When building a startup, you have several options when it comes to software development. From finding a CTO to outsourcing to a software development company or hiring a developer.
If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume you’ve already explored these options and already decided that hiring a software developer is the right choice for you.
I’m also guessing that this will be the first software developer you onboard for your startup. As such, I’ll be tailoring my advice to that scenario.
When looking for the first hire for your tech team there are several steps you should take to increase your chances of success.
The most important, and the one I’ll be spending the most time on in this article, is ensuring you hire a developer with the right (hard and soft) skills for your specific needs.
Then, you need to look for software developers in the right places – whether that’s online platforms or in-person events.
It’s also important to manage your expectations. Finding a skilled software developer to help you won’t be easy in the current landscape. Even if you consider giving them equity and making them your co-founders. This story is a nice testament to that.
Before I get to that, I want to take a moment to talk about the responsibilities of your tech team’s first hire – to outline why it’s such an important decision.
- Responsibilities of Your Startup’s First Software Developer
- What to Look For in a Software Developer
- When to Hire a Software Developer for Your Startup
- Where to Hire a Software Developer for Your Startup
- Alternatives to Hiring a Software Developer
- Software Developer FAQs
Responsibilities of Your Startup’s First Software Developer
On paper, this may seem pretty straightforward. Of course, the responsibility of a software developer is to build your product.
However, if this is the first developer you’re onboarding, it’s not quite that simple (especially if you’re a non-tech founder).
If they’re the first technical person coming into your startup, they will also be responsible for several tech decisions that are also key business decisions.
Things like the tech stack they choose to build your startup product or how they implement the architecture. These key decisions have a long-term impact on your business.
If they choose the wrong tech stack, you could face scalability issues in the future. If the architecture isn’t up to standard, you could face user experience issues like slow loading or crashes.
It’s for these reasons that choosing the first software developer requires a few more steps than future tech hires. After all, once you have one developer they can help you when it comes to vetting future hires.
What to Look for Before Hiring a Software Developer for Your Startup
If you hire a software developer that lacks tech expertise, that can lead to technical debt. Meaning, incorrect or substandard code, poor technology choices, inferior architecture implementation, the list goes on.
To make sure you find the right software developer for you, start by studying their portfolio in-depth. What have they done in the past that can benefit your startup?
Here, I would also recommend finding a non-biased technical advisor to help you with this research. They’ll be able to quickly help you validate the developer’s previous work.
Alongside this, benchmark your candidates. Ask them to present a tech rationale on the technologies, architecture and infrastructure they recommend for your specific project.
Then, ask a software development company to do the same thing (most reputable companies will do this free of charge).
You should do this to make sure that your potential hire is suggesting a tech rationale that’s best for your company. I’ve had experiences where software developers will advise certain technologies because they’re zeitgeist or they simply prefer using them.
The reason I recommend benchmarking your software developer against an agency is that an agency will have seen a project like yours before (in most cases).
Also, although most agencies specialise in a handful of technologies, they’ll have a wider range of talent at hand. Therefore, it’s less likely they’ll deliver a biased rationale.
That being said, you should also validate any benchmarking you do with your tech advisor.
Once you’ve validated your candidates’ hard skills, it’s essential to move on to those all-important soft skills.
You should hire a software developer who is passionate about your project.
In my experience, there’s a big difference between having someone that does the job versus someone who flies the flag.
And you want someone who will fly the flag. If they’re not passionate about your idea and business vision, it’s far less likely they’ll put their all into your company.
Take this quote from Audapio’s Founder, Dudley Gould, as an example:
I started my search by going to as many networking events and meetups as I could.
I also went through my contacts to see if anyone I knew could help me out. Friends, friends of friends, colleagues of friends, I reached out to a lot of people.
Bingo, I thought I’d found the guy for the job. A good friend of a friend with six years of development experience.
We started working together for a few months. However, he was incredibly busy with his job and didn’t have a lot of time to help me build a startup.
