Wisdom & lessons-learned from David Corfield, MBA 19
There’s often one question on the minds of any business-minded founders at the start of their journeys: “how do I find a technical cofounder?”. It is certainly not a precondition to starting a successful venture, but I have to agree with the advice that finding a cofounder is a vital early step. And if you are creating anything technical then finding somebody with that skillset is the only rational choice. I have two very different experiences finding technical cofounders, and a LOT that I learned from each of them. We are just now raising our pre-seed round, so this advice is great in that it is recent, but you’ll have to follow closely to see how successful we become.
I founded LifeWork myself in January 2018 at the start of my second semester in the Haas Full-Time MBA program. The question of finding a technical cofounder wasn’t even on my mind. I hadn’t examined the problem enough to know what a solution might look like, so finding a ‘builder’ was low on the to-do list. It wasn’t until trying to get into the Social Lean Launchpad class taught by Jorge Calderon and Julia Sze that it jumped to the top. There was a ‘strong preference’ for cross-campus teams to be accepted into the class, so I begged the professors to let my then MBA-only team in with the line “I’ll find a technical cofounder this summer before we start class in the Fall”.
At this point, I had been working on LifeWork for four months, had conducted over 30 customer interviews, and had been accepted into one of the top social impact classes on campus. I found a friend of a friend at the School of information and asked them to share this blurb on their class Slack channel:
“Would you like to take part in the Social Lean Launchpad class in the fall? David Corfield, a first year MBA, has had his start up LifeWork accepted into the program and is looking for two iSchool students to join the team. LifeWork is an on-demand freelance work service that is looking to boost workforce inclusion of marginalized groups such as the disabled, elderly and new mothers by making it easier for businesses to hire remote, freelance workers. Social Lean Launchpad is a 2-unit course that runs for 11 weeks at the start of the fall semester on Tuesdays from 6pm – 9pm, taught by truly expert faculty. The deadline is this Sunday April 22, so please reach out to David (email@example.com) directly as soon as possible if you are interested or want more information.”
From this I had four people reach out saying they were interested, and I had formally brought on our CTO two weeks later.
Fast forward twelve months and I was on the CTO hunt again. My first CTO had very attractive job offers lined up for after graduation, and LifeWork was still too risky a bet for him to turn them down. They had wound down their commitment gradually over our final semester at Cal and our progress on building the platform had suffered because of it. I had learned that in my next CTO I wanted somebody committed, and with a clear plan to build the payment platform that we had learned our customers really needed. With the school year winding down I also realized that I didn’t need a student founder, and in fact an experienced CTO would be a much better bet. I drafted a job spec for a CTO – notably not a cofounder at this point – and shared it with my network of advisors.
With the spec written, I thought I might as well put it on Angel List as it would take only a few minutes, and I am extremely glad that I did. Being a remote work/distributed team advocate, I knew that Angel List could give me a much broader set of options than my local network could offer.
The quality of talent that I ‘matched’ with was incredibly high. I interviewed individuals with 40 years industry experience to those that were looking to get back into the startup world after selling their last startup. Third on the list of ‘people you may want to contact’ was Stefan, my now co-founder with LifeWork. His one-line bio read ‘four-time startup founder with an MBA from Anderson’. On further inspection I found he had been freelancing for the last four years while looking for his next startup opportunity. He was based in LA so remote yet nearby, and on the right time-zone. We spent six or so hours on video calls interviewing one another and ensuring we were a good fit before agreeing on cofounder status, equity split, and getting started on the next chapter of LifeWork!
I always prefer my take-aways in bite size chunks, so here’s a list of 8 do’s and don’ts to consider before you start your technical cofounder hunt.
- Do find a technical cofounder. I warned you, I’m a convert. LifeWork would be much further along if I’d have made this a bigger priority six months before I did.
- Do consider looking for a remote cofounder. You’ll find somebody higher quality and more experienced than the graduate students on campus. You’ll have to be more intentional about communication, but it’s possible to be even more effective than in-person teams. It can be just as fun too – my daily check-in with Stefan is often the highlight of my working day.
- Do as much as you can without a technical cofounder before looking for one. And that is a lot more than you think. People with good technical talent are bombarded with opportunities, and 80% fall into the “I have this idea and need someone to build it” category. Stand out by having done your work.
- Do ask advisors what you should be looking for in a CTO. My technical advisors were incredibly generous and invaluable in guiding me through the process of hiring an experienced CTO.
- Don’t be tight with your equity. By the time you approach a potential CTO, you still won’t have much if the idea relies on software. Even if you have been working on the idea for a year, you might need to swallow your pride and accept that you need to give up 50% of your equity to make the business happen.
- Do not rush the process. It’s one of the most important decisions you will make in the first few years of the business. Even though Stefan seemed like the best candidate from our first video call, I still spent hours interviewing other candidates to ensure I wasn’t being narrow-minded.
- Don’t be narrow-minded. As I alluded to, my original Angel List ad was for a part-time CTO. Stefan countered with wanting to be a full-time co-founder – with a much higher equity stake to match. It took some time to digest and reconsider my strategy, but if I had walked away from that counterproposal that would have been my biggest mistake to date.
- Don’t be afraid to walk away if it isn’t a good fit. You are signing up for a very long-term commitment with somebody that you could spend more time with than your family. Build in a break-clause into whatever relationship you draw up and have honest conversations if you seem to be diverging in your values. Fit is much more important than technical competency.
Please let me know your thoughts and experiences at firstname.lastname@example.org. Happy searching!