7 developer maaf*: A single, non technical founder’s search for a good tech guy

Jun 11 2011

*not be taken seriously. It’s a play on Saat Khoon Maaf, a recent movie.

Warning – long post. Read general thoughts and the conclusion at the end, if you are in a hurry.

I started my entrepreneurial journey on June 1 2009 – I had no clue what was in store for me. It’s been a heck of a ride since then and I’m writing this post for all those people who have domain expertise and need tech help. This is an account of how I kept looking for technical cofounder / CTO / tech guy to make what I had thought of doing (six months back we pivoted to helping consumers resolve their complaints against brands).

I’m talking from a bootstrapped perspective – when money is in short supply, the problem gets compounded. This is a HUGE factor (if you are funded getting the first 1-2 guys should be much easier).

I made many mistakes and hope that this post will help you avoid some.

Some general thoughts:

  1. You are the sucker here. Good tech guys don’t need you, you need them badly. So, the odds are set against you. (this generation, the previous one and the next one – all belong to the tech guys – from Bill Gates to Zuckerberg – they can dream and create).
  2. Get your hands dirty – there is no way out of this. Start getting comfortable with technology (right from setting up a basic WordPress website to start getting leads, to understanding what LAMP stack means, and what a DB schema is). Always helps to not come across as a n00b.
  3. Don’t give up, ever – there are good, solid tech guys out there who will give you a chance, someday.
  4. I kept going from trying to hire the right guy (and keep waiting) and trying get the work done quickly by outsourcing it. After 2 years, I think it is better for non-technical founders to not delay and outsource and get the work done quickly. Really good tech guys mostly get attracted later when either you have traction or you have been angel/VC-funded. Speed is of the essence in a startup. In any case, the chances of your idea surviving the first brush with customers are not that high – so get the product out asap.
  5. The insanely good tech guys (1%) want to do their own startup. The average/below average tech guys (which makes up 90%) is what you DON’T want for your startup. Since you don’t know tech, you can’t teach an average/below average guy and get good work out of him, you are always hunting for those 9% tech guys (or you can outsource).
  6. Don’t be too harsh on yourself, brace up for a long fight unless you have Baba Ramdev-like charisma or were born lucky.
  7. A network is extremely important to be able to hire a tech guy. I didn’t go to engineering school, I didn’t have engineer friends. So go back and look up your 10th class friends who went became techies.
  8. Indian job portals suck for startup hiring. Don’t bother with them (unless you like shifting through BS). In most cases, those sent by recruitment consultants aren’t great either (a good tech guy already has a job).
  9. People will agree to join and not show up. This is true across the spectrum and not just technology. And they won’t inform you. Chill out – not much can be done.
  10. Don’t fall for the CV – some local college tech guys are as awesome as some IIT guys, MCAs can be better than BEs etc.

Here goes:

Developer No.1 (DU MCA, awesome guy, solid knowledge of tech, total stay – 4 months)

There is something called beginner’s luck. I posted an ad on www.sutrajobs.com in August 2009 (it used to be really active in those days). A Delhi University MCA guy expressed interest and we spoke and met and things were looking good. Then he backed out because of his financial circumstances but recommended another classmate who ended up joining.

His friend joined and we started coding. I absorbed as much about tech as I could (schema, thinking of different use cases, why front end and backend validations are important etc.). He coded a basic site in 3 months. At the time of doing the frontend HTML, CSS, and Jquery work, this guy said he won’t be able to do that. Another issue that cropped up was that I was paying him market salary for a 1 yr experience PHP guy and had promised him some equity (which had been left undecided). When we finally had a chat 3 months down the line, his expectations and mine were totally different. I was talking in the range of 10%-15% while he was thinking about 50% – at the same time, his parents were pestering him to move to a bigger company. It didn’t work out and he went and joined a large company (at Rs.8 lakhs p.a.). We are still really good friends and talk often, but it wasn’t ideal to see him go.

Beginner’s luck had by now run out.

