How not to lose your technical co-founders/employees

Out of frustration, I decided to leave a post here hoping that it would help the ‘Non Technical’ entrepreneurs understand what’s in the mind of their technical peers and how NOT to build a toxic startup.

I’m a full stack developer and tech entrepreneur just moved recently to Seattle to work on a new startup. Few months ago, a friend of mine (whose a biz guy) pitched his idea about a new startup and asked me if I would join him and help build the software. I was not interested in the idea itself, but I belived in him so I said yes. We started working together and I finished building the whole software in a couple of weeks. Once finished, I thought we would be hustling to get customers, iterate, make the product better, etc… But I was surprised that once I finished, he started throwing huge milestones my way just to keep me busy. All of the sudden, we need to build a client for all mobile phones, a web client, couple of major features that would take months to be finished, constant changes. All of that before we have even got our first customer! 

Here is what’s wrong with that and what you could learn from it as a non-technical cofounder:

  • ​Non-technical co-founders need to understand that when a programmer joins their team, it’s not because they can’t come up with their own ideas, or because they LOVE to work for a startup. Programmers want to use their skills being “part of a diverse team” to make something of value. Being a biz guy doesn’t make you a better entrepreneur than a programmer.
  • Some non-technical founders think they can keep programmers happy by throwing coding tasks at them all of the time. While this might be true for some programmers. But for those programmers who risked their careers and jumped into a startup, they obvioulsy want something more than just coding.
  • Some non-technical founders think they should be the decision makers (the boss) for some fictional reasons. Keep one single fact clearly ringing in your head all of the time, if I want a boss to tell me what to do, it would not be you. I would go work for any company, get X grand a month instead of letting you driving me crazy for free.
  • Finally, if you think you should be the one making decions for the rest of the team and push them to do it.. Let me save you time and save others some paint, go freelance someone. There is a difference between being a leader and being a jerk.

I feel better now. Hope this would help somebody.

  • As a non-tech founder, the only thing wrong in this post that needs adjusting is your attitude towards leadership. I say this because of you were my tech co-founder and delivered a product in a couple weeks, I’d say, “Thank you, take a vacation as I do sales. I’ll buzz you if we have to make changes.” Or, “what do you want to do now, make sales calls while I do visits?” I say your idea of leadership is skewed because you sound so bitter about it. The person that is pitching investors, supply the money, selling the product, and originally came up with the idea is the person that leads the team. They talk to the customers, they close the deals, they are the captain of the ship and will know and study the industry relentlessly to stay away from the storms. Not all non tech founders are bad guys/girls, it’s just so many don’t know how to do their job and realize you are on the team for your desired involvement. The best team has people that know their strengths and play to them. This means, while you believe you need to do everything and don’t need a non tech person, you do. You’re the minor details guy, the creator, they are the market visionaries. Two separate skill sets that require strength in both areas. The ONLY reason the non-tech founder leads is because they have to decision make on the fly and dance for the check. The best ones are crazy skilled at this and will need to freedom to do this…. Maybe the other tasks are to build alternatives for selling? I highly doubt someone wants to give you busy work. Sucks if this is the case… But here’s another lesson you learned from this experience : Don’t do things you aren’t passionate about, don’t work with companies you aren’t passionate about! You only do more harm than good. (Yourself and for them – you just built something for a biz you are walking away from. You not only wasted their time, you wasted your own).

    • Thanks for your input. My attitude towards leadership is what driven me out of the big companies to build my own venture. When the non-tech co-founder makes personal decisions that effect the system completely without discussing it with the other co-founders, he’s treating us as employees which I would be fine with if I have been told before that I’m gonna be an employee, not a co-founder.

      As for “dancing for the check”, I personally would not dance for every check. If you let money lead your vision about the business, you’ll be like every single crappy business out there. But that’s a good point actually, it’s one more thing to ask potential co-founders about before starting a business.

  • Welcome to the era of the entitled programmer! The glaring issue in your story starts (and ends) with your failure to communicate with this biz guy about expectations, milestones, strategies, and plans for the company BEFORE taking the gig.

  • Tech guy here. I had the same issue with my friend he seems to think that because he’s the biz guy his ideas are automatically more legitimate than mine. The breaking point came when he said “I’m Steve jobs and you’re Wozniak” and I’m like hey I don’t mind being woz but you’re no Jobs.

    The thing is unless a biz guy has successfully executed a startup before, his main assets are either domain knowledge or the ability to sell or at minimum their willingness to hustle.

  • First question, how much equity do you own? How much does he? Who’s neck is on the line more? Who’s paying the bills? I agree you do have some valid points for any nontech co-f to better understand the perspective of a tech co-f in initial phases. But I think your mindset shows immaturity in what it truly means to be a co-founder which is in essence, a co-owner in a business.

