Shopping for a co-founder

August 3, 2022
Shopping for a co-founder

Premature startup failures are often credited to co-founder blowups. Yet every solo founder is encouraged by investors and advisors to find a co-founder. This can be confusing for the young solo founder. If co-founders cause conflict, why is finding one recommended? Should I really get one? What do I look for? Where do I find one?

Let's talk about these.

Going Solo: Can’t I do it alone?

Data shows that startups with multiple co-founders find it easier to secure funding than those with a single founder. The common hypothesis is that a solo founder is likely to have bigger blind spots than a team, and that very often, an individual founder might be strong on either technology or business, but rarely both, which leads to critical gaps in the early thinking and execution of the startup.

Our own observation through the applications for the Atoms program is that two-thirds of the startups we see have multiple founders. Only a third of the companies have a single founder at the helm.

This doesn't mean, though, that solo founders can’t succeed. To the contrary, this study from Wharton suggests that while teams of co-founders tend to attract more capital than solo founders, that doesn’t necessarily translate to higher odds of success! Even around us, we see companies like Paytm, Hike and Goibibo become big on the back of solo founders. 

So don’t go co-founder shopping just because some investor advised you to. Put some more thought into what’s appropriate for your own journey.

Many hands: The pros & cons of a co-founder

Perhaps the biggest driver for the co-founder question is your own temperament. Are you a lone wolf or do you like hunting in packs? Can you make speedy confident decisions mainly on your own, or do you prefer having trusted collaborators to work with? Here is a quick list to help you think through this better.

Pros:

  • Productivity: Having multiple motivated co-founders with a strong sense of ownership just makes things happen faster.
  • Specialization: A co-founder that is better than you in some area of startup building is invaluable. 
  • Sounding Board: Execution is bolstered when you can bounce ideas with other smart people and have them challenged and improved in real-time. 
  • Trusted Support: Running a startup will have its tough and lonely moments. Having co-founders that you can trust and rely on during these times is valuable not just for the company but for you personally as well. 

Cons:

  • Different Vision: You have a vision for your business but your co-founder might have slightly different ideas on how to run the show. You might end up rowing in somewhat different directions.
  • Task Division: Some boundaries around ownership need to be defined earlier. Not having those can add to chaos and conflict. Good co-founders want some autonomy and empowerment.  
  • Value Alignment: A co-founder might have a different style of working and might have differing opinions on how to set up working practices. 
  • Difference in Work Ethics: While you might be okay to take a shortcut to get things done, your co-founder might be the person who values processes. This might lead to conflicts that can cripple decision making. 

It is important to remember one thing though. While there are disadvantages to working with co-founders, you will have to learn to get over all of these sooner rather than later as you bring on senior leadership into the company. Being able to bring strong co-founders that can share your vision and values is a strong indicator that you’ll be able to attract strong leadership as well as the company scales. Also, founding a company is not necessarily about you imposing your thoughts and ideas on everyone, but also you being open to evolving and improving those based on inputs from other strong stakeholders.

An ideal Co-founder: What should you look for?

So what are the checkboxes that you should tick while zeroing down on a co-founder?

  1. Complementary Skills: It makes sense to have co-founders that bring complementary strengths to the table. Some key skill areas are product / technology, go-to-market skills, and domain expertise. Even if there is some overlap in co-founders, look for someone that can challenge your thoughts, not just always agree with them.
  1. Shared Values: One co-founder might be driven by profits while the other might want to create a social impact. It is very important to find someone who is aligned to your vision of the future. Also, keep an open mind about improving your own vision!
  1. Trust: While starting up, you will need all the support you can and you would need someone you could totally rely on. Often, you might find this in folks that you have known for a while and/or worked with in the past. 
  1. Culture Fit: Though it is pretty early, you might have a vague idea of the company culture that you want to build as you grow. Does the potential co-founder fit that culture?. You might want to build an employee-centric culture but your co-founder might be a taskmaster with a “do-it-whatever-it-takes” mentality. 

There is one big intangible that you must consider in addition to all the points mentioned above.

When you think of a potential co-founder, the answer to the question “Will I enjoy working with this person?” needs to be an emphatic YES! 

The Search Begins: How to find your ideal co-founder?

Now that you have thought through the pros & cons and you have a fair idea of what to look for, it’s time for the big question. Where do you start looking? Here is what we suggest:

  1. Start with people you know, and then people that they know. Having a trusted reference on someone’s skills, values, and personality is a great place to start.
  2. Spend time and be active in your local entrepreneurial community, and get to know people
  3. Take help from online platforms that specifically connect people with potential co-founders
  4. Try posting job requirements for the key complementary skill you are looking for in a co-founder. As you interview people, keep an eye out for potential partners.

Summing it all up

Finding the right co-founder could be the most critical decision that you will make as a startup founder. Your initial founding team will define not only the initial success of your business but its longevity as well. It is crucial and worthwhile to take time to onboard the right person. However, you will never know for sure beforehand if someone is the best fit for the job. It is a leap of faith at some level, and once you do have a co-founder, you too must commit to making the relationship work. 

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