My learning:

  • If you are doing some kind of equity arrangement, ALWAYS share a bracket and maybe you can fix the exact % after seeing his/her work.
  • It is my duty as the business/domain guy to explain to the technology guy exactly how the whole equity + salary thing works (Rocket Singh approach to dividing the equity doesn’t work).
  • Try to communicate to the guy why it is important to do stuff that he doesn’t know (HTML, CSS, Jquery is easier than most other things he’d do).

Developers No. 2 (outsourced to Bangalore, total time – 2 months)

I outsourced the frontend work to a firm in Bangalore and had a really bad experience. They missed the deadlines by a long margin, kept writing really buggy code and were charging me a quite a lot. And then the most expected things like – “this was out of scope” – happened. It was my fault – I had never done a specifications document before and I assumed that a lot of things were obvious. But I think they were also up to no good – they had written a form where the tab-index skipped a field. When we pointed that out, they said “but, tab-index is out of scope of work”! (for laymen, tab-index decides where the cursor goes next when someone presses tab on the keyboard).

My learning:

  • Spend a lot of time on the specification document.
  • Look for the right attitude in the outsourcing partner.
  • Have the total deliverable broken up into parts, with linked payments, with options to stop payments if deadlines are not met or the deliverables are not up to the mark.
  • Negotiate hard and try to speak to their existing clients.
  • Don’t fall for fancily designed websites of outsourced providers.

Developer no. 3 (very intelligent guy, fast worker, but a fresher, total stay – 3 months)

Since Developer no. 1 had left and Developer no. 2 had made a mess of the website with their buggy code, I needed another guy. By this time, I was put off by outsourcing and needed a guy who could do both front-end and back-end. This time again, www.sutrajobs.com worked and we hired a guy who had graduated from college a few months back. He started working, was really good at his work, but kept having health issues (kept missing work), was distracted at work (too much FB/gtalk chatting), wanted to code at night but the productivity wasn’t high. He finally came and said that he would have to leave.

My learning:

  • Being totally professional with the employee is not a good idea I think (I could have done a lot more to make him happier and more comfortable – I didn’t know in those days how difficult such guys were to find). So if you get a good guy, try REALLY hard to keep him.
  • Don’t expect everyone to be as insanely motivated as you. I was keeping long hours, no distractions, thinking about business 24*7 and it would irritate me that he was always on FB. : ) I’ve learned to chill out a bit about this.

Developer no. 4 (15 year old hacker, outsourced)

So, once again I began looking for a technology guy (burnt by outsourcing, I had thought I would never do it again). But the website kept getting delayed and I finally decided to try out a 15 year old hacker in Chandigarh. He was quite competent, worked closely on the product and was able to help us launch the first version of www.akosha.com. However, he had other projects on his mind and was not in a position to really contribute to Akosha in the long term.

Developer no. 5 (insanely great hacker, ex-Cleartrip guy, one of the few LISP hackers in India, passionately into Python – total stay 1 month).

So I was again without a coder. So I decided to send an email to the following Google groups telling people about the opportunity.

  • php_mysql_jobs
  • headstart
  • it_group
  • occ
  • occ delhi
  • hydstartups
  • punestartups
  • osscamp, delhi
  • indian IT jobs

www.hackerstreet.in didn’t exist in those days (now I’m guessing, it might be a good place).

These groups are by far the best way to get the word out about your hacker requirement. Through these groups, I found an awesome coder who was working at a tech company in Bangalore but wanted to do the work in the evenings. He was super efficient and everything was awesome. The deal with this guy was that we would work on an outsourcing model for a few months and if we got traction, he would quit his job and join me full time (though he hated Delhi, and north-Indians a bit – I don’t blame him too much :D).

In the meanwhile, another great tech guy approached me because he loved the Akosha idea. He said that he would be happy to volunteer his time over the weekends for free and contribute to Akosha. I said – wonderful. I told my Developer No. 5 but he didn’t take this well. From where I sat, anyone willing to contribute to Akosha is great + it was for free! But our man didn’t like that and said that I should have asked him before saying yes. Fair point – I had managed to screw up once again! (I felt like crap in those days).