    A real business owner does 90% of things/tasks they dont want to do EVERYDAY until the day comes when they are profitable enough to do mostly what they want. Meaning, finding customers, refining the product for market fit, building networking & relationships, cold calls, lead generation, design issues, arguments with unhappy employees, customers, investors, finding investments, taking loans to pay bills, negotiate leases, equipment and utilities, planning or deal with lawyers/legal issues, taking out the garbage, human resource issues, competition strategizing, balancing customer needs/demands and support with whats sustainable for the growing business, branding, general onboarding customer support, co-founder issues, setbacks due to miscalculations of risk or resources.

    If what you imply is correct, every app in the app store will be a profitable success/potential unicorn primarily because a developer sat down for a few weeks and should receive all of the unlimited future profits and growth in its existence because of that initial few weeks contribution of effort into the startup, irregardless of the effort of the nontechnicals who push the technology to the mostly “nontechnical” customer population.

    That mindset is not realistic and I’m sure no exited technical co-founder would agree. You do not get access to great reward by only doing what you want when & how you want to and have the process presented to you only in the way you feel is ideal.

    Sure, you could go get a salary and be told daily what to do and be sheltered from everything operational involved, beyond your list of coding tasks. But you’ll never be a business owner (co-founder) and all the potential rewards, recognition, respect & profits that come with the struggle in that role.

    A technical co-founder role means your strength is the technical vision of the startup, of which the nontech co-f, let you run with but your role also means you are an executive of the company and are able to balance that knowledge against the rest of the company’s operational needs and ongoingly drive it’s success as part of the executive team.

    • I totally understand the points you mentioned, but I think I didn’t explain myself well enough. I’m not trying to get any reward by only doing what I want. I’m not new to the startup world and I know what it takes to build a business. I had to move to a new city, quite my job, work everyday till 6 in the morning and I believe I should have a say when it comes to major decisions. When the non-tech co-founder comes and say we’re going to scale the business (adding unrelated features) before getting one customer, I think I have the right to be asked whether we should move towards that direction or not.

      I’m not asking for special treatment, but if I have sacrificed so much to “partner” with someone to build a business, I should be included in deciding where that business is going, otherwise this can’t be called “partnership”.

  • I can completely understand your point of view. I was in a similar role up until one year ago. The actual story is much more complex, but what our stories share in common is this:

    The business guy acted like he was the boss, and myself and the other programmer were just code monkeys (i.e. we were 2 programmers and 1 business guy). I don’t think it was deliberate, but that is how he came off to us. And it didn’t start that way, it developed over time.

    Trust issues developed, especially when the business guy started taking meetings with investors without our knowledge, and tried to completely shelter us from any high-level decision making outside of strictly technical areas.

    To be honest it was insulting. As a technical co-founder, some of us can still be quite business savvy and take on leadership roles even in non-tech areas. We are not simply code monkeys. So, I quit working for that startup.

    Fast forward until now:

    I built my own company from scratch, I own 100% and I am the sole founder. I wrote every line of code myself, I designed the database and wrote the API, I designed every aspect of the user interface, created all of the business logic, wrote and designed all of the marketing materials, did all of the clerical work, became a domain expert, research competition, develop business strategies, learned how to do sales at the enterprise level, write sales scripts, create presentations, figure out how to communicate with C-level execs, and the list goes on.

    I had to shift from 100% of my time spent coding to 20% of my time spent coding and 80% of my time cold calling, following up on leads, giving demos, negotiating contracts, pursuing business partners, talking to investors, etc.

    It has been a long and difficult road, and I’m still traveling down that road. Every step of the way has been a huge learning process and I’ve gained so much experience and learned things that I never would have learned if I let myself be boxed into a strictly-programming role.

    I wouldn’t recommend every tech person with the same gripe go this route, because let me tell you: I definitely underestimated how hard it is to do everything and simultaneously be able to spend half your day making sales calls and the other half of your day remembering solve latency issues or fix some arcane bug from code you wrote 8 months ago.

    But I proved to myself that I can succeed equally well in either role. That feels good.

    One more thing to note:

    I also had to sell 90% of my personal belongings, everything I own can fit in the back of my car. I live with my parents and took on large amounts of debt. I operate out of an empty university classroom. My relationship with my girlfriend dissolved because I had no time for her. I also take on temporary contract programming projects for side cash.

    This life is not glorious, not certain, and very risky … there is certainly an “upside” to being a minor equity partner and being boxed into a technical role, and letting other individuals take on more risk and more reward-potential. Just depends on what you want.

  • Interesting. On some posts on SA, some tech co-founders and devs have stated how they hate being pulled away into constant meetings and conference calls about business strategy, issues and direction. And in other posts, like this one, some devs are upset when they arent included.

    My experience has been, with inexperienced tech cofounders, bringing them into meetings looking for money can be detrimental. The least variables, the better. If an investor perceives your inexperience or interprets any of your responses or demeanor as a negative in any way, it can affect their perception of the company or product. Resulting in no funding.

    The flipside is if the tech cofounder is experienced, their presence at investor meetings can make all the difference and is game changing.

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