A common challenge faced by every entrepreneur is that they don’t have the bandwidth, interest or skills to do everything that is required to build their startup. Of course, they can outsource part of the work or hire employees, but that approach means more time and money to manage the work, which they don’t have. The right answer is to find a co-founder with complementary skills.
Two heads are always better than one in a startup. Both need to share the passion, long-term opportunity and risk, rather than just getting paid to do a job, win or lose. Investors worry about a single entrepreneur getting overloaded, disabled or led astray, with no balancing and supporting partner. The challenge is how to find that elusive perfect-fit partner.
Don’t expect someone else to find the partner for you, since it’s really very much like finding a life partner. Your version of the right chemistry, similar values and passion for your solution probably won’t match mine. Yet from my own years of experience in the startup community, here are ten common steps that have worked for other entrepreneurs:
- Write a "job description" for that ideal partner. Your best friend, spouse or a family member is the least likely candidate, so don’t start there. Take a hard look at your own business strengths and weaknesses, and write down what partner skills and experiences would best complement yours. Seek input from seasoned investors and peers.
- Network to find co-founders just as you network to find investors. In fact, many of the same venues, such as industry conferences, entrepreneur forums and local business organizations are useful for both. Online, it pays to join entrepreneur groups on LinkedIn and Facebook, and interact with people who meet your criteria on Twitter.
- Join online "matchmaking" sites for business partners. Co-founders are business partners for startups, so don’t be afraid to join and explore sites such as StartupWeekend, StartupAgents and CoFoundersLab. Also start a discussion on the wealth of business blogs frequented by entrepreneurs, where you can make your interests known.
- Attend local university entrepreneur activities. University professors and student leaders always know a host of top entrepreneurs, alums or staff members who are just waiting to find the perfect match for their own interests, skills and entrepreneurial ideas to change the world. Support local activities and you support yourself.
- Look for a partner from a different background. In today’s global economy, your ideal partner may be half way around the world, from a different geography and business culture. Every startup infrastructure is flush with smart people from all cultures, many of whom may be ready and able to bring new energy and creativity to your startup.
- Follow up with associates from prior job assignments. If you were impressed with someone’s drive and capabilities in a prior work role, now is the time to connect again to check their interest and availability, or recommendations they may offer. Use caution to avoid employer conflicts of interest and non-compete clauses.
- Relocate to a more likely geography. Finding a high-tech co-founder in the middle of Kansas may be a long search. There’s a reason that Silicon Valley and Boston are hubs for high-tech startups. These areas may have not just your co-founder, but also the robust ecosystem your startup needs for investors, programmers and customers.
- Explore candidate common interests outside of work. Co-founder chemistry and interest matches are best explored outside the office. Find some common hobbies or sports to get acquainted before giving away half your company. Business partnerships are long-term relationships, so take your time getting acquainted before closing the deal.
- Jointly define major milestones and key metrics for the startup. This process is the ultimate test of a true shared vision and working style. Building a startup is hard and unpredictable work, and people get busy, so now is the time to jointly commit. If you can’t work as a team now and easily agree, it probably won’t happen at all in the future.
- Negotiate and document roles early, including who is the boss. No matter how equal you all are, there is only room for one at the top to make the final decision on hard issues. Especially when everything feels good today, don’t be hesitant to ask the hard questions of each other. There can be only one chief executive officer.
For the success of your startup, finding the right co-founder is one of the most important things that a new entrepreneur needs to do. There are so many challenges in a startup that no founder should try to go it alone. When you find someone that works, I’m betting you will be together on your next startup, and the one after that. Great teams persevere, and success breeds success.