Choosing a cofounder to help you start a new company is like picking a spouse: You need to do your due diligence. Why? Because in sickness and in health, through all the ups and downs, you’re going be bound to this person for as long as your company lives.
That much is obvious. How to actually get it right is much trickier.
I met my company’s cofounder amid a Google AdWords “war”: I had looked to see who was outbidding my efforts and came across a newly formed medical education company. “Who is doing this, and why is there competition now?!” I thought. I was determined to uncover the person behind the bid and what their motives were.
By scouring LinkedIn and the company’s site, doing some digging on WhoIs.com, and talking to friends in the business, I was pointed to Dr. Andrea Paul and quickly realized we were both going after the market for medical question banks. I immediately reached out to set up a time to talk, and after a few conversations, it was clear we had the same goals. Not only did Dr. Paul and I share a mission, we had similar values and found it easy to talk about them.
Rather than compete, we decided to work together on a limited basis. After several months of running a pilot together, we formally merged the companies. Today, my cofounder is not only a great business partner, but also a close friend. In the process of building our venture together, I’ve learned there are at least four key areas where cofounders need to mesh.
No one is perfect. Some founders excel in analytics, while others excel in creativity. It’s important to find a cofounder that complements your skill set. What you don’t want is someone who validates all your beliefs and assumptions. The idea is to find someone who sees the world through a different lens than you do.
Andrea, my partner, has deep industry expertise and medical knowledge–after all, she’s a doctor. Someone on our team needs to have that domain expertise. It’s enabled us to divide responsibilities, and helps us understand our customers in a way I could have never done on my own. Coming from a business and technology background, my skill set let me focus on building a technology platform that could be taken to market. That way, we both doubled down on our own areas of focus without stepping on one another’s toes.
Complementary skill sets also mean that we don’t second guess each other. Andrea makes the medical judgment calls while I listen; in turn, I make the tech calls and she listens. There’s always discussion, but it’s important that there’s ultimately a single decision-maker for every aspect of your business. It can’t always be a pure democracy, even within the leadership team.
It’s trite by now to aver that every great relationship is built on a foundation of trust–few would argue otherwise. But trust takes time to build, and in the case of all too many startups, it takes too long.
That’s particularly true during the later rounds of funding: You’re in the middle of running a company, and you start having to make decisions about board seats, salaries, founder vesting, and other details that can affect your personal lives. You have to trust that whoever is managing this side of the business has your best interests at heart.
Though Andrea and I don’t always see eye to eye, we have faith in one another that we’re both working hard to reach our goals, both personally and professionally. Startup founders who can’t operate under pressure with this level of faith are liable to crumble quickly.
You’re both working long hours. You’re both dealing with problems. Being able to put yourself in the shoes of your cofounder isn’t something you think you’ll need to do until you need to do it. You and your cofounder comprise the most elemental mutual support network. You need to be able to bounce back from crises quickly, and you can’t do that without empathy for what each other is grappling with.
There will be setbacks. No company succeeds without a couple of stumbles, to say the least. Being able to tell when your cofounder needs a boost is an extremely underrated skill. CEOs need to recognize that one of their primary jobs is to motivate others. No one can do it on their own–especially without being able to empathize with those on your team.
When we raised our series A round of funding, it was an amazing feeling to be able to celebrate that milestone together. Success is sweeter when it’s shared.
Startup life isn’t always rainbows and butterflies, though, and you should be prepared for difference of opinions and disagreements. Do you work through disagreements calmly? Or do small misunderstandings turn into a full-blown fight? Knowing how you will handle a bumpy road is something you should assess early, honestly, and head-on.
If your first few conflicts are more difficult to get through than you’d anticipated, it might be time to take a hard look at the relationship before moving ahead together.
Dan Lambert is cofounder and CEO of BoardVitals, a health care education startup that develops digital assessment tools and medical content that has helped more than 40,000 doctors and health care professionals prepare for board certification. He is a member of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs.