How To Select the Right Cofounder For Your Startup
Five traits that have nothing to do with skills or experience
Should you bring on a cofounder to build out your tech? Should you bring on a cofounder to kickstart your sales? Should you bring on a cofounder to connect you to funding?
One of the worst mistakes a founder can make is believing that a business problem can be solved by bringing on a cofounder.
It seems like an easy and convenient solution, giving up a few percentage points for what could be tens of thousands of dollars worth of progress. But nothing kills a young startup quicker than bringing on a cofounder to do task work and then outgrowing them shortly after those tasks are completed.
How you select and vet a cofounder has nothing to do with what your company needs to get done, it has everything to do with what your company is going to become.
Here’s what you should be looking for.
Cofounders, partners, bosses, and employees
Those are basically the four foundational categories of people you work with. The latter two have very much a traditional vertical relationship. Cofounders and partners have more of a lateral relationship, although they’re not entirely on the same level. But the differences in working relationship between the former two and the latter two are dramatic.
Throughout my career, I’ve had several different kinds of working relationships with bosses. I’ve had several different kinds of working relationships with employees. That said, I have always had exactly the same relationship with cofounders and partners.
Those relationships are rooted mostly in personality fit. It’s not a search for someone I’ll always get along with. It’s not a matching of work styles or management styles. It’s not a good cop/bad cop kind of thing.
Selecting a cofounder or partner all comes down to whether or not I can work with this person to build and grow a successful company.
So first, make sure you actually need a cofounder, then look for these traits:
Fill your gaps
It makes absolute sense to cofound a company with someone who is not like you, someone who fills your gaps. The problem is, a lot of times entrepreneurs will put themselves into a loosely defined box and then search for a the opposite of that box.
When I say “fill your gaps,” I’m not talking about technical skills vs. business skills, or vision vs. operations, or even sales vs. build. Yes, a lot of startup success stories start with the Jobs/Wozniak model of brilliant business strategist and super-genius tech geek coming together to make beautiful music. But a lot of those stories are also filled with acrimony, mis-steps, and dissolutions of partnerships when one forces the other out of the boardroom.
When you fill your gaps, you need to be specific about who you are and where your gaps are. For example, I have both tech and business, both vision and operations, and even a little bit of sales to go with my build, but I have plenty, PLENTY, of gaps. I know where those gaps are, and when I find someone who can fill them, that’s a cofounder or partner prospect.
Sometimes this is even more than one person, maybe an entire team of gap fillers who also happen to fill each other’s gaps. That’s hard to pull off, but it works wonders when you can do it.
Agree to disagree
Can you disagree and still get along? The answer to that question is less about personality and more about maturity. For example, I have teenage twin daughters who couldn’t be more different, who fill each other’s gaps spectacularly, and who both have solid creative and even nascent business skills.
They can’t get along to save their lives.
Over the span of my career, 20 years building, growing, and leading startups, I’ve had to eat a lot of decisions that I didn’t agree with, just to move forward. Sometimes I turned out to be right, more often then not I turned out to be wrong, but when it comes to decisions, deadlock, and stalemate, someone has to take the “L” in order to get out of the rut and move on.
Here’s one of my gaps: Letting go when I know I’m right is very, very hard for me to do, and it’s something I know I need an external trigger to even be able to pull off. If my cofounder can’t be that external trigger, they can’t be my cofounder. The worst thing my cofounder can do is give in to my incessant fact-pounding.
But in this situation in particular, the decision, the disagreement, and the deadlock, it’s crucial that one of you gives up the fight and lets it go. Not only that, both of you have to be good with the decision and move on. If one of you is pouting or, even worse, biding your time until you’re proven right, you’re doomed.
What do you want out of life?
Do not overlook this question.
As a founder, I don’t care where you come from, what your background is, how you were raised, what you believe, or what your favorite movie is. But I need to know what you want, not only out of this business, but out of life in general. I need to know how you define success. And we don’t have to be in lockstep, but it will take more than one conversation to make sure we’re aligned.
Because if one of us is strictly about the money and the other is an unflinching force for social good, then we’re going to have a multitude of problems down the road. Both of those goals can be chased at the same time, but it’s when we get to the extremes that the business goes pear-shaped.
Decisions will ultimately arise when you have to choose one goal over another. You should never be evil to make money, but sometimes you have to prioritize revenue over mission. A business that chooses doing good over doing business 100% of the time is a charity. While both are necessary in this world, you should make sure that you agree on what you’re running.
Also, don’t get caught partnering with the asshole who always puts money above people. They will fail spectacularly and probably with a lot of litigation on the way down.
Don’t fall into these traps
Some of the decision criteria is a little more personal when it comes to personality. From historical experience, I can say without hesitation to always choose:
- Honesty over charm.
- Integrity over connections.
- Work ethic over intelligence.
None of the latter are bad, of course, but if someone got to the latter without the former, consider how they got there.
Walk vs. talk
The last and most important aspect in choosing a cofounder comes down to having some assurance that the person you’re choosing lives what they say.
There is no substitute for experience when it comes to business, especially experience that can be quantified. But when you don’t have the data, take the time to learn about how the person operates.
Selecting a cofounder is a decision that should be made over weeks, not hours. And it requires conversations that are deep, not surface. You should be talking about why the match is necessary and how it will produce results, not how you can get six months further along with a little help.
After all, remember, you’re betting your company on this relationship.
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