Co-founders, part 2

Following up last week’s post on co-founders, and I’ll keep it short this week as well. Let’s say you’ve decided it’s best for your business if you bring on a cofounder, how do you go about finding/selecting such a person?

As with everything in startupland, it’s impossible to generalize. I’ve seen many examples of companies succeeding doing the exact opposite of what follows. But I firmly believe the following approach has the highest probability of success.

The obvious cofounder is someone you’ve known for many years, a friend whom you’ve also worked with, whom you share values and ambitions with, who is adaptable while at the same time has abilities that perfectly complement yours. But of course, such a person does not exist - there are trade offs. Given that, here are the some characteristics I would look for - in prioritized order (list is obviously non-exhaustive):

1. Shares values and vision: This is rarely talked about initially, but can really fuck things up further down the road. Unless you agree on what to build, the journey will be unpleasant. More than it usually is.

2. Chemistry: Someone you work well together with. Can you disagree and argue in a productive way?

3. Adaptability: What you start out doing might not be the thing you end up doing. Being an expert at the former without adaptability might stop you from start doing the latter, even though it’s the right thing for your company.

4. Complementary skillset: If you’re a builder, get a seller. And opposite. Allows for specialization, and with those two roles in place you normally should be able to get a working prototype in the hands of some customers. But diversity is more than that, preferably you also find someone who looks/thinks/acts different from you, due to the many benefits this brings.

Preferably, you find someone who ticks all these boxes in some ways. If you team up with people who are too similar to, you end up with a very expensive machine that’s unable to build or sell. That rarely goes well. But what I find is that most people start out looking for someone with a complementary skillset, not someone with shared values and vision. This is okay if you’re just looking for a job to be done, but building a company is so much more than that.

This is why I, and many others, advocate finding someone you already know. Discovering whether you actually work well together and towards the same thing is hard to discover over coffee, and something you want to know before you embark on your journey (and before most will fund you).

If you agree with this perspective, it has implications for how you go about looking for a co-founder. Activities such as “co-founder dating” and showing up at a technical university should be replaced with spending time with your immediate network. Do 50 cups of coffee with people you know and potentially one degree further (people they know), and chances are you’ll find someone who would be a good match.

Sometimes you find people who are right and available, they just haven’t broadcasted their availability to the world (very few do this). But when you meet them you learn they are looking for their next opportunity. Other times you find people who are a good match, but unavailable at the time (eg. they have no savings and a mortgage). But I’d much rather bring on such a person part-time to start, with an agreement this person will go full-time once funding allows for this. And sometimes this search is unsuccessful. But due to the benefits of having a cofounder, I’d always recommend doing the search.