Some days he was getting up at four in the morning to do a couple of hours of development before starting work. But naturally, that’s not sustainable and progress was slow.
Eventually, when I wanted him to quit his job and come on board as co-founder, he was honest and said the timing wasn’t right for him.
Which was completely understandable.
Giving up a good salary and job he liked to take on the risks associated with trying to build a startup is not something many people are prepared to do. I appreciated his honesty.
All of this to say, be prepared for the fact that it may take a moment to find someone who is truly passionate about your project.
We’re in the midst of a global developer shortage, with nearly one million open IT jobs in the US alone. Meaning, that many of the best software developers will already have a job.
Don’t be tempted to hire the first developer who looks your way. Find someone who is truly passionate about what you’re setting out to achieve with your startup.
You need to know that the developer you’re talking to will deliver when you need them to.
My advice here is to test them by asking for a simple deliverable with a feasible deadline. For example, you could ask them to undertake a technical challenge or deliver a technical roadmap.
If you’re not sure what the deliverable should be or how long you should give the developer to complete it, go back to your unbiased technical advisor.
If they don’t deliver on time they’re not the developer for you. It brings into question both how responsible and committed they are.
You’re about to spend a lot of time working with the software developer you hire.
And there’s nothing worse than working with someone who’s not fully committed to your startup.
You need to hire a software developer that’s prepared to commit as much as you are. If they have another full-time job and are going to treat you as their “side-gig” it’s simply not going to work.
Once again, there’s a huge difference between doing the job and flying the flag.
Communication & Alignment
As I mentioned in the previous section, you’re going to spend a lot of time working directly with the software developer you hire.
First and foremost, you need to get on with the person you hire.
You need to share similar values and feel you can trust this person.
If they can’t communicate, you won’t be able to know any of this.
They also need to be able to articulate technical information to both technical and non-technical stakeholders.
Moreover, you need to align with them on several key aspects of the business. Mainly, product and company roadmap, salary and company culture.
Start by outlining the business milestones you want to achieve: your MVP roadmap and launch, product iterations, processes, etc.
Then move on to the culture you are trying to nurture. As an early hire, this software developer will play a key role in implementing your culture as the company grows. So it’s vital you’re on the same page.
Finally, discuss salary expectations and make sure they’re happy with their compensation.
At this point in your startup journey, it’s very likely that you’re working with a small team. Maybe you and one or two co-founders.
Chances are, this developer will be one of the first people you onboard into the company.
So, unlike a company hiring their 100th software developer, you need to make sure they also have the potential for a leadership role before onboarding them.
Should your startup succeed and grow, it’s very likely the developer you’re hiring now will take charge of your technical team. They could potentially even become your CTO somewhere along the line.
You need to look for indicators that they’re up for the challenge of leadership. There’s a famous pattern in IT teams in which, through promotion, you lose a great developer and gain an awful boss.
Ask them what their ideal software development team would look like. What skills would the devs in that team have? If they only reply with hard skills, be prepared for the fact that they may not have it in them to be a leader.
The right leader knows that:
- People are the most important aspect
- Communication is vital
- Bad communication can break a team
Whether or not you choose to hire a developer that doesn’t show signs of leadership skills is up to you at this stage.
It depends on a number of factors, like how long it will be before you onboard someone else.
I highly recommend, however, thinking about this now. Or you could be faced with the awkward position of hiring someone to take control of your startup’s technical department and ousting the developer who’s been with you since day one.
Do you have a brilliant idea that you want to bring to life?
From the product and business reasoning to streamlining your MVP to the most important features, our team of product experts and ex-startup founders can help you bring your vision to life.
When to Hire a Software Developer for Your Startup
It’s vital that you only onboard a software developer when you need one. It’s not always the best choice to onboard a tech person when your vision is still an idea on a napkin.
It’s more important at that stage to share your idea with advisors, mentors and potential users to gather feedback on your product idea.
