I recently heard the story of how my friend met his cofounder and had to share it. I think there are some great lessons here for business folks looking to team up with smart technical people. I changed the names and am vague about certain details because they don’t really need the attention from this story, but it’s all true.
Chris’s First Startup
I met Chris at Stanford: really smart guy who studied CS and has a great eye for design. He cofounded a company right out of college, a collaborative editing/viewing tool, raised a round of funding, grew the team to six and eventually sold it for a small sum to a much larger technology-for-enterprise firm.
Chris stayed on post-acquisition, working on various projects for his new employer. While heading up a mobile app project, he ran into an challenge and can’t find a good solution for it in the marketplace. He decided to start working on a home-baked solution on nights and weekends as it was somewhat tangential to his day job, but wisely kept his employer in the loop about his efforts*. The entrepreneurial side of him started to wonder if there might be more firms out there with the same problem.
Meeting the Business Guy
Chris began working on it as a nights and weekends project, letting his firm know he was making this for the company, but that he also saw greater potential for it. One day, at a tech meet up event, Chris strikes up a conversation with a guy named Mike. Mike is a few years older than Chris and has been a part of the tech scene for some time, having most notably hacked on a consumer web product that got strong traction in the early-to-mid 2000’s.
However, these days Mike spends his time blogging, advising startups and angel investing. He’s turned into a “business guy”. Mike is intrigued by Chris’s side project and tells him:
“That’s a great idea. But you gotta stop calling it a side project, because it’s clearly a startup idea. Listen, I’d like to be involved. I think I could really help you out.”
Chris rolls his eyes. Having sold his last company, he doesn’t really need money – there are lots of investor who want to back a successful entrepreneur with a new idea. What does Mike have to offer? He has been out of the game technically for a few years and his experience is in consumer web, not enterprise, which is what this new idea would be for.
“Sure, whatever,” Chris replies, “I’ll let you know if I take it further.”
Hustling Pays Off
Some time passes and Chris has nearly forgotten about the whole interaction. Then, out of the blue, he gets a phone call:
“Hey it’s Mike.”
Oh boy, now what?
“Listen, I was serious about helping out. Over the last two weeks, I’ve called over 40 companies and pitched your product. I’ve gotten 30 who are willing to integrate with your service and try it out.”
Whoa. Now we’re talking.
I’ll skip ahead.
After meeting up, talking quite a bit more and working together, Chris and Mike eventually decide to join forces and co-found a new startup together. They raised a seed round and then a series less than 6 months later, have gotten tons of press and most importantly, has been a hit in the mobile development industry, with 100’s of customers ranging from one-man dev shops to publicly traded companies.
It’s dangerous to extrapolate too much from a story, but every data point is worth something. Here are two take aways:
- You gotta be legit. Mike was already an impressive guy, with money, connections, professional clout and a technical background. But being legit wasn’t enough.
- You gotta overdeliver. Mike didn’t complain about how Chris didn’t “appreciate the value he brought to the table”. He went out and proved that he could bring in business for the company. Getting a hold of the right person at 40 companies in a few weeks and actually convincing ~30 of them to say yes on a cold call, without a demo or even screenshots, is very hard.
If you’re a non-technical guy looking to co-found a startup, realize that you have far less leverage than whoever you choose to work with for your technical co-founder. You have to prove your worth both from the resources you have access to, the skills you can bring to bear on the project, and your relentless resourcefulness for getting sh*t done.
*the company, to their credit, was pretty open and happy about Chris’s side project efforts