Starting a business is hard—that much you already know.
But starting a business without any partner? That’s almost impossible.
I say almost because there are actually startups that managed to hit the big time with just one person at the helm.
But truth be told, these companies are the exception, not the rule. Not everyone can be a Jeff Bezos, after all.
The simple fact of the matter is that sooner or later, you won’t be able to do everything in your startup on your own. And if you want to expand your company, you’re going to need more minds and bodies to share the labor.
As the saying goes, two heads are better than one.
My own success as an entrepreneur can be traced back, not to me alone, but to the super smart and hard-working people I’ve been privileged to know.
That’s why I’m 100% committed to the principle of co-founders.
If you’re starting a business, you need to find one.
Destroying the Lone Startup Founder Myth
The idea of a lone wolf, striking it out against the world, sticking it to the man sounds bold and appealing, almost heroic.
But it’s far from the reality that young companies face.
Believe me. I’ve been there.
Having a co-founder makes sense for several reasons.
- For starters, a co-founder serves as one of many insurance policies any startup should have. Calling a co-founder an “insurance policy” sounds cold and calculated, but, remember, I’m just pointing out one of the many advantages. There is a larger and more important aspect.
- A co-founder helps to encourage and support you. Starting a business isn’t easy. You’re going to want to give in, go home, and maybe throw up a few times. Your cofounder will be there to keep you strong. You’ll do the same for him.
- Having a partner means that if you find that your skills are inadequate for certain aspects of your business needs, you have someone who can come in where you fall short. There’s no shame. Only strength.
- Businesses manned by two or more people with complementary skills and qualities (e.g. the realist vs. the optimist, the implementer vs. the idea guy) are also more likely to succeed.
- Running a business isn’t cheap, and as many startup owners know, early funding can be hard to come by. This is where a partner comes in handy. You have someone to share the bill with, whether it’s by splitting costs or equity.
- Investors also like to see a company that is led by more than one person. It just makes sense that more people means less chance of business failure.
Consider the following scenarios.
- Say you’re a programmer with a promising app but don’t know how to spread word about your product. You need a partner specializing in marketing and media relations.
- You could be an aspiring restaurateur but don’t have any real cooking experience. Obviously, you need a chef with connections as your partner.
- You’re a copywriter with a stellar portfolio under your belt, but you don’t know all the technical aspects of online marketing to start an ad agency. You need someone with experience in SEO and CRO among others.
You get the picture.
Unfortunately, the process of finding a co-founder or partner is never easy. It requires trust and plenty of and communication to make things work.
Just because you snag a great co-founder, however, doesn’t predict easy sailing.
For every successful startup built on a solid relationship between two or more founders, one also failed due to problems stemming from problematic relationships.
Finding a co-founder can be challenging, and the entire relationship is tricky and hard to navigate.
Here are some things that I’ve learned in my searches for cofounder.
1. Create a checklist for the “perfect cofounder” profile.
The key to finding a business partner is to think first about the areas that you know you need help in. Ask yourself these questions before going off to look for a partner.
- What are your strengths when in it comes to business?
- What are your weaknesses?
- What are your startup’s immediate needs that you can’t fix on your own?
- Do you have the skills to address your target market’s concerns?
By finding the answers to these questions, you now have a reference for locating your ideal partner.
Remember to be as objective as possible. Otherwise, you’ll end up just limiting your search to your family and friends.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that, especially if a friend or family member offers the right skills set and experience to complement yours.
But generally speaking, you want to expand your horizons as far as possible, which is hard to do if you limit your choices to people you’re close to.
Your list should include ideals. But stay realistic. You’re not going to find someone who fits 100% of your criteria.
Stay flexible, but know what you’re looking for.
2. Go to the right networking events.
If your current social spheres aren’t surfacing cofounder material, it’s time to make that sphere bigger.
Get your feet wet by joining a networking or matchmaking event. Even if you’re not necessarily in the market for a partner, meet-ups are a great way to interact with people who have similar interests and face the same challenges as you do.
This is especially true if you’re joining a startup event, which will be full of opportunities for VC funding and networking with startup fanatics.
Follow this checklist when attending these events:
- Plan Your Agenda – Prepare an outline of your networking goals. Are you looking for potential partners? Looking to meet investors? Do you want to market your product?
- Pick a Relevant Event – Not all networking events are the same, even those geared towards startup owners. Again, your networking goals should help guide your choice.
- Prepare to Interact – Although it’s important to set networking goals, your general approach to an event shouldn’t be to network per se, but to meet people. This mindset will make your feel more relaxed at the event and ready to interact at the event.
- Don’t Just Talk, Listen – Don’t just approach networking events with the intent of gaining something from them. You also need to consider how you can help others. This approach of listening to people is also more likely to help you identify potential partners who appreciate you taking the time to listen to them.
Intentionally grow your network, not just in size, but in value.
If you are going to bars and nightclubs that don’t have co-founder-level people, switch it up. Find the places where these people hang out, and get in their social path.
3. Considering moving to where the startup action is.
Now that you know the who and the how, it’s time to consider the where part of your co-founder search.
