As Paul and I are starting to review the first batch of applications to AcceleratorHK, we have stressed that you can’t apply for the accelerator program with only one founder. The optimum team make-up is two people: one “business” co-founder and one “technical” co-founder.
The most frequent question that I get from potential applicants is: “Why do I need a technical co-founder?” The question alone tells you something since it is not: “Why do I need a business guy co-founder?” This tells me that there are TONS of excited non-technical people willing to take the plunge and start a business, but not enough techies. This is a problem.
I answer this question by saying that first you can’t do it all alone. Very few tech companies today were founded by one business guy. Second, at such an early stage (and by definition if you are applying to an accelerator you are an early stage), you will be doing a lot of Customer Development, MVPs, and “pivots.” It is critical in this early stage that your tech lead is part of the Customer Development process. If your tech lead is not a co-founder, at best, they will not understand Customer Development and want to do product development, and at worst, they will resist the process every step of the way. Only by constantly meeting with potential customers, doing Customer Development, and “having skin in the game” will a programmer be able to deliver on the vision of the company.
I’ve witnessed quite a few early stage companies enter an accelerator with a hired gun (consultant) as the “technical co-founder” in order to satisfy the two co-founder rule. The founder and the consultant have an agreement that the consultant would build the MVP and prototype and get the company to demo day in exchange for some equity. Never have I seen this work out; most have had disastrous results. In just about every case the consultant “co-founder” is in consulting mode and complains that “all those Accelerator meetings get in the way.” By forcing the startup into product development mode, the consultant negates all the benefits of the accelerator, since all accelerators are built around the Customer Development methodology. This also shows the level of disengagement, an accelerator cohort is for the entire team, not hired guns. I have seen one company recently lose their technical consultant “co-founder” halfway through the accelerator when he got a better gig. He used the first pivot as an excuse to bail. (At least he returned some of the equity.)
Usually, the non-technical founder is held hostage by the development team’s schedule and often times, the development progress is slower. Since the same level of passion is not there, the consultant just chugs along doing what he is told, leading to a misallocation of total work. You have founders working 16 hour days sleeping under their desks and the programmers pulling some overtime grumbling that they are losing money on this gig.
The only exception I have seen to this is a founder who had a team of guys in another country as full time developers lined up. He applied to an accelerator and was told he needed a technical co-founder, so he brought the lead developer to the accelerator for the duration of the program. While this worked out well, the company already had enough cash on hand to lock up the development team, so this is probably not the case for most other early stage startups.
If you are thinking of doing a startup, remember you can’t do it alone. If you are non-technical, you can’t outsource your core intellectual property. Besides if you can’t convince a techie with a well paying and stable job to quit and work at your high risk venture for free, then well, you probably don’t have enough sales skills to convince customers to buy your revolutionary new product.