My learning

  • Communicate + over-communicate with your team. I lost a really good guy over a stupid thing.

Period of self learning

Learnt Drupal: By now, I was like – “I might as well learn this stuff myself, otherwise I’ll do mad”. Since content was really important to our strategy, I joined Noparrots – a Drupal training place run by an awesome guy called Sidharth Kshatriya. I learned lots and got pretty comfortable with managing the content side of the site.

Read a book on hiring: I also started thinking that maybe there is some kind of magic to hiring coders. So I bought and read Joel Spolsky’s Smart and Gets Things Done (with a title like that, I thought I had found the Bible. But Spolsky’s suggestions aren’t great for a bootstrapped, non-technical founder, Indian startup – give it a skip).

Python flirtation: I also downloaded A Byte of Python by Swaroop CH (met him when I was in Bangalore as well) and started learning Python – but realized that it was foolish. It would take too long for me to get to the point where I could accomplish exactly what I wanted.

Developer No. 6 (again, extremely competent, great attitude – total stay – 3.5 months)

So by now, the content side of my website was up and running but we still needed a lot of other technology work done. We were writing really good content and people were noticing us. But the pace of execution kept getting hampered.

I went and made a passionate presentation at Startup Saturday, New Delhi on 16 October 2010. I met a lot of people, told them I was looking for a techie, hustled and hustled. Finally, light shone and a guy agreed to join my dream full time. However, he had had a really bad experience in his previous startup and his parents weren’t happy with the whole startup nonsense (can’t blame them either). So, even though, we were seeing traction and doing really good work (we had gotten through The Morpheus program as well), he told me one day that he is going to quit. I was quite devastated (to be honest, this post was supposed to be published at that time – I thought I had cracked how to find AND keep a passionate tech guy with me – I had been proven wrong, once again).

Learning:

  • Family (parents) and peers can exert a lot of influence over the candidate. It is best to recognize this and find ways of mitigating it (everyone may not have the same risk tolerance or courage of conviction).
  • Sometimes it’s not your fault. There is something called “fck-all luck”.

Developer No. 7 (15years experience, great attitude, works harder than me, total stay – 2 months and counting!)

I again started looking. I never give up. I went to Startup Weekend, Delhi. Sameer introduced me to my current developer/tech guy/CTO/comrade-in-arms. Sold my idea and vision to him, he liked it, and decided to start working with me on a hybrid model – he would build a tech team out of his office, get a small amount of equity and a monthly retainer for the amount of time spent by his team. This is working really well and we recently re-launched www.akosha.com.

My learning:

Keep looking – maybe you’ll get lucky. I won’t say too much right now – don’t want to jinx things and have to write another post about this. :D

Conclusion

I can conclude with the following:

  1. The point of startup is not to struggle but to execute fast and make money – so an outsourced model with a good partner (and maybe some equity) is the best way forward in the first 1 year.
  2. Once you get funded or start generating cash, it will be easier to build the team. Till then, the priority is to actually put your idea out there and test if there is any demand for it.
  3. Network really hard – hustle hustle hustle.
  4. Learn to take some attitude from tech guys – you need them, they don’t need you.
  5. For some reason I never tried websites like rentacoder or elance.com – might be worth trying it out – but most of those people want to work on US projects and don’t like stingy Indian clients.
  6. Don’t ever compromise on quality.
  7. Once you find them, do everything you can to keep them happy.

Do you have any tips or strategies to this issue? Please leave a comment below. Or join the Hackerstreet discussion here.

I tweet at @singlaank – follow me here.

