Pithy Insights On Selecting A Startup Co-Founder

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Pithy Insights On Selecting A Startup Co-Founder


This is a new installment in my continuing series of “pithy” articles on a variety of startup topics.  You can see one of the more popular previous ones here:  “17 Pithy Insights For Startup Founders”.

Without any further preamble, here we go:

Pithy Insights For Selecting A Startup Co-Founder
  1. Deciding who will be your co-founder will likely be one of the most important decisions you will make (next to finding your “life partner” or spouse).  One could argue that at least for some period of time, in the early stages, you’ll be spending more waking hours with your co-founder than your significant other.  I’m not the one that will make that argument because my wife reads my blog and she already knows it is true.

  1. Find someone who gets things done.  I’ll take a propensity for action vs. someone who rose up the ranks and made VP in some Fortune 100 company any day of the week.  Startups involve lots and lots of work (some fun, some not so fun).  Part of the value of your co-founder is you can distribute the work.  If your co-founder is too “strategy” focused too early, you’ll get buried because there’s too much to do. 

  1. There should be aligned interest and commitment from your co-founder.  You both have to (at some level) be committed to not only building a company, but the same company.  If one of you wants to create a lifestyle company you run forever (and reap profits) and the other wants to take a shot at a high-flying startup that gets sold or goes public some day, you’ll have a problem.

  1. One of the best sources for finding a co-founder are people that you have worked with in some capacity in the past.  While you are in school is a great time to locate potential co-founders.  The idea is that by having to gotten to know the person, you’ve already had a chance to see how they work, how they think and whether you’re likely to get along.  Without some type of prior exposure, your ability to pick a co-founder based simply on interviews, resumes and references is questionable.  I’d guess about 50/50 odds, but I’m in a generous mood this morning.

  1. There will be times in the startup lifetime that will test your relationship with your co-founder.  If you insist on starting a company with a family member or spouse (which I don’t recommend in most cases), make sure you understand the stakes before going in.  You were warned.

  1. Don’t get hung-up on titles too early (i.e. who is CEO and who is President, etc.).  If you find yourself spending too much time on this kind of stuff, there’s something wrong.  Personally, I like to use just “Founder” for titles in an early-stage startup until it makes sense to actually come up with “real” titles.

  1. Have the hard discussions around equity, compensation and responsibilities early.  This stuff does not get easier over time – it gets harder.  Deferring these conversations is a great way to ensure problems later.

  1. If after significant effort, you simply can’t find a co-founder, you either don’t know enough people, not enough people like you or the idea sucks so much that nobody is willing to take the leap with you.  Read the warning signs and be realistic.  Fix the problem (expand your network, improve your likeability factor or tweak the idea).  

The last one above is the most controversial, so I’m going to expand on it further.  A large number of you are going to have the reaction “but I don’t necessarily need a co-founder to get a startup off the ground!”.  I agree (though I would still posit that having one or more co-founders increases your chances of success).  In fact, I don’t just have to just posit it, people have done research and found evidence to support this.  In any case, needing a co-founder and being able to attract a co-founder are two different things.  If you don’t need a co-founder, fine.  If you’re unable to find/recruit/convince one, that’s a whole separate matter.  My guess is that if you can’t convince a suitable co-founder to join you, you might also have trouble finding/locating other members of the team, future clients, possible partners, etc.  I could be wrong, but I’m probably right.

What are your thoughts?  I have another dozen or so pithy insights on this topic that didn’t make this list (mostly because I couldn’t make them pithy enough).  Leave a comment with your own.

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Fri, Dec 08, 2006


Useful well-written post!

