What is the single most important contributor to startup failure?

"The cost of hiring someone bad is so much greater than missing out on someone good."

- Joe Kraus, Partner, Google Ventures

Statistic Brain shows us that only 37% of all information technology startups make it past the first 4 years; and that number doesn't take into account whether the company is rising to the top, or hanging by a thread.

So how do you find the right team to guarantee that you're not just treading water, but the owner of the luxurious three-story yacht sailing across the open seas? Below we'll take a look at one of the most important roles, the developer, and give you 10 simple tips to find one that will rock your world like the crowd at a Van Halen concert during the first few measures of Jump.

1. Share the Passion

Developers work best when they love what they are doing; when they have a true desire and passion to make the product, so find someone who really gets your idea, and wants to see it come to life.

When discussing your project, you want to see their eyes light up with the possibilites!

Ideally, you want someone who will see way past your vision and leap at the chance to make it a reality. He'll come up with ideas you never thought possible, and help you take the product to heights you've never dreamed. And he'll do it all with a smile on his face.

2. Value their Work

This one has two pieces:

  1. You obviously need to value the work that they provide, but
  2. You also want to find someone who values their own work

If they don't like to talk about their previous projects, or are charging way under what you'd expect, they don't yet have the confidence you'll need to be successful.

Find someone who is upfront and firm about their price, and who loves to talk about project X or project Y where they skipped meals and worked into the wee hours of the morning simply because they got caught up in making something amazing!

3. Think Three Years Ahead

If you're just getting started, it's likely that this person will be your only developer, and while you are capable of firing him/her and moving on, you should treat this hire more like a marriage proposal.

If you can't imagine being stuck with them three years from now when the going gets tough, you've got a serious problem.

Just like a marriage, a healthy business partnership will take a lot of hard work and you will have a few arguments along the way. If signing the contracts feels more like a prenup than a heart-felt proposal, take a step back and see if you need to run from the alter.

4. Communicate Openly and Honestly

Like any relationship, honesty and an open communication channel are of the utmost priority!

You should expect him to deliver what he says when he says, but you should also expect him to occasionally tell you something has fallen behind or taken longer than expected. If he is telling you things are going great when they look like they aren't, you're going to be thrown way off track.

In return, he should expect the same from you. If you can see that he's struggling with something, go and talk to him! See if there is anything that you can do to help and let him know that whatever is going on is affecting both of you and should be solved by both of you.

This one can be very difficult to test in a simple interview, so if possible, try to do a small project or two before as part of the vetting process. Look for the signs and you'll find out early on whether or not the communication is great or breaks down into the ether.

5. Value Personal Time

A developer can be massively productive when he gets in a groove and works for 15 hours straight, but he can't keep that up for long. Find out how he feels about nights, weekends and vacations. Burnout can happen quickly, and you definitely don't want your go-to-guy resenting his commitment to you.

In turn, make sure that you respect his time away from the office, and that he does the same for you.

Don't ask him to do something in his off-time unless it's truly a business emergency.

And even if you two are both totally fine with texting/emailing all night long and on weekends, your family probably isn't jumping for joy. Make sure that each of you has time away from the office, and that you don't have to worry about turning your phone off at dinner to avoid that special buzz that makes your wife's eyebrows go south.

During the interview, make sure to discuss all of these points and don't be afraid to use some specific examples about what is and isn't appropriate from both of your perspectives.

6. Give and Require Feedback

Your developer can't read your mind, and your way isn't always the best way to do things.

Try to engage him about past projects and see what he liked and disliked about them. Additionally, make sure that he gives you feedback about your project or processes and offers helpful suggestions.

You aren't always going to be right; in fact, if you find the right developer, you should be wrong more often than not, because that's what you're paying him for: his expertise in the areas that you don't have the time to learn.

But it doesn't stop with the negative feedback! Make sure you give him some positive feedback and see how he reacts.

A good candidate (developer or not) will thank you for the compliment with humility and without too much of a fuss, perhaps making a comment about how much they enjoyed that project; but a bad one will likely tell you how he doesn't deserve your compliment or play it off as a really trivial task.

