Over the last year I’ve witnessed a pattern emerging and it’s one that’s deepening. While the province isn’t lacking in programming talent it is lacking good technical co-founder material and this is making things difficult for the small one person startup.
The Story So Far
I think part of the problem is a thin layered confirmation bias over thinking that a startup is a sure thing just because it’s got proof of concept money. PoC removes risk (yay!) but it also makes you believe that you’re on to something when more than likely you’re not (boooo!).
Traditionally the idea was simple, anywhere else in the world I know it sort of works like this…..
- Wake up with a great idea.
- Phone up your mate who’s a great programmer, ply them with booze and convince them to code your idea, an alcohol induced proof of concept.
- Once their hangover has worn off show them what they did and then announce that if it does something then they are the tech co founder.
- At that point start looking for money to build a team, refine the rough edges and then go for growth.
Northern Ireland is unique, as far as I’m aware, that the amount of public money that can be thrown at the wall to see what sticks. There are some moments of goodness and there are some great startups, do not get me wrong, but recently I’ve had a number of startups approach me as they were desperate for a technical cofounder because “it’s all about the team”.
“Go talk to Jase….”
Do not get me wrong, I want this to continue as I do enjoy talking to new companies and looking at their rocky road ahead. I may even chip in and slaughter their business model, usually for the better and free of charge (I must change that somehow).
These “companies” usually arrive by way of a phone call and the strange thing is I’m immediately interviewed for a position I have no interest in, the only way to sway that interest is to sell me the product idea. Over time I’ve become more blunt (like I could actually get any more blunter!) but the fact remains.
The ideas are out there but the execution is normally weak, hence I’m getting the phone call. The usual route of getting some grant money and building something is fine but let me assure you that the design/web/codehouse you use isn’t there to be your tech co founder, it’s there to deliver a quick turnaround service to build what you ask and paid for with public money.
At this point there’s a fork in the road and it’s a pretty painful one. You can’t progress any further raising money as conditions of a deal is based on “the team” and this usually comprises of you as CEO, a CTO and a COO. So the quest to find a tech co founder starts.
This, dear reader, is where the problem really starts…..
Good coders know where the money is. And it’s usually tied up with FDI’d companies who’ve come in from overseas. And with their big wedge of cash can lure developers in to their den to play “improve the product” and “by the way we’ve got a pool table and blow football”. With that in mind what will it take to get someone from the den in to your den? Sometimes it’s the challenge, more than likely it’s the money.
To quote Bobbi Fleckman, “money talks and bullsh*t walks”.
Most folks that even fit the bill as a tech co-founder are usually married with family, paying a mortgage/rent and all the other bills is less likely to jump to your startup and increase risk to their family. It’s just not the done thing. And looking at your runway they know already you’ll be needing to raise more money or the doors will close in 6 six months tops. You, dear founder, are just not worth the stress.
Instantly university spin outs now seem a better proposition for a funding body, the team is already there because the product has been build as some form of project, there’s comfort blanket of education and the work has been done, some great things have come out of these spin outs. What didn’t come out was a begging of technical advice, it was already there to a degree, some better than others. It’s only later down the line when the product begins creaking at the sides do questions get asked.
The Mexican Standoff of Tech Investment
The question to ask yourself is, “what’s the one thing that will convince someone to move?”. And guess what, don’t be offended but it’s not your opening line of “We’re gonna be the Uber of [insert domain here]”. If you took PoC money then the position you are in is currently along the lines of:
- You need a tech co-founder to satisfy getting product built or pleasing the funding body you have “the team”.
- Potential tech co-founder won’t move until the money is there (ps: Good tech co-founders are expensive)
- Funding body won’t move unless the tech co-founder is “all in”.
Put bluntly it’s a big stand off. The startup founder (“Hey, I’m the ideas guy/gal!”) goes tail wagging desperately looking for a tech co founder, someone who can look at the holistic view of the startup, the long term, code the iOS app, the Android app and the back end, the reporting…. those unicorns don’t come cheap, circa £75,000 p/a if you want a quality tech co-founder, someone who will be “all in”. Your short runaway will become a lot shorter, that £300k seed you need to get going is basically mandatory.
If You Wanna Play You Gotta Pay
Dear founder, pause and think for a moment. Out of all the startups that you know that founded in NI, think about those that sold for 10x valuation. It’s not many, so your “lure” of early stock is usually weak at this point and the only thing you can offer is some security in the short to medium term. The “gotta be in it to win it” lottery mentally is just like the National Lottery itself, the odds are slim. It’s not impossible and I’ve talked about the percentages many times before.
The ideal way to play the startup game is to know a tech guy who can code up the basics way before you go looking for cash or grant money. Or at least say that [insert name of amazing tech guy] is advising you. (And yes I do offer CTO as a Service) but what I can’t do is be “all in”.
If you have a tech co-founder who’s on the ball, knows their stuff and believes in the product then do everything you can to keep hold of them. The lure to jump is great because there are some good ideas out there (there are some utter donkey’s as well), the startup lifecycle is short at this stage so it has to be worthwhile for everyone in the team. No one ever subscribes to all-in, 24/7-phone-me-at-2am unless there’s a good payoff.