Tips for attracting developers as a non-technical founder

Finding a co-founder for your startup is one of the most difficult parts of getting off the ground, in particular for the first time entrepreneur. You may not have a large or diverse network, and you will be searching for people diverse skillsets that you weren’t exposed to in a previous job.

Finding a technical co-founder can be even more difficult, especially when you are non-technical. Most likely you don’t have many developers in your network. You don’t know which are the “good ones.” Not least of all, there’s the Matthew Effect: talent begets talent, and smart developers are more likely to want to work with other smart developers.

There are also the stereotypes: developers can seem like wizards speaking a magic language. Or they may be like trolls who hide in caves and only come out at night.

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To paraphrase Tina Fey, how can you call me a troll when you’ve never seen me guard a bridge?

Stereotypes and other challenges aside, I find many methods people use to find a technical co-founder to be counterproductive. While this is written for non-technical people wanting to attract talent, it could just as easily be titled “how to attract developers” because these tactics can be used even if you are a great coder as well. Except for a couple tips, they could be used for any skilled professional in high demand.

Here are some tips on attracting top developer talent to an early-stage startup:

You have to pitch. It’s important to remember, developers don’t have to work for you. If a developer is of any quality, chances are she’s been asked multiple times to join a startup with the promises of fame and fortune, and has passed. Why is this time different? Consider her as your first investor, and make your pitch directed at her.

You have to court. Imagine yourself as a man going into a crowded bar and announcing you’re taking applications from all the “hot women.” Chances are you won’t get very many responses. Chances are you’ll quickly develop a reputation for not knowing what you’re doing. Larger, cooler tech companies might be able to try this, but those types of tactics aren’t going to be convincing to the best developers.

Everyone likes to be courted, and you’ll have better results if you think of the journey less like “hiring” and more like “dating” or “matchmaking.” You don’t want to hire an employee, you want to spark a lasting relationship.

Sell the steak, not the sizzle. Developers are builders. Developers were the kids who played with LEGO when they were kids — and perhaps still do. When she hears your pitch, you want her to immediately start thinking about how she would build that. It has to be a meaty problem. If it’s not challenging enough, then she will quickly lose interest.

Find out what drives her. If the challenge of the build isn’t what drives her, there may be something else. Get personal. She may have reasons for liking or not liking her current job, or she might have specific reasons why she’s hesitant to work with you. Get to the root cause, and develop a personal connection. Start developing this relationship, because if she comes to work for you, you’ll be spending a lot of time together.

Even if you don’t end up working together, you want to her to be in your network in case she meets someone who might be more of a fit.

Learn basic coding skills. I understand this might sound crazy or impossible to do. But think of it like learning some of the language before visiting a foreign country. Take a class in Javascript or Ruby — classes are great places to meet developers who are willing to help. Make a simple iPhone app and talk about your experience. The next developer you talk to will sympathize, because she was once a struggling new programmer. You’ll also be better prepared to talk with her about her work, rather than treating what she does as some magical incantation. You’ll be able to more easily grow your network of technical people, and have more surface area on which to find the best match.

Don’t misunderstand me: you don’t want to do this to be able to judge her talent. You will want her to be vastly more capable, and assessing her talent based on a few classes would be like judging the talent of a black belt after playing a few games of Street Fighter. This is about developing a more personal connection through shared experience.

Cammy

Come to think of it, she’d probably beat you at Street Fighter as well.

Final rule:
Make your first technical hire count. You want to get on the positive side of the Matthew Effect. You want your technical talent to attract other talent. If you have a mediocre first developer, it’s more difficult to convince a more senior developer to join your team: more often than not, she’ll be thinking about all the code she’ll have to rewrite rather than solving a big challenge.

Images:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/47096398@N08/5521406802/

http://www.flickr.com/photos/popculturegeek/4757255890/

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