Alongside this, I recommend scoping your product. So when you do approach developers it’s not just an idea but a fully-formed product vision.
This will help you decrease your time-to-market and reduce your costs. As you’ll be hiring a software developer later and you’ll be giving them a clear plan of attack to execute your product.
While you carry out the two steps above, it’s also a perfect opportunity to grow your network within the tech startup community – which I’ll cover more in the next section.
Where to Hire a Software Developer for Your Startup
By far the best channel you can use to hire a software developer is your network in the startup community. If someone from your network gives you a warm introduction, you’ll be going into a conversation with a software developer who’s been vetted by someone you trust.
I recommend you consider joining a peer community of founders to help you grow your network (like Pavilion or Tech-Aviv). Meetups and tech conferences will also help you with this, which I’ll cover more fully below.
If referrals from your network aren’t enough – or it isn’t moving as fast as you like – you have other offline and online options:
Here, my advice is to attend as many (relevant) tech meetups as possible. By relevant I mean, based on your niche and industry. That being said, the larger tech events like Websummit can also be worth your time – despite the lack of industry focus.
Just don’t get caught in the trap of signing up for hundreds of meetups to only arrive and discover they’re not going to be beneficial to you.
When it comes to the online approach, there are literally thousands of platforms to choose from.
My Head of Content, Jamie, recently released a list of the best options based on our experience, and the experience of our network of entrepreneurs. Here’s the list in full:
For more information on what these platforms offer – and how to sign up for them – check out the full resource.
I would recommend giving yourself a deadline when it comes to online searching. Just like with signing up to tech meetups, it can be very easy to fall into a net-abyss of job platforms.
Alternatives to Hiring a Software Developer for Your Startup
Finally, if you’re struggling to hire a software developer that embodies everything I’ve discussed, don’t be scared to look at the other options you have – a CTO, freelancers, outsourcing to an agency.
Let’s start with a CTO. To be honest with you, if you’re struggling to find a developer, you’re also going to struggle to find a CTO.
In fact, finding the perfect CTO is much harder – because the list of qualities they need to personify is much more intricate. It’s also the most idyllic option. If you can find one; stick to them.
That being said, there are several companies out there that offer a “CTO as a service”. Here, an experienced professional will act as your CTO.
They will help you with your tech strategy and may even be able to help you build your team.
What they won’t do, however, is actually build your product. For that you’ll need to look at the last two options – starting with freelancers.
Working with a freelance developer can give you flexibility due to the low commitment needed on both sides. It’s often much more budget-friendly, as you’re only paying them as and when you need development.
That said, it comes with its own set of risks – like trust, security, reliability, etc.
Lastly, you can work with a software development agency – you just need to make sure you choose the right one for the job.
Much like hiring a software developer, you need to validate their previous work, align on the business vision and ensure communication will be crystal clear throughout the process.
I recommend this article if you want to explore all of the options available.
Hiring a software developer to build your startup is a very viable option.
Find the right person, and you’ll have onboarded a key member of your early-stage startup team.
However, it’s critical they:
- Have a wealth of technical expertise that’s relevant to your startup
- Are passionate about your business vision
- Can be responsible and deliver on time at a high quality
- Will be committed and truly fly the flag
- Are communicative and align on all the critical business elements
- Have the potential to be a great leader in the event that your startup team grows
Finally, if you’re struggling to hire a developer don’t worry. In truth, all of the options I’ve discussed today are viable.
The most important thing is not the option you choose, it’s the people behind that option.
You can hire a great technical mind, but if they don’t align with your vision and they can’t communicate, it’s probably not going to work out.
Or, you can find a software development company filled with people you completely align with, but the technologies they work in aren’t right for your startup.
You can find the perfect CTO in terms of commitment, alignment, and tech expertise – but they’re simply not built to lead a team.
My point is to put the people first and the rest should fall into place, regardless of the model you choose.
Software Developer FAQs
How do I Find a Software Developer?
