I considered a lot VP Engineering/CTO candidates before Jeroen agreed to join me as cofounder. It was the good, the bad, and the ugly.
There were a lot of near misses where the fit just wasn’t there or something wasn’t quite right. If there’s one thing I learned in the process, is you can’t just have a good cofounder, you need a great cofounder.
The near misses were just that, near misses. They were each missing something I felt was necessary for them to be a great cofounder.
The potential cofounder had bad references:
“Sam” had a really strong background. He had 18 patents, and he was clearly a brilliant technologist.
I spent a lot of time with Sam making sure we were aligned on how we were going to build the company. I had other people I trusted meet Sam.
Everything seemed to check out. We agreed on compensation and equity, but I had one final thing on my checklist, and that was references.
Sam provided three references for me to call. The first name on the list was "Sandy’s".
Sandy had worked for me years ago, so I called Sandy and asked him about Sam. Sandy told me he was surprised Sam gave him as reference.
That was the first red flag about Sam. The second, and more important, red flag was that Sandy's critique of Sam wasn’t very positive.
I didn’t bother calling the other references. I called Sam and told him I was passing.
The potential cofounder can’t recruit:
One of my other cofounders introduced my to “John”. My cofounder was really excited that John would be great.
I met with John, and he certainly was very personable. He seemed strong technically, and his background was spot on.
Then I asked him how he was going to build his team.
“I do a lot of bike riding. So I am going to meet with the people in my bike club and build my team through them.” I’m sorry, but I didn’t think John’s bike club was going to be able to help us build a strong engineering team.
Needless to say, I didn’t go forward with John as a potential VP Engineering candidate.
The potential cofounder isn’t senior enough:
We all can feel desperate to find someone, anyone, to fill a key role. And I too fell prey to this.
I found “Julius” through LinkedIn, and we arranged to meet. Julius seemed a little light on experience, but he was strong technically.
I thought, “Maybe Julius can grow into the job.” I had other people I trusted meet with Julius, and they were positive on him.
I decided to go forward with Julius. Julius joined us, and he started recruiting his team.
The candidates were all solid engineers, but they weren’t A-level talent. I was worried that the team Julius was building just wouldn’t be strong enough.
I knew, in my heart of hearts, this wasn’t going to work, so Julius and I agreed to part company about six weeks into our experiment.
What made Jeroen the right person to be VP Engineering and cofounder?
Finding cofounders is a lot like dating. Simply put, Jeroen and I hit it off.
We knew each other from Maxim. In fact, Jeroen was still at Maxim when I called him.
Maxim was a pretty intense place to work at, so the shared experience of being from Maxim certainly helped build the foundation of our relationship. But there was a lot more.
Jeroen checked every box on my list of requirements:
A. Jeroen had integrity.
Everything starts and finishes with integrity. You can’t build a team unless every member of the team has integrity.
One of the answers I love hearing from engineers is, “I can’t leave my job until I complete my project.” It’s a great answer that speaks to the integrity of the engineer.
This was the first thing Jeroen said to me when we were talking about his exit from Maxim. I had no doubt that he would join. And…
B. Jeroen was experienced.
Jeroen had over 20 years experience, and he had a bunch of patents as well. Jeroen had been managing and building teams for years, so I knew that he had the experience necessary to build our engineering team. And…
C. Jeroen could recruit.
When Jereon told me about the people he wanted to recruit, they were all A-level talent. I knew many of the people he had in mind, so that also gave me extra comfort. And…
D. Jeroen was very hands on.
You need your VP Engineering/CTO to be hands on at the start of the company. You just can’t have any managers (including yourself) that just manage.
Jeroen’s plan was to design one of our initial products himself. In fact, this was the first product we introduced.
I liked the idea of Jeroen designing because he would understand the design rigor and process we would build. Plus, you earn the respect of the team when you are hands on. And…
E. Jeroen had really good business sense.
Good business sense in your key technical people is critical to your success. Why? Imagine working with a cofounder that has bad business sense?
You will be fighting all the time over nonsense if you have a technical cofounder that has bad business sense. I found Jeroen’s advice and judgement on the business issues we faced to be invaluable. Finally…
F. Jeroen was a cultural fit.
I wanted a VP Engineering cofounder that shared the same vision for how to build our company that I did. I’m not just talking about the product vision, but team building and cultural vision of the company. Jeroen was just as fanatical about building our company as I was.
Jeroen and I had a strong alignment that we weren’t going to hire any “brilliant jerks” into the engineering organization. And, for the most part, we didn’t hire any brilliant jerks.
However, we asked any brilliant jerks that joined the company to leave.
Develop a check list, like I did, of the qualities that are important for your technical cofounder to have. Then stick to that checklist.
For me, integrity, experience, the ability to recruit, being hands-on, having good business sense, and being a cultural fit were important to me. Perhaps these qualities will work for you as well.
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