A guide to find the right co-founder + bonus podcast


Would have Apple been Apple if Steve Jobs didn't meet Steve Wozniak?

At Spikelab we're focused on supporting early stages startups so we get to talk to a lot of founders that are just getting started. That often means they are looking for a co-founder or to hire their first employee and we get a front seat through the process.

Starting from the end: getting stuff done

Just like when with our products we are drawn to design and implement solutions rather than thinking through the problems, most people will look for a co-founder as an instinctive reaction to starting a startup.

There are good reasons for that instinct, primarily that startups are too hard to do them by yourself, but you can get so much more out of it if you pause just for a moment and think it through a different angle.

Ultimately co-founders, employees or partners, help you toward the same goal: getting stuff done, or more specifically delivering value to customers.

If you take that perspective the question should I look for a co-founder? immediately sounds off. A better one would be: I need to do X, do I need a co-founder to succeed at that?.

People, relationships and cofounders

Every business is a people business: people make stuff, people buy stuff. Simple as that.

Starting with your customers, then to you and on with your employees, your partners, your investors, every single aspect of a thriving business involves people. Unhappy, dissatisfied people make for a failing business.

As an ex awkward engineer happy to sit in a dark room all day long I can completely understand how even the word relationship might sound off, even scary, but if you want to start a business you need to accept that feelings, trust, irrational behaviors and more, are what you'll have to deal with for a large part of your time.

When years ago I ran into an article that was describing co-founding a startup as a marriage relationship I laughed it off. Today it's not un-usual for me to joke with the people I mentor that if everything else fails I have a guaranteed career as marriage counselor.

In fact just today I spoke with someone that split up with his co-founder and is going through some rough times, especially since they are share an apartment. If you think that's nuts and it will never happen to you I invite you to think again. Problems with co-founders account for a big chunk of early stages startup troubles.

Cofounder or contractor?

Often times, when people tell me they need a co-founder, what they really mean is that they are looking for a contractor they don't want to/can't pay for.

It may sound harsh, but here's the litmus test: if you're looking for a tech co-founder, would you still be looking if someone offered to build your thing for free? Similarly, if someone came up with a business plan and a 10 steps strategy to grow your business, would you still want a biz co-founder or a marketing person?

That's another way to say: don't pick a co-founder just based on skills.

The most important and yet most undervalued aspect of having a co-founder is emotional support.

Let's be honest, working on a startup alone simply sucks. It's not just impossible given the complexity, but the overall experience loses value when you don't have somebody to share it with.

If you've ever been up late at night hacking away at a project with someone else you know what I mean. You feed off of each other's excitement, encourage each other, provide a sounding board and when things get hard you don't feel like you have to carry all the load by yourself.

This is an immense value which in my experience is responsible for a startup's success as much as other business related aspects.

Love at first sight

Let's say you're single. If I told you that I ran a wedding service where you can find the perfect guy or girl for you, and then it takes only two clicks to get married the next day, would you use it?

My guess is no.

As much as online dating can work, a dating site provides a starting point.

When it comes to co-founders however I've heard a lot of "love at first sight" stories, people that met in a course or at an event and after having talked an idea over a few beers decided to start a company together.

Whether you believe in love at first sight or not, my advice is to take things slowly and get to know each other. Darn I sound like my dad now…

Online services, meet ups and other events are a great place to network and meet people that could potentially be great co-founders, but instead of pitching your idea, ask about them. What's their story? What are they interested into?

I often tell my mentees that getting a co-founder is not much different than getting your first few customers: you go where people with that interest congregate and look for someone that has the problem, recognizes the problem, but instead of wanting to pay somebody else to fix it wants to fix it herself.

If instead you go in pitch mode you risk to bias the other person and get them excited about your stuff, which is a good sign, but also bad if you're looking for a honest response. Just like with excited customers who don't end up paying when you release your product, you may end up with someone figuring out 2 months later that they don't care about the idea as much as they thought.

An interesting approach that we discuss in the bonus podcast linked below is to actually take on a contractor role to start working together and figure out if it's a good fit.

What to look for in a cofounder

As weird as it might make you feel, the most important things are the very same you'd look in any other relationship:

  • openness
  • trust
  • reliability
  • grit
  • passion

You're going to spend a lot of time with this person doing one of the hardest things: starting a business. You're bound to run into a lot of difficulties and hard decisions.

So what should you care most about? I would recommend passion.

First of all worry about how much they believe in the vision. Are they ready to give everything to solve that problem? do they love the customer?

Hand in hand with passion goes grit, or in other words consistency over time. Can they get through tough times? Are they gonna pack up and leave when things don't go as planned?

But if being relentless and passionate about something is a must, it needs to be balanced with the right level of empathy and openness, otherwise you're likely to end up driving real fast into a wall and keep accelerating when you're a foot away.

