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This post is old — tech evolves rapidly and this content may be out of date and / or may not represent my current thinking on the topic

February 23, 2013

This post is aimed at non-technical startup founders.

As an engineer / CTO type, I've been pitched many ideas over the years. It seems that with every startup event I attend, there is a growing number of non-technical startup founders who seek to recruit technical talent to help them get their startup off the ground.

Often the pitch begins with the idea. From there the pitch moves into the mechanics of how the solution works, which inexorably leads to the ultimate conclusion of "now I just need someone to build it all for me"...

If you're a business guy pitching engineers like that, take note: that is how you talk to a vendor. You have a thing that you want built. This is fine if you're looking to recruit a guy to build something for a fee. Some of us engineers are happy to do that and you can expect our hourly rate to be anywhere from $100 ~ $1000 per hour. Lets meet up and flesh out a project plan.

If however you're a business guy looking for a partner or a co-founder where a closer relationship and more risk are involved, your pitching strategy needs to be very different. Here's an anecdote that helps to illustrate.

In the early 1900s Charles Proteus Steinmetz - an expert electrical engineer - was brought to General Electric to fix a problem with a huge electric generator that many before had been unable to fix.

Steinmetz worked on the problem for a few days and eventually handed his proposed solution to GE.

The sum total of his work was a large "X" written in chalk on the side of the generator casing. There was also a note instructing GE to cut the casing open at that spot and remove wire from the stator.

GE followed the instructions and the generator functioned properly.

Steinmetz told GE his fee was to be $1000 or about $27,000 in today's value. GE were dumbfounded at the high cost - after all this man had simply drawn an "X" in chalk! They asked for a formally itemized invoice.

He submitted the following:

  1. Marking X on side of generator: $1

  2. Knowing where to mark X: $999

Here's how this story relates to recruiting engineering talent.

Engineering is a craft that is learned over many years. If you're at a startup event pitching to a technical talent, their knowledge of engineering is likely built up over 5, 10 or even 20 years of experience depending on their age.

Ideas are a dime a dozen and engineers are perfectly capable of having their own ideas. What really matters in a founding relationship is the complimentary, non-technical craft that you can bring to the potential partnership. What is the voodoo that you have practiced over the last 5, 10 or 20 year period that will make us as co-founders an awesome and unstoppable force?

The list goes on. You don't need to be great at everything, but you need to have a craft that will strengthen the partnership - not just an idea. Next time you pitch to a technical talent, pitch yourself and your craft first. The idea is secondary.

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