A Rubric To Evaluate Non-Technical Co-Founders
An objective approach to finding your future co-founder.
👋 Hey I’m Abe (@abe_clark). I recently quit my job as Director of Engineering at LoanSnap to go build a startup. After killing my first startup experiment, I have interviewed over 70 non-technical people in search of my future co-founder.
This article outlines the rubric that I’ve used to filter over 70 potential non-technical co-founders.
This is useful for:
Non-technical founders – understand how to improve the chances and speed of finding a quality technical co-founder.
Technical founders – gain a baseline rubric for appraising potential non-technical co-founders.
Here is a link to the google sheets version of the rubric.
The Most Underrated Pitch
There are lots of resources out there to optimize your fundraising pitch deck.
But what about the pitch before the pitch?
For non-technical founders, the first (and often more challenging) pitch is to onboard a technical co-founder. It’s no wonder VCs unilaterally say they invest in the people. The act of gathering more than one talented person to work on the same idea is non-trivial.
I’ve recently filtered my co-founder funnel size from over 70 down to 3. Each time I pass on a potential non-technical co-founder, their question is always the same – “What are you looking for?”.
It’s a valid question.
When I started co-founder dating, I wasn’t even sure what my criteria would be. The more potential co-founders I chat with, the more clear my criteria have become.
Before we get to the rubric, it’s important to address a few key caveats:
First, the approach outlined here is designed to be as objective as possible. It’s vital to acknowledge that the best decisions are made by combining objective and subjective inputs. This objective approach isolates key factors and provides a framework for high-level appraisal. It will never be a substitute for subjective factors like your gut feeling, spiritual promptings, or whatever term you espouse. The outcome of this rubric is one of several data points you should consider in your decision.
Second, I outline the criteria that matter most to me. I am a technical person with experience in startups. Without fail, there will be variance in the way others make this decision. Ideally, this rubric follows the 80/20 rule. (I’d love to hear your feedback!)
How to use this rubric
Having a rubric is great, using it to your advantage is better.
Here’s my advice on how to use it, depending on your role in co-founder dating:
Make a copy of the google sheets template and customize it according to your preferences.
When you talk to a new potential co-founder, fill out the rubric.
Use it as a data point in your decision process.
If you decide to pass, consider letting them know the key items that they can improve on.
Do a self-assessment using the rubric.
Identify the attributes you are weakest in.
Bifurcate these between items you have control over and those that you do not.
Invest time to improve in the areas where you have control.
The rubric is a simple set of attributes paired with a weighting of relative importance for each. This allows you to rank each potential co-founder on each attribute (scale of 1-10), then compare their composite scores.
The attributes are grouped into five categories: Background, Idea Stage, Problem Space, Interpersonal and Terms.
In the rubric, there is a quick note-to-self about what a 10 looks like for each attribute. This keeps you from gradually relaxing your measuring stick.
Prior Founder / Startup Experience
It’s no secret; if you’ve done something before, you’ll do it faster and better the second time. A large percentage of running a business is substantially the same regardless of the idea (legal, payroll, fundraising, hiring, etc.).
A co-founder who has had one or more exits is strongest in this attribute. The exits don’t need to be huge. Smaller exits can mean the co-founder is still hungry. An early employee at a successful company would earn high marks (~6-7) but not 10 because they are often siloed.
Industry / Domain Expertise
I have met many co-founders targeting an industry where they have no prior experience. This greatly increases the risk of failure. Fresh eyes and perspectives are helpful, but understanding the status quo is crucial.
Industry / Domain Connections
Pre-seed / seed stage companies are nearly invisible. Landing a meeting with a key customer can be a slog and cost precious time. Someone who has **real**, high-level connections in the industry / vertical is invaluable.
A great co-founder brings 10+ quality C-level contacts. This may look different for consumer-facing ideas.
People Management Experience
Managing people is a skill. It takes practice. Ideally, your co-founder has recruited and hired top-tier people and fired low-performers. They have thought critically about how to scale an organization and have implemented processes to do so. They have managed individual contributors as well as managers. They can clearly articulate their management philosophy.
High engagement / following on social / blog. High visibility can open doors to key hires, key investments, and key customers. It’s easier to generate word-of-mouth when you have a loudspeaker.
Education / Work Pedigree
Top-name schools and high-growth companies come with key benefits. Most notably, a strong network of top-tier people. A strong resume often translates into easier funding, hiring, and business development.
