Q. I have been working on a startup totally on my own. I’ve been bootstrapping it with my own money, and soft launched it with enough initial success to make me feel like I’m onto something. I think it would be beneficial to have a cofounder, but how do I find such a person at this point?
—Founder of a consumer-based startup
You ask an important question. You’re not alone in discovering that building a business is hard work and can be lonely. It’s easier (though never easy) with the right partner by your side.
The best of all worlds is finding a cofounder whom you already know, someone you have worked with before, and someone you trust and know inside and out. Greatness often happens with someone you have already collaborated with. Consider how Jerry Yang and David Filo worked together in school before building Yahoo!
I recommend you start this cofounder search with something simple—a list of 10 people you would love to spend every day with working on a meaningful problem and building something magical. (If you can’t do that, you are a long way from finding a cofounder.)
You might think that the people on your list wouldn’t join you—telling yourself that they already have a job, they can’t take a risk, or some other story. If that’s the case, it’s time to change your thinking. You have to see what you are working on as an opportunity of a lifetime. As a founder, you have to view each potential partner and employee as someone you are giving something very precious to—maybe a 50-yard line ticket to the Super Bowl. You’re going to change the trajectory of this person’s life.
As you are thinking more deeply about finding the right partner and building a relationship, a few things to consider:
- Determine what they add to the equation. Look for someone with skills and abilities that you don’t have and that will complement—and extend—your own. A great product person needs a great engineer. A great visionary needs a great operations person.
- Spend time collaborating before turning it into a formal endeavor. Regularly review how the collaboration is working. Do you crave more time together, or wish to leave earlier? Does this person bring you energy, or take it away? Early interactions with negative chemistry are not going to get better over time.
- Find references upfront (and backchannel). The more of a 360-degree view you can gain, the better your perspective will be. Look at the references they give you, but also speak to people they did not give you as a reference, but who may have worked with them or know them in a more personal capacity. (Also, if they’ve given you a reference and it’s not strong, that’s a red flag.) Ask others about how they handle pressure and good and bad situations. You’ll also want to learn what motivates them.
- Ask yourself, “Is this the one person that you would seek out to solve the deepest problem?” If you are choosing them out of convenience, maybe you need to spend more time looking for a great partner. Look for someone who has the deepest experience in the universe in your topic area.
- Make sure you are aligned. People want different things in life. Just as you need to discuss what you want before entering a marriage (e.g., Do you both want kids?), you must discuss what you want for the company—and reconcile any differences. Some people want a change-the-world business, while others want a lifestyle business. Neither is bad, but they are different. Figure out your values and motivators upfront, and discuss the following: How do you think about work-life balance? Compensation structure? How big do you want to grow this endeavor? What’s the ideal exit strategy?
- Determine roles and equity structure. Are you looking for an equal partner (e.g., 50/50 split)? Or, are you looking for a more junior cofounder? Think ahead about what you want your working relationship to be like. Are you okay being challenged? Are you willing to have this be totally equal in terms of equity even if only one person is the CEO? There are pros and cons and ramifications to each of these decisions, and they are long-standing.
Having the right cofounder increases your chance of success. One of the reasons for that is because making a commitment to someone increases your chance of following through with your goals. Having someone hold you accountable is especially important in the beginning, before you’ve taken any money from investors. Additionally, a cofounder maximizes what you can do. Different individuals bring different skills to the table, as well as different perspectives. Cofounders often push each other in their respective disciplines—and this interaction drives overall results. Finally, having a cofounder can help keep you sane. The days are filled with roadblocks and disappointments and often end with self-doubt. A partner who shares the same passion and who is driven by the same goals, vision, and values will offer the appropriate encouragement. You can’t underestimate the value of having a sounding board, therapist, and cheerleader on deck.
There are few decisions that you will make in your company’s life—including picking the right cofounder and deciding on the right board members—that have the potential to make more of an impact than any other choices. Take your time, and make sure you potentially are making the right decisions. If all goes well, these decisions will be with you for decades.