Both are needed in every aspect of running a company: without empathy it's impossible to establish working relationships, that means with you, your team and your customers. How can you do customer development effectively when you don't connect with your customer? And believe me, they'll be able to tell.

Likewise imagine working with somebody that just doesn't consider others's point of view. How can you even have a working team that way? Let alone leveraging any feedback to improve the product. Therefore it's critical to have a certain degree of openness, even if that needs to be balanced by a firm vision, otherwise you'll be pulled in all directions and lose focus.

If and only if all those checkboxes are ticked experience and skills become relevant.

Technical co-founders

Since I primarily deal with technology companies I wanted to address a specific case that comes up a lot: technical co-founders.

Most entrepreneurs that raise that question with me actually don't need one, and here's the key word, yet.

Of course I'm biased since I advocate for Lean Startup and Customer Development, but at the early stages most startups I've looked at primarily needed enough skills to articulate a value proposition and the soft skills to talk to customers to validate it.

That being the case, looking for a technical co-founder before you're at a stage where you need to build something major is just a distraction (because once you have the skills available you'll obviously jump the gun).

Of course going back to the previous point about relationship you don't want to wait until you need a technical co-founder to start engaging with some, but there is a big difference between cultivating opportunities and feeling blocked because you don't have somebody to build out your idea.

Early employees

Personally I don't think there's ever a good reason to hire someone that doesn't care about the product and the customer, but this is even more of a truism for an early stages startup.

I really don't see much of a difference between founders and employees 1-5: it's critical that they all care about the product and want to be involved with its success. It can't be just a job. Yes the stakes will be lower, and that will likely be reflected by their stocks and decision power, but when I've been employee 1 I stayed up at night trying to figure out how to get things off the ground as much as the founders did and I expect close to that from anybody I hire early on.

The major difference is that now you are hiring specifically to solve a problem, so while with the co-founder the critical factors were broader, with your first engineer or sales person the needle is more heavily moved by skills and experience in that specific area.

Still, I strongly recommend that you don't hire anybody just based on skills or a good resume, always check your gut and make sure that the person is a good fit with everybody else.

Speaking of which, at this stage, if you have 2 or 3 people in the team, it's a must that everybody is strongly in favor of the hire, having latent conflicts is a killer at this stage.

Skills after all

If just looking at skills is not what you want, you certainly do want to pay attention to them at the right time, but here's the surprise: you need to know yourself well first and there are more important skills than coding or selling or marketing that influence the success of your startup.

Understanding who you are

Gosh Spike, how on earth don't I know who I am?! I hear you saying. You might be right, but let me tell you, I certainly didn't know who I was as a founder when I started out and I mentored many who were equally clueless.

Founding a startup often brings up parts of us that we might not normally pay attention to or know too well so my recommendation is to start there.

Complementary skills and complementary attitude

While we're talking about skills I think it's critical to keep in mind attitudes.

For example if you're detailed oriented, partnering with another detail focused person is likely to lead to a local maxima problem (focused too much on perfecting a small thing, generally technology related, and missing the big picture).

The opposite is equally true and the same can be said about introverts and extroverts approaches. On this last note, be careful with work and communication styles.

Just recently I had to help through some difficult co-founding situation that stemmed from a fundamentally different work approach: one person was looking for more conversations and sharing while the other just wanted to be done with the talking and get to the code. Both were frustrated at each other and eventually split up.

Bottom line, opposite/different != complementary.

Skills wise, be driven first and foremost from the core of your product. Business and tech should be your fist bases to cover. Generally biz people will have some understanding of sales or marketing too. By all means almost no product sells or markets itself so sooner or later you'll need actual professionals in those roles, but early stages that's less of a problem, with two exceptions exceptions:

  • If you are a consumer app with the need for large user bases and viral growth, then a marketing person is likely a need early on.
  • On the b2b enterprise front having a sales expert with experience dealing with businesses is going to make all the difference.

Network and previous experiences

Not quite a skill, but if someone has had previous experiences in the vertical you're attacking that's worth gold.

This is true for two reasons:

  • knows the kinks of running a business in that market
  • probably has a bunch of connections that could come handy as things progress

Investors invest in people

In my experience what we've discussed so far tends is also what investors pay a lot of attention to. I'm soon to publish a study on the entry questions that the top 50 accelerators use to vet applicants and by far the strongest theme is co-founders and team. Interestingly enough a couple accelerators will specifically ask about the relationship and how long the co-founders/team has worked together.

This shouldn't come as a surprise: people that have worked together for long and know each other's quirks are more likely to make it through the startup roller coaster. Mind you, this isn't an argument to start a startup with a family member or your best friend, but having previously worked with someone certainly helps. Note the "worked with": you might be best friend with someone, but remember that a work relationship can be very different.

Remote teams

Remote teams have very much become a part of startup life especially for those who live outside of tech hubs and seek co-founders elsewhere. Also with the ubiquity of online communities it's not uncommon to decide to start a venture with someone you met on a forum. This is especially true amongst students of online platforms like Coursera or Novoed.

