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What I Did When I Couldn't Find a Technical Co-Founder

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Without a developer, Groove would never get built. Here’s how I took the first step to turning my idea into a business.

I had nothing.

No prototype. No customers. And certainly no funding.

Sure, my last company was recently acquired, and that gave me a little leverage. And I was ready and willing to put my own money on the line.

But why would any seasoned, skilled developer worth his salt join me with no reason to believe that we would succeed?

The weeks were flying by, and my search for a technical co-founder was going nowhere.

If I ever wanted to get my crazy idea off of the ground, I’d have to look at other options.

Now, a lot of smart people disagree vehemently about whether startups need technical co-founders early on.

Mark Suster believes that "If you don’t have somebody inside your organization who is setting the technology direction then I’m convinced you’ll never head for greatness."

Drew Houston acknowledges how tough it is to find a technical co-founder, and suggests learning to code or outsourcing the job.

Unlike taking on a co-founder or hiring a freelance developer, working with an agency is not an alternative that a lot of founders consider.

And frankly, I think Mark is right. If I had found the right technical co-founder with the right chops at the right price and for the right piece of equity, I’d be telling a different story now.

But I didn’t, and I’m not.

If I wanted to get Groove off the ground quickly, I had to get creative. I decided to begin a search for a development firm to build the first iteration of Groove.

I looked at dozens of agencies without finding the right fit. Nobody really made me feel like they "got" what I was trying to do.

And then, in a chance encounter, I stumbled on MojoTech, an up-and-coming rails shop in my home state of Rhode Island.

That introduction set into motion the events that would finally turn my idea for Groove into the app our customers use today.

Note: Groove isn’t getting anything for mentioning MojoTech in this post. My goal is to tell a balanced story of my decision to hire an agency, and the results of that decision, in the hopes that it helps others who are going through the same struggle.

Making the call

For days, I waffled back and forth on what my next move should be.

I weighed the potential pros and cons.

Decisions, Decisions Decisions, Decisions

Working with an agency would be expensive. Really expensive. Likely around three times more expensive than hiring a developer myself.

But, my search for a technical co-founder was getting me nowhere, and this way I’d at least be guaranteed a product sooner rather than later.

I also had my doubts when it came to trust. With an agency that had to bill me to keep their own lights on, would our interests truly be aligned? Would they be as motivated to work fast as I am, or as a co-founder with skin in the game would be?

Of course, if I hired an agency, I wouldn’t need to recruit a team yet. It would let me focus on working side-by-side with them on getting the product built, rather than many of the other tasks that normally come with building a business.

Then there was the issue of ownership. By outsourcing development, I’d keep 100% of the company. This was good.

On the other hand, this also meant that every decision stopped with me. There wouldn’t be the checks-and-balances system that comes with having a partner with a different -- and in many cases, more relevant -- perspective.

Ultimately, there were two major factors that led me to pull the trigger on signing with the Mojo:

First, I was, by background, a product manager. I felt comfortable with the tools and processes that they used, and I felt confident in my own ability to navigate and evaluate the path we’d be going down together.

And second, as I rewrote my pros-and-cons list for the sixth or seventh time, I had a sobering realization...

Four months from now, I could have a living, breathing product in the market that would let me collect user feedback, get validation and push this business forward. Or, I could still potentially be sitting here with nothing.

I signed the contract that afternoon.

Takeaway: It’s always easier to not make a decision than it is to make one. Unfortunately, no business ever got built on indecision. Simply choosing a path and taking it -- even if it’s not the optimal choice -- is always better than being paralyzed by the process of choosing.

Working Together

In the months that followed, I worked closely with the 4-person team that they assigned to Groove.

During that time, I was in HipChat with them every single day.

We worked as a team, and we had a teaser site and a beta app completed in about four months.

Four Months Later Four Months Later

Getting to that point was all I needed to test my assumption that there was demand for a simple alternative to Zendesk.

