Many of the new entrepreneurs I meet ask the same question — what if I don’t have a cofounder?
I almost always encourage them to find one. Having a cofounder isn’t just a nice way to share the burden of late nights searching for product market fit or the sting of your 34th rejection from VCs — studies have shown that having two founders versus a single founder significantly increases chances of success.
Having two founders versus a single founder significantly increases chances of success.
Splitting the considerable workload of an early stage company, holding yourselves accountable to do the things you said you were going to do and bringing a variety of skill sets to the table seems to increase the odds of surviving past the first year, raising capital and growing customers quickly.
Finding the right cofounder, however, can be a minefield. Not only does the person have to complement your skills, he or she also has to complement your personality — all in tremendously unique circumstances. On top of this, existing social and familial relationships can complicate the already complex founder relationship. It’s no wonder over 60% of failed startups point to cofounder struggles as a main cause.
Now that I’ve been managing a cofounder relationships for a few years, I’ll share some of the things I wish I’d done when searching for my perfect founding team.
1. Figure out gaps in your skills and background
Let’s say you have an MBA and have spent years in finance, but you have no idea how to build anything remotely technical. It’s probably time to find someone who has done that before, and can handle the technical decision-making.
Are you a product and design wunderkind, but you’ve never thought about how to achieve rapid customer growth for your ecommerce business idea? Try and find a cofounder that is a genius at acquisition.
Another way of thinking about this is to understand which job functions you’d like to be responsible for in the company, and then identify which job functions you’d like your coworker to fulfill. When we started our company, my cofounder and I roughly split our areas of responsibility up by “internal” (product, tech, funding) and “external” (business development, marketing, growth) to play to our strengths.
Image: Flickr, Steven Zwerink
2. Use your network to talk to lots of people
Now that you know a little bit about what you’re looking for, if you’re lucky enough to live in an area with a large entrepreneurship ecosystem (think: San Francisco or New York) you can start to put feelers out there and meet people that qualify on paper.
Tell your friends about your idea
Tell your friends about your idea; tell them who you’d be looking for in an ideal world, and scour connections on LinkedIn for people who may fit. Attend lots of coffee meetings, go to events and put yourself out there — you’ll meet a lot of people very quickly, which only increases the likelihood of finding the right person.
If you don’t have a large and thriving startup network locally, or even if you do, make sure you use the resources available to you. Try to attend local entrepreneurship events at local universities or coworking spaces, and attempt to get connected to people who run early stage startup programs (accelerators, seed funds or other organizations that see a lot of early entrepreneurs). You can also reach out to interesting would-be cofounders through networks you already have through your alma mater or your current company.
Finally, don’t ignore your first-degree connections — but, if you do choose to found a company with someone in your close circle, do not enter into the relationship lightly. Many “experts” will tell you that this is a bad idea, but in my experience, if done carefully and in a transparent way, you can find your perfect cofounder among your friends and family. After all, isn’t it better to know exactly who you’re jumping into bed (or more like marriage … ) with?
3. Dump the data
Once you’ve met the someone, or the someones, who you think may fill in the gaps on your cofounding team, it’s time to completely throw out their resume to see if the relationship will actually work in the long-term.
You may find a candidate who is best-in-class at building the perfect mobile app, but what if you absolutely cannot imagine being in the same room with him or her every day for the next six years? Don’t talk yourself into “settling” on chemistry because of a candidate’s background.
The real magic to cofounding teams is personality fit
The real magic to cofounding teams is personality fit. Starting a startup is stressful; it requires quick decision-making in the absence of perfect data, a lot of unpaid, long hours without any guarantee of success and, maybe most importantly, the intestinal fortitude to not just survive, but also focus and thrive in the face of adverse conditions.
You absolutely must be able to depend upon the person with whom you’re in the trenches. Here are some tactics to keep in mind when feeling out personality fit:
- Go with your gut. If you don’t trust someone intuitively, don’t enter into a long-term business relationship with them (not to mention one that affords plenty of opportunity to do wrong by one another).
- Think long-term. Remember that if all goes well, you’ll be managing a pretty large team together, so make sure your personalities complement each other and can provide a variety of perspectives as you grow. If you’re more of a visionary who prefers providing big-picture direction, find someone who can execute around the details, etc.
- Make sure he or she can acknowledge and laugh at mistakes. The worst kind of cofounder relationship is one in which someone isn’t willing to own up to their own errors, and can’t see the humor in the many bumps in the road.
- Seek out scrappiness and speed. Remember that someone who has seen enormous success at a big company (even tech companies like Google or Facebook) may not be accustomed to the scrappiness and speed that founding a pre-seed startup requires. Test out their willingness to get in the weeds and do the dirty work alongside you. You don’t want to be the only one hustling.
Batman had Robin. Holmes had Watson. Literature and film are full of dynamic duos, the sum of whose parts are greater than the individual.
The same principle applies to early stage startups. Find the right partner in crime, and you’ll start to have fun working together to build something that’s “gonna be huge.” Make the wrong move, and you’ll be dealing with the consequences for a long time.