In fact during Stanford's Technology Entrepreneurship MOOC students form teams and build startups during the class. While we encourage them to seek for team members and mentors locally, a lot of groups will be spread all over the world.

Remote teams clearly worked very well for a few companies and I've had good experiences myself, but that doesn't mean it'll work for you right now. Both you and right now are the key.

Patterns however can be useful as a starting point so here's some mistakes and tips I've accumulated over 10+ years working remotely and starting 3 companies with remote teams:

  • it takes special skills to work remotely, it's not just a location thing. Too often I've seen people hiring remotely with the same criteria they would locally. That's a recipe for disasters. Being effective as a remote worker requires particular skills around communication, focus and organization that are often subsidized by being in the same office.
  • we're human beings and empathy is harder online. It's far easier to be brush and rude over email or a chat message, or at least be perceived as such. Without being able to see someone's face and body we lose a lot of signal that we've grown to rely upon for communication.
  • [over]communicating and misunderstanding. Following from the previous point, communication becomes much harder when you're remote. It's harder to feel part of the team, easier to misunderstand what someone meant and therefore it's critical in my experience to be more verbose and patient than we would if we were in the same room.
  • timezone matters as does language and culture (this also applies to hiring elance/odesk workers). Frequently I've observed binary behaviors: it's either local or remote, basically putting the rest of the world in the same bucket. That's a big mistake. First of all timezone plays a huge role: if you have little overlapping time wise chatting and interacting becomes several orders of magnitudes harder. Second, depending on your language, some regions may be more fluent in it than others. For example the Philippines are known for a higher level of english than many other countries in East Asia. Culture and work style are equally important: even between Europe and the US there's quite a difference and I had several problems myself in the early days working from England for a Sanfrancisco based startup.
  • doing customer development is much harder if you don't have local access to customers. While online channels can be an option, early on you want to try and get in as much face to face time as possible. Recently I wan mentoring a team who was split between Brazil and the US. Even thought they had done a great job at identifying their persona and were on the same page, when they went out to run interviews the results were quite different. Pulling together the feedback to decide on product direction was so difficult that eventually they decided to split up.

Bonus podcast - my cofounder cheated on me!

Justin Wilcox and I started experimenting with a podcast a while back trying to surface some of the hard questions about being a founder.

And it happens that in ep6 we discussed co-founding and some recent problems I had in one of my teams (which literally blew my mind and is the ultimate proof that nothing can ultimately save you from misunderstandings).

If you'd like to see first hand the problems of co-founding a startups and some solutions tune in on FoundingFreedom.co.

Let's talk specifics

As I said above patterns are a useful starting point, but ultimately we're all in different situations so I'd be happy to talk specifics. If you have a co-founding issue or questions on setting up a team, I'd love to talk, just book a slot below.

Spike is awesome! He got to the heart of our challenge quickly and provided our team with wonderful insight that helped put us on a clear, straight path to getting our product to market - in just one phone call! Even better, Spike is a generous man on an authentic mission to help people be successful in life and business.

― Michelle May, Shenami

Spike was just great. He gave me the helicopter view of the path we are on, what we could choose to do now, and what lies ahead. He was generous with suggesting practical steps for right now, and also things to work towards. I hope to talk with him again.

― Carrie N Ballard, Utrecht Area, Netherlands

As soon as Spike started to speak - in a thoughtful, careful and considered way, I knew I was going to really benefit from listening to him. Spike had some good answers to my questions around pricing and ways to look at it not only in terms of finding a sweet spot, but also using it as a way to assert our values. And great follow up advice by email - thanks!

― Bridget Harris, YouCanBook.Me

I approached Spike unsure of what my next steps should be. He helped us to figure out just that and identify the key actions to build an experience that will wow our customers. Spike also pointed out very interesting strategies for testing monetization and getting that engine of growth going. Very useful. Thanks!

― Anders Hasselstrøm, StartupTravels, Denmark

Spike is incredibly insightful. He has a way of asking the right questions that gets you to see problems from a new perspective and with greater clarity. Every conversation with Spike, I walk away with an 'Aha!' moment that helps me move forward.

― Steven Kim, San Francisco

I am incredibly inspired by Spike's advice + expertise in regards to applying lean start-up to my business. Spike is very knowledgeable, sharp and supportive. He's just the mentor we need and I am excited to be part of his mentoring program!

― Nicole Kasal, Cleanse Culture, Chicago

Spike has a sharp mind and a well articulated analytic sense that cuts to the core of any question. The help he provided on Startup Advice allowed me to clarify my goals and refine who I think my audience is. I highly recommend talking to Spike!

― Paul V. Weinstein, Deal maker and fundraiser, SF

Spike asked hard questions and within the first few minutes of our conversation homed in on the core of most of my confusion. I now have an actual plan of attack that will get me the information I need to make the right decisions to move forward.

― Katrina Owen, exercism.io

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