We launched the trial, The Next Web quickly ran a post about us, and a week later we had 1,000+ private beta signups.

Now I had the leverage I was missing early on.

I had prospective customers. Validation in the press. Calls from potential investors.

In short, I had something to build from.

I worked with MojoTech on a few further iterations of the Groove app and marketing site while I began to recruit Groove’s first employees.

And a few months later, after I had hired two developers of my own, we parted ways with a handshake.

As I think about the work we did together, there are a number of takeaways -- both positive and negative -- that I’d urge any founder in a similar position to consider:

The Good

I had an app

The most important consideration of all. Four months after we got started, I had a working app that we released into the market. We were able to collect feedback, test the product, learn about our users and improve. Had I not hired MojoTech, I have no idea how long it would have been before the app was built.

I had a lot of work done for me

I didn’t have to recruit. I didn’t have to train any employees. And while I worked very closely with the MojoTech team, I didn’t have to manage anyone directly; I could focus on what was most important to me: contributing directly to the creation of the product.

I had leverage

With the app built, the users signed up and the TNW story published, I had what I needed to not only begin building a team of my own, but I could look for investors to help me continue building the company, and I had more than just an idea to show them. While raising money is never easy, the validation did give me a bit of leverage which helped to convince investors that Groove would be a reasonable bet. Soon after we released the beta app, I raised $700,000 from a small group of angel investors. This gave us the boost we needed to start building a team.

I had accountability

Before investing $300,000 on working with MojoTech, Groove lived in my head and in a few documents on my computer. I showed it off to potential partners at coffee shops, and never really made any tangible progress. Committing to having the app built gave me accountability; stalling was no longer an option. The money was spent and the die was cast, I had to begin working on the business.

The Bad

It was not cheap

As I mentioned above, I could have done quite a lot with the money I invested in working with MojoTech. I could have hired my own developers from the start. Whether or not the result would have been the same, I have no idea, but the cost is not inconsiderable, and for many people, impossible.

I still wish I had a co-founder from the start

I don’t have a co-founder to help with major decisions, or even minor ones. Many prospective investors and partners didn’t take me seriously without a technical co-founder. Being a single founder (without the emotional support of someone sharing your journey) is lonely to an extent that has real business implications; I’ll share more on that in an upcoming post. I absolutely love what I do every day, but that doesn’t mean it never sucks.

I didn’t always love the "agency approach"

As an entrepreneur, I’ve always wanted to build the quickest and dirtiest version of our vision that we could, get it into the market and start testing and iterating. The structured process of working with an agency -- the branding exercises, the competitive matrix mapping, the seemingly huge amount of attention and time given to every little aesthetic detail -- was hard to swallow for me. While Groove has benefited massively since we’ve begun taking a research-driven approach to growth (see the entire history of this blog for examples), I don’t know that I’d take such a structured approach so early on again.

There are legacy challenges to team-building

There isn’t a single developer on our team who was there for our first line of code. That’s a huge challenge. Not only does it sometimes take longer to find bugs and fix problems, but it’s a morale issue, too. I would have loved for our team to feel the "ownership" of the product that comes with having built it from day one.

Should You Hire A Development
Agency To Build Your App?

This post is for the dozens of founders and would-be founder who’ve emailed and commented asking for advice about getting their product off of the ground.

Will hiring an agency work for you?

Honestly, I don’t know.

It worked for me. I hired MojoTech, they built the early versions of Groove, and after an insane amount of hustle, hard-fought wins and near-death experiences, we’re here. We’re not yet where we want to be, but we’re here.

Would we have been here if I had continued to hunt for a technical co-founder?

I guess I’ll never know.

But I hope that by sharing my own experiences, I can help you make your decision a little bit easier.

The choice will never be clear, and the conditions will never be perfect.

But the most important thing you can do, no matter which approach you take, is start.

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About the Author

Alex Turnbull is the CEO & Founder of Groove (simple helpdesk software for small businesses) who loves to build startups and surf.

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