Category: Idea Stage
Technical people are looking for proof that this is more than just an idea. We get approached all the time with “I have a concept for an app”. If you have only devoted 5-10 hours to the idea, you’re too early to even start looking for a technical co-founder.
A compelling co-founder is a person who has quit their job and has been working full-time on the new company for months. (Please note, I am not advocating quitting your job with an unvalidated business idea)
Securing funding is a great way to prove “I can do my job.” Fundraising is primarily the responsibility of the CEO, which often falls to the non-technical co-founder. A technical co-founder will need to build a team to execute on the vision and early funding makes this possible. Pre-seed/seed money from a top investor is very enticing.
Customer validation is key. It’s what moves an idea from theory to reality. Building a technical product requires significant creative effort. Building something that never gets used because it doesn’t actually fill a need is beyond frustrating.
Customer validation is one attribute every co-founder should score a 10 on. Yet, very rarely have co-founders really engaged deeply on this point. If you’re a non-technical co-founder and you are unsure where you should spend your efforts, this is likely the right place.
A strong co-founder has multiple paying customers or several letters of intent.
The end product will look drastically different from what you envision at this stage. But, that doesn’t mean it’s not important to have a vision. Non-technical co-founders should be able to articulate the product specifications, show a basic wireframe, and talk through why the product will create immense value for the end user.
This level of thinking provides a canvas for your potential technical co-founder to appraise level of effort and push back on product features needed for MVP. It’s the easiest place to start to understand what it would be like to work together.
Category: Problem Space
The problem is exciting
Technical co-founders want to be involved with something exciting. The definition varies for each person, but it’s a must to sign on to building.
I most recently worked for a technology company focused on mortgage loans. That doesn’t sound interesting on the surface. In reality we spent 90% of our time strategizing and building for the intersection of automation and humans, scheduling tasks in real-time across AWS, our employees, and third-party services.
This is a VERY interesting problem.
Learning how to highlight the most technically exciting aspects of the problem can make a big difference.
The problem is impactful
Everyone wants to change the world, especially technical co-founders. What about this idea will make the world a better place?
Not every problem needs to end world hunger. An impactful idea could be one that drastically improves the work / life experience for a small business accountant. Can you show that life would look significantly different (better) for a group of people if the idea works?
Technology is a key enabler
It’s easy to say every company is a technology company. But just because you have a website, doesn’t mean that technology is a key to your success. The best non-technical co-founders are able to articulate why a technology partner is a must-have for their business. This can involve expressing the idea in terms of phases, where the first phase is simple, but later is enabled to scale by leveraging automation.
Will use technology I am excited about
Software developers have different passions within their field. For me, it’s easiest to identify what technologies I don’t want to work with. For example, I’m less inclined to work with a founder where blockchain or AR/VR are key components.
As a company grows engineering can sometimes be siloed as a resource instead of respected as a partner. Great co-founders make it clear that engineering is a first-rate partner and will remain such.
One telling marker I have seen is when a person doesn’t minimize the developer effort required for tasks. For example “Building this should be pretty quick and easy” is much less appealing than “Based on the core feature set, how difficult does this project seem from an engineering perspective?”
Most engineers hate meetings. We love clear, concise messages that give enough information to execute. Overly verbose people are a quick turnoff as it signals lots of future wasted time. If you’ve been talking for more than 1-2 minutes, it’s time to stop.
Backchannel / Reference Checks
Some co-founders I met via referrals. These come with an implicit stamp of approval from a trusted third party. Before agreeing to work with any co-founder, I encourage back-channeling to several former colleagues to better understand how they work. Look for people whose former colleagues say they would LOVE to work together again.
The bulk of the work of building the company is ahead. Technical co-founders expect to be compensated in equity at a level that signals a true partnership. Anything lower than 10% ownership is not a co-founder, but a founding engineer. In most cases it should be close to a 50/50 split.
It’s also very important to be aligned in regards to the cash compensation you each expect to take. The prevailing narrative is founders should take as little as possible. This most commonly gets benchmarked to what a single person needs to live in a metropolitan area. It’s worth noting that not all co-founders are single people living in metropolitan areas. Understanding the constraints for both co-founders is key. Make sure you agree on a cash compensation level that will allow both of you to concentrate on the business, not your financial stress.
I’m going through co-founder dating right now. Using this framework, it was much easier for me to filter my potential co-founders from 70 down to 3.
I hope you found this helpful. I’d love to hear about what I got right, what I missed, and any other feedback you have.
If you found it useful, please share with anyone who has founder aspirations.
You can also subscribe to this Substack to follow along with my company build journey.