This edition of “Ask the Expert” is brought to you by Kickstand. We asked the FFA community what questions they had for Dominic Varacalli, Founding Partner of Kickstand. Read on for his insights.
Kickstand is a full-stack software agency that works with startups to design, validate, and launch software products and platforms. Their single focus on delivering for startups puts them in a unique position to know and work with the pressures founders have to deal with every day. Kickstand works with startups in all phases to produce anything from an MVP to a scalable platform.
Q: Do I need a technical co-founder? If so, when is the right time to bring one on?
There is no right answer here. Every business, founder, and team is different — not to mention the life circumstances they face. But I rely on a basic framework that I’ve seen work well for founders of all kinds. It involves three key factors:
1. Capital: VC, angel, bootstrap, etc.
2. Connections: industry experience, your investor’s connections, etc.
3. Hard skills: something you know how to do yourself, pay someone to do (e.g., a contractor or employee), or pay for in equity.
Every founder brings one or more of these elements to the table. Your job is to make sure you not only have all three, but also in the proportions that are best for you and your business. For example, if your startup is in a regulated field like healthcare, you will want to make sure that one of your key members can navigate the regulatory challenges.
Think of the hard skills you need in terms of C-suite roles at a big company: CMO, CFO, CTO, etc. The technical co-founder role represents the hard skill of a CTO (i.e., engineering skill). It is critical that this work gets done, but if you have everything else lined up, there’s no reason why you can’t hire great engineers — just like you would a marketing or finance expert.
Plus, filling skill gaps this way in the early going can save you from one of the biggest dangers out there: bringing on a co-founder you don’t really know, and then having to get rid of them because — regardless of how much equity or skill they offer — they’re a poor fit for the company you’re trying to become.
I recommend founders first see how far along on product-market fit and capital they can get. If you’re relatively strong in those two areas, you will be in a better position to get the right co-founder — or have the time to realize you might be able to just hire a great employee/contractor to complement your leadership team.
Last note on this: If you want to raise VC funding, it is easier to do so if you have a team around you for support. That might just be another co-founder, but you’ll want at least one other person to go on the journey with you.
Q. What do you wish every non-technical founder knew before starting to build out their technology?
It’s hard to see all that goes into any technical product. Understand that you are essentially building something like a car or house. Technical products have equivalent levels of complexity or effort. We even use a lot of the same metaphors when talking about tech: architecture, engine, scaffolding, etc.
Don’t expect a one-and-done build. The second you put something out into the world, it will need maintenance, people will want more features, etc. Expect to keep investing even if you think you just need to test something.
That being said, start small. While “MVP” has lost a some of its meaning, a MVP or prototyping are extremely useful and should be your go-tos. It’s all too easy to burn up precious runway by investing in a large product, only to find out that half of it doesn’t land with your market. And then you still have to maintain it or spend more to pivot it.
Q. What tips do you have to help non-technical founders actually lead an engineering team?
Your goal as a founder isn’t to become an expert in technology. However, I do recommend that you gain some understanding of basic concepts to help you better engage in conversations with your tech team and grasp the impacts of their decisions. That’s why I teach a free course for founders looking for these core concepts (https://kickstand.work/tech-for-leaders/)
This came back to bite one of our clients when their team was previously driven by sales commitments and dates. The technical team accumulated a ton of technical debt and the leadership was blindsided when they tried to pivot but it took over 6 months to do so. You as a founder want to know what debt your team is taking on.
When hiring or outsourcing early on, make sure that the engineers you choose to work with are ready and willing to explain the choices they make. That’s something we really focus on at Kickstand, because engineering teams that act like a black box can lead to huge problems. You absolutely need to understand whether the team is creating technical debt on your core tech, or why something might take a long time, or what concerns they have as engineers about the solutions your clients are pushing you to build.
Ultimately, it’s a two-way street. After all, the engineers on your team are helping form your business, so they need to be engaged in making trade-off decisions with you about your company’s tech — just like you, as a founder, make tradeoffs on how to spend your time and money.
Q. Can you share some stories of solo founders who have outsourced their MVP build to you and gone on to succeed?
We have worked with plenty of founders who don’t have a technical co-founder. I think the key is to have a partner or team around you, regardless of their technical chops.
Two recent examples are Nicole Schmidt (https://tothesource.com/) and Mandana Salehi-Stewart (https://www.zibahub.com/ – new version launching soon). Both of them outsourced their work to us — Nicole to scale an MVP she built out on her own with “low-code tools” and Mandana to build her MVP having a current version that isn’t serving her needs and having a strong team of advisors around her.
Their goals were to move further up on the funding and product-market fit metrics, putting them in a better position to find the right co-founder or team members without sacrificing a ton of equity. And they’ve done that. It’s been exciting to see them each receive additional funding to grow their businesses.
Q. What made that possible?
Both Nicole and Mandana had some capital, lots of industry experience, and connections to work with. They chose to hold back their equity until they were in a stronger position as a business, reserving that for the right staff or co-founders.
Kickstand was able to partner with them in developing their products. Giving them a freedom to focus on the rest of the business, raising funds, and marketing. That extra time and freedom meant that post launch we helped Nicole find the right long term hire and train that engineer.
I would also say that both of them are extremely passionate individuals and collaborate really well. That made the whole experience enjoyable for everyone. Working with people who are motivated and engaged is one of the things I like best about my job, because that’s how we like to work, too.
If you want to learn more about Kickstand and how we can partner with you on your technical goals? Email me — we’re here to help.
Dominic leads the product and operations at Kickstand, a software agency for startups. Before Kickstand he was a director at Kroger Digital, building the engineering team to launch their eCommerce experience. Over the years, he has spent his time at his own startups or large multinationals straddling product and engineering teams.