“More important than starting any startup is getting to know a lot of potential co-founders.” – Sam Altman, CEO of OpenAI, former President of Y Combinator.
The search for the right co-founder can be likened to your journey trying to find a life partner. You need to see if your values match, if your goals are aligned, and if you complement one another’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s easy to be sold by a first impression, which is why digging deeper is crucial.
Whether you’re deciding to spend the rest of your life or to start a business with someone, you can’t afford to make a wrong move. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
As venture builders who have helped form great founding teams, we have some tips to share with you to help you find the right co-founder.
We’ve broken down our advice into the following steps:
The best founding teams are the ones who have complementary skills. Founding teams of successful startups are always made up of a combination of CTOs, CPOs, CFOs, CMOs; not only CEOs. You need people who can fill up the gap you have in your team; able to do many ‘jobs’ well to maximize your runway.
Start by taking into consideration your strengths, weaknesses, passions and energy. Will you be good at convincing investors, customers and talent alike? Do you need someone to build the product and oversee the developments? What kind of person and set of skills do you need to round up the capabilities of your founding team?
The founding team sets the tone, ambitions, and values of your company so it’s essential to prioritise diversity – to encourage more innovation, widen perspectives, and build better teams.
Successfully convincing someone to join your vision is one of the first great tests of entrepreneurship. It’s not an easy feat as you’re asking them to leave everything behind and join you in this risky endeavour. You want to make sure that the vision you’re selling to them is worth the sacrifices they’ll have to make, and that they believe that together with you, they will also be successful. Consider from their point of view: What makes your proposal so appealing? Why should they work with you? How can you make them feel excited and motivated to start this business with you? Crystallise your vision by answering the whys – Why this? Why now? Why us?
It is crucial to deliver your long-term vision clearly, as they, too, will need to be on board for this journey. If your vision is to have a scaleable, VC-backable, and fast-growing business, then you need to communicate that upfront. Not having a shared view of the long-term is one of the most common disagreements between co-founders.
There are three classic ways to start your co-founder search: Reach out to your network, attend founder meetups, or send someone a (cold) message.
The first approach is your best bet. They know you and you know them, so there’s a higher chance for you to find the best fit. But don’t merely look at your first-degree connection. Ask your network to introduce you to people with interesting profiles and you might just meet your match. The majority of successful founding teams are built based on personal networks.
If this first approach doesn’t work out, then you need to expand your network. The best way to find potential co-founders is to meet those also looking, such as by attending founder meetups or other events in the startup ecosystem. Those in this environment already have entrepreneurial ambitions, so your chances of finding your future co-founder will be higher. It’s also good to keep on building your network and community: being a founder can be lonely.
If you still haven’t found ‘the one’, your next option is to send cold messages through LinkedIn or Twitter. Based on your ideal co-founder profile, search for people you think fit the criteria and connect. Then warm up the connection, by expressing genuine interest and curiosity in the things they’re doing. Just like dating, you don’t immediately ask someone to become serious the first time you meet them. Once you feel like they’re reciprocating the same level of interest in connecting with you, you can start to plan how to let them in on your interest to potentially work with them.
Once you find your potential co-founders, it’s time to dig a bit deeper. Aside from complementary skills and having the same long-term vision, you need to make sure that your values and work ethics are aligned. You will work with your co-founder for a very long time and you need them to be your ‘ride-or-die’.
Values and work ethics can range from topics like ideal working hours to how you make decisions together. It’s better to clear everything up upfront to make sure you have the same expectations and are on the same page. For instance, you might be willing to work during weekends. But you have to consider that some people might not. You need to ask them their view on working during weekends and express whether you expect them to do so or not. You also need to understand their real priorities. If this startup is number 1 on your list, but number 3 on theirs, will it become a problem for you?
Discuss these questions before you form any type of agreement so you’re better positioned for long-term harmony.
Five years from now, what headlines do you want to see on the news? From international offices, to millions of users, to funding rounds, you and your founding team have big ambitions. Whatever those dreams are, draft a visionary press release that tells this story. A press release is a perfect way to capture the big picture and highlights all the important milestones and successes of you and your future company.
Once you’ve made your own version, ask your co-founder to do the same. Share your versions with one another and see where they align and differ. If you’re sure you and your co-founder are going in the same direction, then you’ll be well on your way to building a successful startup together.
Spend time getting to know your co-founder. This partnership should last a very long time so it’s important to build trust and get to know how you work together. You can start by doing a trial period or collaborating on a smaller project to truly get a sense of your synergy with one another. Treat this as the ‘dating’ phase of your relationship – getting to know each other before you jump into any serious commitments. Once you believe that you fit well together, then you’re well on your way to building an exceptional startup together.
Finding a co-founder is not about trying to fill in a role. It’s about finding someone with the right mindset and skills who can help you successfully translate your vision into a reality. Don’t be afraid to ask all the critical questions upfront! Transparency is key to a successful partnership.
If you’re a founder looking to build the next disruptive startup, learn more about our Founder in Residence program or directly apply here.