BTW you still have not added the "remember my info" functionality to the comments section of Onstartups and Small Business 2.0. It's a waste of time to have to re-enter the info each time a comment is posted.

posted on Friday, December 08, 2006 at 11:40 AM by Sheamus

Sorry Kirsten...I'll give him back after our IPO. ( - :

posted on Friday, December 08, 2006 at 2:33 PM by Brian P Halligan

Finding entrepreneurial employees/partners is one of the hardest things I have faced since setting up ebdex. Perhaps one of the mistakes I am making is not treating the positions as co-founding roles (well we are two years old now). Wonder what impact it would have if I advertise the positions as "looking for co-founders"?

posted on Saturday, December 09, 2006 at 7:21 PM by Manoj Ranaweera

How to find a good partner if my circle is limited?
My work agreement has a clause about not hiring away any coworkers and I am long out of school so how to find good parteners?

posted on Sunday, December 10, 2006 at 1:32 AM by Elisha Klein

1. Agree.
2. Agree, and on top of that, remember to have a heart-to-heart talk with your co-founder on what he/she expects for his/her (usually significant) effort for a startup. You'll want to have a willing co-founder to enjoy the fruits of your labor, not litigation.
3. Agree.
4. Somewhat disagree. Anecdotal observation from my personal experience is tread carefully. A good/well-intentioned "A" people who performed superbly in one company may be a "D" for startups. Dynamics is different. I'd suggest choosing someone who's had experience with startup, failing which at least with operational experience.
5. Agree. Sometimes the problem is not the significant other (SO) but ourselves. I'm fortunate that my SO is supportive, but I've seen marriages fall apart. Guess the core question is this, "is your SO someone who'll endure the bad times and enjoy the good times, or is your SO someone who'll bail once the good times are over?"
6. Agree. The only time title matters is when you're presenting to clients who need assurances you can make the decision on behalf of your startup and get things done.
7. Agree.
8. Agree. Test your ideas, seek constructive criticisms. If you can't convince someone to be your co-founder, what chance do you have of convincing a prospective client?

Elisha K., hiring co-workers may not be the best idea — non-compete clauses notwithstanding. Proactively network within the industry you're in, join relevant associations/organizations/forums.

posted on Sunday, December 10, 2006 at 8:05 AM by Chris Hong

This is all fascinating stuff. My early experiences of start-up confirm the need for complementary partners and a clear agreement re equity etc.

I also see the need to create a balanced team in terms of preferred ways of working. My experience suggests that many start up entrepreneurs are full of energy, but not that interested in finishing stuff off. One of the hardest things to do, if you want to be successful, is to spend time doing things that don't come naturally to you.

posted on Monday, December 11, 2006 at 3:15 AM by David

What you also don't want is someone who either has:
a) Too big a loan on her house for a committment you need
b) Too much family money to manage. Note that I don't mean "comes from a rich family". I mean managing a huge amount of family money (like big chunks of real estate, stock, cash etc.). If you have a co-founder like that, you need to talk about how the committment mix will happen. You can find professional money managers, but that choice needs to be made early on.

Also, decide who's driving the company, and make sure everybodys stock options vest over a period.

posted on Tuesday, December 12, 2006 at 1:49 AM by Deepak Shenoy

This is was great post as alot of this I going through as we speek. All grads now my former college buds and I are starting up a new company. Two of us had a semi successful startup during college so that helps our team. We started with us two. We then approached others to join. I think that because of our prior success people took us more seriously.We were able to convice two others to join our startup team so far. I doubt we will have any problems to convince further employees and hopefully angels and clients.

I could really care less what my title is...but the equity is something to talk about right away. All of us have different styles of working but they are complementary for the most part. And we have the person on the team that get things done no matter what.

Everyone has to be willing to reach beyond their area of focus to lend a helping hand. This post help me to step outside to see our team from someone elses approach thanks. Wish us luck.

Grow with music

posted on Thursday, December 14, 2006 at 9:56 AM by Five

Hey. I just came across http://shrey-knows.blogspot.com/2009/04/twos-company.html and was immediately reminded of your blog. You could also get hold of the article at http://www.scribd.com/doc/14414340/Entrepreneur-170409 which is titled "Twos Company". The author of this article seems to have blatantly copied from two of your posts. I just thought you might have wanted to know. Keep up with the good articles :)

posted on Saturday, April 25, 2009 at 2:14 PM by Check this

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