Here’s the list of the 12 best online platforms to hire software developers for your startup.
For more information on what these platforms offer, check out this resource.
How Much Does it Cost to Hire a Software Developer for Your Startup?
The average cost of a Full-Stack Developer depends on where you’re based.
According to Indeed, the average base salary for a Full-Stack Developer is:
- $101,000 per year with an additional $5,000 in cash bonuses and a 401k in the US.
- £55,000 ($68,000) per year in the UK
- CHF 102’784 ($107,000) per year in Switzerland
As I mentioned, it completely depends on your geography, and the experience of the developer you hire, but these figures will give you a good idea to get started.
How to Attract & Retain Software Developers to Your Startup
When it comes to attracting and retaining software developers for your startup, there are several factors to consider to stay ahead of the curve.
As I’ve already mentioned, finding a software developer is getting more difficult due to the developer shortage. Therefore, when you onboard someone, it’s essential that you’re able to retain them – as replacing them will put you back at square one.
Here are some strategies you can implement to both attract and keep hold of software developers:
1. Offer Competitive Compensation
This one is obvious, but if you want top talent software developers you need to be able to offer the right compensation package.
As an early-stage startup, this will also be one of the most difficult aspects of onboarding software developers.
If you’re unable to offer competitive compensation in salary alone, you could also consider offering equity, stock options or shares.
Indeed is a great resource to use to research the average cost of a software developer where you’re based.
2. Structure Your Recruitment & Hiring Process
You need to carefully plan how you’re going to approach developers. This starts with your job posting. This is the first contact software developers will have with your company. It’s essential, therefore, that you’re able to communicate not only the opportunities you have to offer but also your startup’s values and culture.
As for interviewing developers, check out the FAQ below, How to Interview Developers for Your Startup.
3. Provide Opportunities for Growth and Creativity
While software development is a very technical role, it also demands an ample amount of creativity. So it’s no surprise that many software developers want to be able to flex their creative muscles.
If they’re the first developer in your startup, let them know that they will also have a say in how the product is brought to life. That they’ll be given the opportunity to try different tools, methods of development, etc.
Of course, as the founder, you’ll have the final say. But including them in that decision-making process will benefit you as a non-technical person. They’ll be able to offer advice from a technical perspective that you simply don’t have.
It will also benefit the software developer. These opportunities will not only allow them to grow, but they will also feel ownership over the product development. Which will help them be more committed to your startup’s vision.
4. Establish a Rock-Solid Company Culture
Finally, nurture a workplace where people actually want to work. This is a critical factor in attracting and retaining top software developers.
Make sure they feel welcomed. Offer perks like company lunches and events. These perks don’t have to be grandiose. You just need to provide an environment where your employees can gather together in an informal environment. This will go a long way to helping form strong bonds that will allow them to collaborate on a high level.
How to Interview Developers for Your Startup
Once you’ve found a couple of profiles that fit the bill, it’s critical you’ve got a solid process in place to interview them.
My co-founder, André Lopes, has spent much of his career conducting such interviews. In that time, he’s curated a structured process to successfully carry out those interviews:
- Break the Ice
- Ask Targeted Questions to Establish Relatability
- Clearly Direct the Conversation
- Tell Your Startup Story
- Get to Know Them
- What Stage of Their Career Are They In?
- Tech Matters: What is Their Skillset?
- What Do They Expect from You?
- Describe The Opportunity
- Discuss Potential Roles
- Describe the Lifestyle
- Outline the Progression Model & Tech Environment
- Explain the Next Steps with Clarity & Transparency
For André’s full process, check out this guide.
And By The Way,
I’m Paolo, co-founder at Altar.io — a team of experienced second-time founders & world-class developers based in London, Milan and Lisbon. We help startups and corporates build great tech products.
If you have a brilliant idea that you want to bring to life — drop me a few lines here and let’s chat!
Good luck and thanks for reading,