Are non-technical co-founders worth it in the first round?


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Background I am a developer by day, working on some of my own side projects at night.

I have been approached recently by an acquintance who makes his living as a business analyst. He has a decent idea and he wants the two of us to make a go at it. The problem is that I can't shake the feeling that I will be building this sucker for the next six months @ many hours a week, while he will just take a few days off work to deal with potential customers, slap together some marketting text and call it a day.

Question Is it usually worth it to partner up with a non-developers in an IT startup from the get-go?

I definately see the benefit for bringing in some tier-2 MBA types, but what about the initial founders?

It seems to me that it would almost always be a better idea to partner up with another dev and then share the non-dev responsibilities rather than take on 100% technical burden because such a setup spreads the risk/burden evenly. Am I wrong?

EDIT Thanks for the answers guys. As I read them, I realized my problem with the deal: I have a business degree, and I have worked in that capacity before becoming a developer. The truth is that I can wear both hats, whereas my potential partner can only wear one. Also, the nature of our idea is such that it will have a very hard technical implementation that in itself is a serious hurdle. My question was not complete from the beginning, but I think the answers are better than the question.

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asked Jan 5 '13 at 01:36
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Mr Fox
158 points
  • Hi @suslik. It sounds like you might not have completely formulated your question in your head when you posted this question, and reading the answers has helped you identify what the core problems are. Since your clarification changes the meaning of this question, I would suggest posting a new question that focuses on the issues you've outlined in your edit. Focus on the fact that you are knowledgeable on both the technical and business aspects. And on the fact that this is a technically challenging idea. I believe you'll get more focused (i.e better) answers that way. – Zuly Gonzalez 7 years ago

2 Answers


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while he will just take a few days off work to deal with potential customers, slap together some marketting text and call it a day.

If that's how you really feel then you've got a long and painful road ahead of you. This is the wrong way to look at things, and it's likely to lead to your failure, unless you change your mentality.

9/10 times you will need both technical and business skills to make a startup successful. And they should both be thought of as equally important. It's common for technical folks to think that writing code is the only thing that matters. However, there are just as many business folks that think the idea is the only thing that matters, and that developing the software is easy and unimportant.

If that's how you really feel about the non-technical tasks involved in a startup, then you are unlikely to treat your co-founder with respect, which will lead to many problems. How would you feel if your co-founder said:

He will just take a few days off work to slap together some code and call it a day.

Doesn't feel so good. You'd tell him that he doesn't know what's he's talking about, and that developing software is way more complicated than he realizes. Well the same applies to marketing, sales, etc. Just because you don't know or understand the work that goes into successfully marketing a software product doesn't mean it's trivial. Here is a great article that discusses the many tasks a non-technical co-founder should be doing. As you can see, it's much more work than one person can handle.

To answer your questions

Is it usually worth it to partner up with a non-developer in an IT startup from the get-go? I definately see the benefit of bringing in some tier-2 MBA types, but what about the initial founders?

It depends. It depends on what the startup is and on what your goals are. If you want quick growth and VC funding, then you should get a business co-founder to market the heck out of your product and spend time courting VCs. If you are content being a Micropreneur with a small, niche product, then you may not necessarily need a business co-founder. If your goals fall somewhere in between, then in most cases you should consider a business co-founder.

Note, however, that regardless of which direction you want to take, business type tasks like marketing are necessary and crucial. It's just a matter of whether you want (and have the knowledge) to take on the responsibility of tech and business all by yourself, or whether you want someone else to work on this fulltime.

It seems to me that it would almost always be a better idea to partner up with another dev and then share the non-dev responsibilities rather than take on 100% technical burden because such a setup spreads the risk/burden evenly. Am I wrong?

If this is an equal partnership, you are spreading the risk evenly. The roles each person has isn't going to push more of the risk on one versus the other. What matters is what the outcome for each person would be if the startup fails. In an equal partnership, if the startup fails, you both fail equally.

My advice The both of you need to sit down and hash out in detail what each person's responsibilities will be. None of this vague "you handle tech and I handle business" nonsense. Break these roles up into smaller components. (This will also serve as a roadmap for your startup.)

In doing this you will probably see that his role is a lot more involved than you realize. If after having this discussion it's clear that one role will require a lot more work than the other, then you guys can negotiate an equity split that is fair based on the amount of work each will perform. If after all this, you still can't come to an agreement, then walk away.

What others think Bob Dorf thinks every founding team needs three members: a hacker, a hustler, and an artist. See here.

Noam Wasserman's research found that only 16% of tech startups in the US are solo-founded. See here.

Y Combinator is not a fan of single founder startups. From their FAQ : "A startup is too much work for one person."

answered Jan 5 '13 at 04:42
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Zuly Gonzalez
9,194 points
  • +1 Excellent answer Zuly - couldn't agree more. Mutual respect and full disclosure of what each person brings to the table AND works on is critical. – Jim Galley 7 years ago
  • Thank you @jimg! – Zuly Gonzalez 7 years ago
  • I would also call out the "value proposition" of tier-2 MBA types - again, blindly assigning worth (or lack thereof) to titles is a dangerous perspective to have. – Jim Galley 7 years ago

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Is it usually worth it to partner up with a non-developers in an IT startup from the get-go?
Having a skilled business player in the team is crucial in defining and solidifying the business model from the get-go. Having someone who can professional represent your start-up and communicate your idea to non-technical people will be the difference between you making or breaking it. Having that key business player will help your idea make quicker movements in terms of investment, building key relationships, setting SMART strategic goals and making sure it stays on track.

If you feel you can do all this then you may not need this person at stage one.

I definately see the benefit for bringing in some tier-2 MBA types, but what about the initial founders?
If you were to take this route then you would need to keep your idea close to your chest. What I mean by this is if you havent got someone who can, again professionally represent your idea and communicate it effectively then your just another developer who has this great idea but doesn't really know how to sell it or use it, this may hinder your 'first impressions' to key people.

It seems to me that it would almost always be a better idea to partner
up with another dev and then share the non-dev responsibilities rather
than take on 100% technical burden because such a setup spreads the
risk/burden evenly. Am I wrong?

This depends on the structure you want - you must ask yourself 'do I want to be the CEO or the CTO?, or both?' I don't know how you will split up yours roles right now, and it is not even important.. whats important is you get things going now!

But you should have a think about this: would you be able to make better technical decisions for the company or do feel you would be able to make informed business decisions? both are different in terms of the decision making process behind them - but both roles are critical and this is what you need to think about when sharing responsibilities, who is going to make the best decision and do you trust that decision?

answered Jan 5 '13 at 02:33
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Chuck
113 points

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