Rules of Engagement

I’ve gotten approached by a fair amount of “entrepreneurs” recently. Granted this is completely my fault; I put my name up on the NYU Entreprenurship Lab’s wall under developers. And putting all the jokes and snarky remarks aside, there’s a lot of genuine misunderstanding between these entrepreneurs and developers. I want to clear some of them up with some “rules of engagement” for developers.

So let’s say you are the founder of a startup called Breakr, Tinder for break dancers. You need to find a developer to build your product. You find a developer’s email from a friend/a bathroom wall/LinkedIn. You decide to send them an email recruiting them to your startup. Do you:

  • Write an extremely vague email out of fear that they’ll steal the idea
  • Ask them to work for you without any mention of compensation in any form
  • Have grammatical and stylistic errors in your writing.
  • Ask if they can build an “app”
  • Utter any phrase vaguely similar to “I can handle the business side”

If you’re wondering, the answer to all of the above is NO. You should not do any of the above. I’ll outline each in turn:

First, you need to explain your idea in the email. I know, you watched The Social Network and immediately became terrified of some nerd stealing your idea and becoming a billionaire. First, don’t flatter yourself or your idea. Mark Zuckerberg didn’t become a billionaire because of the idea. Facebook wasn’t exactly a groundbreaking idea at the time. MySpace and Friendster were a thing, and even before that, someone probably thought “hey, what if, there were like a website where I could see what my friends are up to.” Chances are, your idea is also not new and is not that valuable. Second, so what? If I took your idea and made it into a company, it’s not like that company is a guaranteed success. I still need to, y’know, build the product, get funding, find users, etc. It’s not like the moment someone starts building a similar product it’s game over. To paraphrase Paul Graham, competition isn’t the main arbiter of startup success. It’s you.

Second, you need to address the elephant in the room; can you pay me? And no, just because I’m young and “horribly underqualified” (hehe) doesn’t mean you can assume I’ll work for free. At the very least, I’d like a straightforward recognition that no, you cannot pay me. And if you can’t pay me, what can you offer me? Can you offer equity? Are we partners? Offering a partnership demonstrates humility, which is at least endearing. If you’re expecting free work with no equity, recognition or even pretend titles, then you’re pretty darn delusional.

Third, treat this explanation like a pitch towards a potential investor. Even though I may not be investing money in your company, I am investing time and effort, which does cost money. This means you should proofread your emails, use correct spelling and grammatical sentences. It may seem petty, but an email consisting of “i have idea. can u make it??” is a lot less appealing than a well formed, well thought out proposal. And sure, English may not be your first language. But there’s probably someone you know whose first language is English. Just send it to them.

Fourth is the word “app”. I’ve developed a recent aversion to it. Mainly because the word betrays a lack of research. Asking if I can build an “app” is like asking if I make “food”. It’s a little general. If you’re going to propose a product, it’d be nice if you did your homework. Do you want a mobile application or a web application? Do you want to make a PaaS or a SaaS? After all, aren’t entrepreneurs fast moving, intelligent do-ers who can adapt to many situations? Seems like you can do some basic research into the different kinds of software. Even if you resort to buzzwords like .NET or React or iOS, at least that demonstrates some ability to google terms.

If your response is “well that’s your job. You handle the tech.” Well, no. As the founder, you need to have at least a basic grasp on the tech. Hell, something as simple as “I’m teaching myself some JavaScript” makes me 100% more interested. It demonstrates that you’re A. humble and B. able to learn new things. A founder that doesn’t even know the high level for the tech is like a ship captain that doesn’t understand how sails work. I don’t have a lot of confidence in your intelligence or your ability to navigate.

And finally, you need to sell me on yourself. Why are you in particular worth working alongside? What do you bring to the company? And don’t say “business development” or “the business side”. I want concrete details about what value you provide. Do you have experience in marketing and raising money? Do you have industry contacts? Are you like, really good at Excel? Because ultimately, I’m investing in you as much as the company. If I don’t think you’re worth it, I might just pull a Zuckerberg and steal your idea.