writes code; he commits code to Github each day; you review his work daily (although you may not understand it, you can still see progress). You can even get an email alert each time he commits new code.

    Also, make sure you are the owner/Registrar of the URL (if you have one).

    Tell him that because of the delays, you (both) need to have daily check-ins with each other on progress in order to move your project forward. 6-8 weeks was too optimistic. It’s like building a house, the structure goes up quick (frame, windows, roof), but all the details take FOREVER.

    You can look for other developers/teams (like Thoughtbot, EnvyLabs/CodeSchool, FullStackLabs, etc), but in the end you are just paying $150-200/hr for some other developer you have to manage (unless you want to pay even more for a “project manager”. Those companies seem better suited for an existing company to outsource an entire project, not get a bootstrapped start-up launched (but it’s been a while, so maybe I’m out of touch on this). Lastly, I am using a large offshore development company (not India) for about $32-$40/hour for good developers (Rails, .Net, etc)

    My first dotcom was in 1990’s. It’s tough being the business person who can’t write code, but you’ll get there. Let me know if you want me to contact you directly for additional insights/suggestions.

    • LOL I love the “not India” comment. Agree that their culture is so different from Western cultures it never meshes… you effectively have to build the thing yourself.

      I guess my point is that I SHOULDN’T have to monitor code for someone senior level. They should have the self-awareness needed to execute deliverables on time. It’s clear that he is perhaps a good employee, but not ready to lead anything significant.

      Yes, I will need to formalize a code share on bitbucket and check updates. I have little worry about anything going too South because I can have the product built by a third party in 2 months if I need to, and I own all the customer relationships.

      Your dev shop junior devs I presume? Even people in Ukraine work for more than that!

      • Yes, Ukraine.

        You are correct that you “shouldn’t” have to monitor them, but then again, I’ve had to fire Senior VPs that I shouldn’t have monitor, but was glad I did.

        He may have good references from his friends and co-workers, but so many developer have been “CTO” of a 2 person startup that it’s almost meaningless.

        Sounds like he’s really into his new wife (1st or 2nd?). Maybe he’s ready to get back to work, maybe not. Ah, the joys of startups. I wish you good luck.

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