Cofounder conflict was the reason I recently left the startup I'd spent 11 months of my life building, which you can read about here. I've heard, asked and read about how to select a cofounder, and usually the advice comes down to two things:
- Only found with people you've known for a long time (professionally or otherwise), who you know you work well with (ie. friends).
- Don't found with friends, as this can cause conflict down the road.
I think the answer is a combination of both.
My First Cofounder Experience
When I was in my last year of university, and had started to explore entrepreneurship, I was looking for cofounders. The problem was, I didn't really know any. Those that I'd spent time working with in school were all mechanical engineers. My roommates were in the sciences, or other engineers. My friends were from class - mechanical engineers.
I was looking for the typical startup team: hipster, hacker, hustler (though I think these terms are almost cliché now, and I dislike using them).
Being a mechanical engineer, at the time I hadn't really figured out my role - hustler I guess? Anyway, I had the ideas, and knew I could pitch and solve problems, so I wanted to lead a team.
Eventually, I founded with a friend who I'd met through social events for scholarship students who was working on his CS degree, and we searched for a graphic designer. Eventually we found one, and she was actually great. But the result of that team? We had different priorities, and both the other members went off to work. We still remain great friends, but our startup didn't go anywhere.
So what were the problems with that team? Well, we had zero experience. Or very little anyway. And our goals and expectations weren't aligned. I'd built up some personal runway from summer jobs, while one of our cofounders had student debt to pay off, and the other wanted some experience working. We ignored this to start, but our future was doomed from the beginning.
My Second Cofounder Experience
While you can read the details here, my second cofounder experience didn't work out either.
This time I founded with a team that, on paper, had great complimentary skills, and way more experience. Early on, we agreed on general areas of responsibility, which were based both on our interests and our perceived strengths, which were essentially based on our resumes. We hadn't worked together before, but we got to know each other a little bit, and everyone seemed pleasant.
In the end, our responsibilities started to overlap, we had different expectations for the level of work we produced and the attention to detail, and the trust that is essential for good partnerships began to deteriorate. The result was discomfort for other team members, and ultimately I stepped away when there was disagreement about rearranging roles.
Who's a Good Cofounder?
So who do I suggest you found with?
Found with friends, but be prepared to lose them.
What is essential for a good founding team?
- Trust and respect
- Confidence in the abilities of each other
- Personalities that blend well
- Complimentary skill sets
To truly evaluate most of these characteristics, you're going to have to spend some significant time with each other. In my case, some of the current friends I would consider founding with are old hockey teammates, or longtime friends. I wouldn't consider someone I just met as a cofounder, regardless of their pedigree. Employees you can fire - it's much more difficult with cofounders.
So why do you have to be prepared to lose them? Because at some point, you may need to make a decision that is best for the company, and that might mean something bad for them. Like being removed. If you can't separate your business judgement from your ties as a friend, you'll be screwed. It's happened to me. If they're really that great a friend, then they will understand anyway.
Finding Your Cofounder
So you're like me 18 months ago, and you want to found a company, but you don't have any potential cofounders. How do you find them?
An unfortunate truth for a young wannabe founder: you can't just find them. You're going to have to put some time in. The time you spend building a great network and getting to know cofounders is going to be much more valuable than starting with someone you don't know, and then ending up killing the company a few months later.
Step one: put yourself in a position where you are working with a bunch of other like-minded people.
For me, this breakthrough came with The Founder Institute. 50 of us started, and only 14 finished, most of them founders of their own companies. So how did that help me? Well, I found my cofounder there, and while it didn't work out, you're immediately in a group of 50 people who are interested in entrepreneurship, which is a start. Second, these people didn't all drop out at once - they dropped out over time, and during the process, you get to work with them, see their work habits and abilities, and generally get to know each other. The reverse is true as well - people will be much more likely to want to found with you when you demonstrate your value. I was great at pitching during The Founder Institute - this impressed a lot of people, and got them past the fact that I was a young guy with seemingly little experience.
Other areas to get this type of experience? For students or recent grads, try The Next 36. Try getting a job with a startup company near you (http://www.builtin.com/). Try getting a job as an analyst or an intern at a local accelerator or venture capital firm (in Montreal, try FounderFuel or Real Ventures). You will immediately be exposed to people interested in entrepreneurship and get to demonstrate your value to them, and evaluate their value too.
Step two: network like crazy.
There are a million (okay, not quite) meetups and events centered around tech and startups in cities worldwide. Need a technical cofounder? Go to the Ruby meetup and try to make friends. Need a marketing guy? Go to the digital marketing meetup. Go to Startup Open House. The key here is that these are relationships you are going to cultivate over time - don't expect to immediately find your cofounder. And make sure you follow up with these people. Go out for coffee occasionally, stay in touch, go to more networking events together, maybe even go out for a beer (or five).
Step three: reach into your past.
Though most of the friends I graduated with were getting the same degree as I was, some of my old friends from home, or those that I grew up playing sports with, and generally those who were old friends, graduated with complimentary degrees. Some of them had even expressed interest in entrepreneurship. When you're a year or two out of school, you should have plenty of friends around your age who have graduated from university, but are maybe in a different location, or already working. Reach out and see what they're up to. Eventually tell them what you're up to, and see if they've ever thought about entrepreneurship. Again, make sure to follow up. Ambitious young professionals, particularly if you are (or were) friends, will move cities for a great opportunity (ie. your future startup together).
Don't forget: you're going to have to put some time into this. If you're still in university, and thinking about what you'll be doing afterwards, that's even better! You can be all ready by the time you graduate. The same rules apply to you as above, you can just look in some different places as well - go to the CS events and hackathons, and find those that are interested in starting a company after graduating. Go to the business competitions and find the marketing and sales people who are interested in really developing that product they sold to judges in the pitch competition. Hackathons are also a great opportunity to work together and get to know each other
Startup Weekends are another hackathon-like experience which you can use to get to know other people interested in entrepreneurship, or evaluate how your potential cofounders work.
Here's a great link summarizing a bunch of resources for entrepreneurs in Montreal which you can use to help you, and Google can help you if you're in other cities.
Don't forget: found with friends, but be prepared to lose them.