25 responses so far

  1. Great post Ankur :)

  2. Awesome post.I am looking for a co-founder, it helped me a lot

  3. Thanks Rohit.

  4. Best of luck with the search.

  5. The point of startup is not to struggle but to execute fast and make money.

    Thats it – you have arrived in the world of thought leadership! :)

  6. I sense a dose of sarcasm there :D

  7. Loved the post and the experience :)
    Best of luck in your en-devour!!

  8. No first hand experience but these guys look good.

    http://startupforstartups.com/

  9. One suggestion: Talent is overrated.

  10. Nice article Ankur…

  11. Awesome Post…
    I came across this post while doing exactly what you had been doing for so long..searching a tech-guy.. and i can so relate to a couple of your experiences.. thanks a lot for the prior warnings..
    Hope i find the guy soon.. and would owe a lot to you if i manage to keep him..:)
    Best of luck for akosha..

  12. best of luck with the search man.

  13. Nice read. Point number 5 is true but funny… the top tech guys want to start on their own while the bottom ones you don’t want to hire… hahaha

  14. The biggest problem I have with this post is it talks too much about what you did to try and find a technical cofounder in the wrong ways and how your attempt on yourself was mostly about trying to understand the tech side. While this is valuable, you mentioned absolutely nothing about why you would be a valid non-technical founder. Basically, what about your business skills… hiring (which seemed mostly as a failure), iterating, marketing/distribution, fund raising, etc etc.. the list is long. Some you need the product to learn, and some you don’t. And certainly there was no mention of what you tried to learn.

    In my experience, the biggest turn off for working with someone (technical or not) are usually lack of skills, poor mentality and mindset, bad decision making, ungodly number of assumptions base on nothing, working excessively but on all the wrong things, etc… You would have done better if you also had any of these things fixed. The most difficult thing about people in this situation and that rarely see is sometimes the way they do things and how they think is what’s truly wrong with why people don’t want to work with them, beyond skills that are missing.

    Disclaimer: I’ve been both a business cofounder as well as a technical cofounder even though I’ve always been technical. I’ve successfully exited multiple startups. These are merely things I look for but there is a strong trend to what others in similar situations would look for. Meaning, pitch yourself, not just the idea. If you can’t find someone to work with you, more or less it might be mostly you.

  15. I think you’re being too hard on yourself over dev #5. The guy hadn’t fully commited to you, keeping his day job while moonlighting to outsource for you. That level of commitment doesn’t really give you the right to a veto on hiring others. He may have been able to offer advice on the other guy, but it sounds like he expected much more than that. My guess would be he found a better deal elsewhere and was looking for a way out.

  16. Hey Steve,

    Thanks for the comment. Unfortunately this post wasn’t the right place to discuss my (lack of) business skills (it’s already too long). Will try to write another post on it sometime. :)

    Cheers
    Ankur

    PS: Would have loved it if you had left your real name and also shared some insights on being a better business cofounder from your multiple successful exits.

  17. Hi Steve (again?)

    Maybe you are right. But the point still remains that I should’ve communicated better.

    Cheers,
    Ankur

  18. Different Steve (common name). I don’t agree with the second Steve’s assessment on #5. I’ll reach out to you later.

  19. Thanks Steve!

  20. Look forward to hearing from you.

  21. Amazing Post Ankur, very insightful and helpful, I am definitely going to try the mailing list option now

  22. Thanks Pushkar.

  23. Great post Ankur :)

  24. Good post. However one more important thing is, you need to learn to trust people. If you want to hire a developer or sysadmin or front end guy or and expect him to one handedly architect your solution, then you need to STFU, back off, just stop bugging him for status and most importantly treat him like a partner rather than an employee or worse a pseudo partner.

    I quitted my last job because I got too pissed off with the founders speaking like nut cases and watching over my shoulders.

    My 2 cents.

  25. Hey Ankur!

    Liked your effort and hard work and never down spirit. But yes this is soo common in any recruitment for any project/Company/Startup.

    By this I would say one has to make up an Environment of TGIM(Thanks God Its Monday) for employees. An one should be so jell up and give them importance as they are stakeholder for the organization.
    Let me tell you, Employees can provide us better idea on concept Plateform as well. the only thing they looks upon is constant scalability and work life balance.

    Thanks!

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