It’s no secret that certain cities just have better environments for helping startups grow, which is why relocating might be what you need to find a co-founder.
Location plays a huge role in startup survival. Without the right ecosystem and support in the form of infrastructure, your company’s chances of thriving are low.
If your company is based in the middle of North Dakota, for example, you might be hard-pressed to find a co-founder. This is especially true if your company is in a niche industry.
But you shouldn’t jump on bandwagons either. For example, if you’re a tech company, should you relocate to Silicon Valley?
Personally, I’d say no. I’ve found thriving entrepreneurial and startup hubs all over the world. I moved away from Silicon Valley, not to it.
Try checking out other startup hubs near you. Don’t just limit your horizons to New York or San Francisco.
For example, according to an Entrepreneur report, droves of tech companies are moving shop to Salt Lake City, “inspired by startups launched by alumni from software pioneers Novell and WordPerfect.”
The report goes on to add, “VCs invested nearly $1 billion in local startups last year, making Salt Lake tops nationally in dollar-per-deal average.”
Here are some other options:
- Baltimore, Maryland
- Nashville, Tennessee
- Greenville, South Carolina
- Kansas, Missouri
- Sacramento, California
- Minneapolis–Saint Paul
Digital nomads have found great startup hubs in places as different as Medellín (Columbia) and Riga (Latvia).
Keep your options open, and consider the right move.
4. Don’t be afraid of working with people who are a lot different from you.
As much as it’s important to have an outline of qualities and skills you want from a potential partner, it’s also important to be willing to bend the rules a little.
For example, when most startups think of bringing in a partner, the ideal candidate is usually someone who is young, tech-savvy, and highly-educated.
But if this is your only criteria for hiring talent, you’ll soon have a staff with the same ideas, resulting in your startup being an echo chamber.
Mark Zuckerberg once said:
I want to stress the importance of being young and technical. Young people are just smarter. Why are most chess masters under 30? Young people just have simpler lives. We may not own a car. We may not have family.”
While there are certainly merits to hiring young people, for example, limiting your talent search to a specific subset of people also means you’re limiting the kinds of ideas you can get.
Truly unique and special ideas can come from people you least it expect it from. Embrace diversity and consider people with backgrounds different from your own when looking for a partner.
5. Take plenty of time to get to know each other.
You finally found someone who ticks off a lot of the requirements in your “Perfect Startup Co-founder” outline.
Should you sign a partnership agreement at this point? No.
Remember, you found an ideal candidate for partner, but that doesn’t mean you’re 100% sure he or she is a good fit.
Don’t be too eager to bring people on board just yet, not when there’s always the option of putting them on a consultancy basis first.
I know it’s exciting to meet someone who shares your vision and goals for your startup, but you should still take as much time as possible to get to know each other before signing any official documents.
Having a business partner is a lot like being in a relationship with a significant other. You never truly know your SO’s personality and quirks until you’re in some kind of stressful situation.
The same thing applies to co-founders. And given how managing a startup is one of the most stressful challenges in the world, it only makes sense to have a partner who can stay cool under pressure.
For example, put your “practice” partnership to the test by taking on a weekend of intense planning and decision-making — perhaps brainstorming for a marketing campaign.
Observe how this person thinks, acts, and works to fix conflicts and make decisions.
This should tell you a lot about a potential partner’s worthiness for the role.
6. Don’t be afraid to set very clear terms.
I can’t stress this enough: Finding a startup co-founder should be approached with the same seriousness as getting married to someone for the rest of your life.
And if spouses can agree to sign a prenuptial agreement, company co-founders can also agree to set terms over their partnership.
I don’t want to take the marriage thing too far, but you should at least be serious about it, and realize that a lot is at stake.
For example, compensation is usually a topic most startup owners would rather tackle sooner than later. But like I said, it’s better to hash things out while your company still isn’t making a lot of money.
You can agree to either pay yourselves right away, or receive cash outs when you finally get venture capital.
The decision is up to you and your partner/s.
Another conversation you should be having is division of labor. This is where most conflicts arise.
- How many hours can you commit to the company?
- Do you plan on keeping your “real” jobs for the meantime?
- Who’s in charge of talking to the press?
- Do you have an exit strategy in case things go up in flames?
Don’t be afraid to take on difficult or sensitive conversations. It’s better to have everything out in the open early on than to sort things out when it’s too late to repair the damage.
Many startups often fall apart because co-founders assumed that they were on the same page, despite having different priorities and business goals.
I would suggest writing these things down in a legal document to avoid major conflicts down the road.
Experience has taught me that the right co-founder/s can make or break a startup’s chances of survival and success.
Startups present far too many challenges, and unless you’re some kind of freak of nature who can take them all on your own, you’ll always be better off with a partner or team.
Startup co-founders can help share the workload, share your stress, solve problems, and — a major concern for many startup owners — split the bill on operating expenses.
Even if your startup fails, you can still proceed to the next project if you had a great working partnership.
Looking for a co-founder is always a challenge. But the payoffs are worth all the frustration when you finally find the right match.
What has experience taught you about finding a startup cofounder?