The role of an entrepreneur is akin to that of a movie producer. It’s the producer’s job to make sure everything happens in perfect timing and lighting, from the finding the right idea to funding and casting. For an entrepreneur, the “casting” of a technical partner can be a major challenge. Finding a person with the right engineering chops is only half the battle. The often overlooked challenge is finding someone that you truly mesh with and can trust.
In 2014, I was working on the early stages of a startup. I’d begun vetting an idea and had some potential customers lined up. I needed help bringing the product to life and set out to find a cofounder. Through my network, I found an engineer, we teamed up and built a prototype, secured our first sale, and thought we were ready to roll.
But the groundwork had just begun. There were many challenges and difficult conversations ahead. Among them were our equity split, the amount of time each of us could realistically put into the venture and how to track it, how we would communicate daily, how we would solve new challenges where neither of us had expertise, and what would happen in a worst case scenario.
There are ample books and blog posts on how to solve many of these challenges, but in a startup, you are in the land of unknown unknowns. The only way to be comfortable heading into the abyss is by gaining the one factor that will solve everything, trust. Do you trust this person to work with you day and night, answer all your phone calls and emails as fast as they can, and be there for you when the goings get tough? Do you trust that the person is keeping their end of the bargain when you don’t know exactly what they are working on?
It’s important to know a partner’s priorities. Does the person have a family and kids? Do they need a certain amount of income to keep the lights on? How many hours each week does that person need to spend on that top priority before they can dedicate time to your venture? This context and transparency gives you power. It allows you to understand how much this person can really be involved.
If they are not willing to get as transparent as you’d like, or it seems like they will be too busy to dedicate the needed time, you don’t need to write them off or force yourself into an ill-fitting partnership. Consider bringing that person in as an advisor. With the right type of arrangement, they will be incentivized to work with you on the vision, provide connections, and offer mentorship. They can act as a translator and tell you if everything looks right with the developers that you end up hiring. They can join investor presentations and important sales calls with you to clarify technical details.
Bringing on an advisor also makes it easier for both of you to scale back your relationship if it isn’t working out. In the film world, hiring a director you barely know would be risky move. Make some shorts together before partnering on a feature film.