Be wary of these people as they don't yet value their work, and perhaps don't take it seriously.

7. Understand and Discuss the Workflow/Process

Unless you have some serious cash to put behind the project, you're likely not going to find a single person who is already an expert at all areas of development, design and product management and who is capable of running the show for you.

If you can't afford multiple people, or one of the high-cost know-it-alls, find a good developer and make sure that you are both ready to experiment a bit with different processes. He'll likely know what works best for him, and you'll know what works best for you, but don't be afraid to try something new and exotic if you both think it provides the benefits!

Ask him direct and specific questions about his process.

He may not be an expert or have it all nailed down, but he should at least be able to answer the following questions:

  • Do you use any existing tools?
  • How do you track your goals/tasks and your completed progress?
  • When do you mark a project as finished?
  • Do you work best on a single project at a time, or by bouncing around through three or four to get some variety?
  • In what kind of environment are you most productive?

We'll talk more about the work environment below, but getting concrete answers to these questions is crucial to finding someone that you won't have to micromanage. It's okay if he doesn't have any specific tools as long as he can tell you the process. If he works best by pen and paper, it doesn't really matter as long as the work gets done.

Make sure that before work starts, you both know the process pretty well so that you can discuss things in the same terms. If you're talking about deadlines in a different way than he is, it can cause a lot of confusion and frustration.

8. Envision the Environment

Your developer will have a specific way that he works best:

  • Loud music, office door shut, early in the morning and late at night
  • Or perhaps he's more akin to the quite, open office, 8-5 type of thing

Think about how this will affect you and your business. If he only works at night, are you going to run into issues when attempting to contact him?

What about location? Does your business require a lot of face-to-face, or can you Skype with anyone in the world?

Make sure that you're both on the same page about expectations and freedoms. Is he allowed to work on outside projects at the office during business hours? What about using company resources such as the copier or phone lines.

Getting these things out of the way beforehand will drastically reduce the likelihood of later issues.

9. Love Your Neighbor

You're about to hire someone that you will likely spend a lot of time with over the next few years.

How well do you get along? Do you have some common ground to talk about? Are you fairly close age-wise? What about kids?

You obviously can't discriminate against him for any of these things, but it's nice to know where your commonalities lie. If you have nothing to talk about on the long car rides to lunch, things can get pretty awkward.

You don't need to be buddy-buddys, and likely, being too close will cause issues. But make sure that you actually like the guy and can stand to be around him for extended periods of time. You will be collaborating, designing, iterating, and having pizza/beer all-nighters at the end of a super frustrating day.

Make certain that you two aren't going to be butting heads or screaming and shouting if a heated argument arises.

10. Trust Your Gut

It's amazing how truly intuitive you can be when you simply listen to your inner voice.

It's the best mechanism to help make a final decision when all of the information is present. If he's passed all of the tests above, but there is still something in your stomach making you queazy, there is probably a reason!

So don't ignore your intuition. In fact, you may find it helpful to have a few different points throughout the interview where you simply check a box for

  • Feels Right!
  • Something is Hinkey
  • Get the F*$% Out of My Office!

Just jot these down in the margin as you mark off questions and look back at it afterwards to see the flow and if there is cause for concern.

11. Bonus! Be Willing to Go the Distance

The worst-case scenario for your business is that things don't work out with the developer and you simply give up! Don't make this decision lightly, your business is at stake!

If there are issues that need to be resolved, try to actually resolve them. Most likely, there is a problem on both ends, so start by offering to make changes on your side, and then inform him of what you'd like in return.

If he's a good partner (whom you found by following the advice above), he'll be willing to make the changes and you'll see an improvement. If not, then you ultimately have to decide what is right for your business.

You don't want to drain your life-savings on someone who won't back you up and be your kick-ass comrade, but before you start looking for a replacement, you should be positive that you can't work things out.

So what tips do you have for those hiring a developer? Let us know in the comments below!


P.S. I was honored to meet so many great people at WDS2012 and I look forward to meeting more next year! If you said hi or shared some kind words, thanks! It means a lot to be part of such a cool community!