Listen to this story
By Margot Balch, co-founder and CEO of The One Two
Going solo as a founder in the start-up world is no easy feat. It’s hard work, requires long hours and a thick skin. Of course, there are plenty of wins and good times as well, but as a sole founder you have to bring all the energy and absorb all the lows.
Statistics show that start-ups with more than one founder are more likely to succeed and venture capitalists openly preference teams of more than one. The benefits include feeling like you’re not doing it alone and more than one person working for equity. With founder burnout and running out of money being two of the key failure points, these can’t be overstated.
So, you’ve got a great idea and you’re onboard with the idea of wanting a co-founder. The next question is, who would be a great fit for you? There is no ‘size fits all’ for a great co-founder, but here are some pointers that have worked for me.
- Start with self-reflection
What has (and hasn’t) worked for you in the past? You may not have had a co-founder previously, but ultimately this is a working relationship. Who have you jelled with well resulting in fun and productivity? What were they good at? What were you good at? Ask your colleagues, friends and family, for the times you’ve seemed happy and engaged. Whether it’s daily coffees or remote working or working with someone who’s visionary or someone who is detail oriented. Figure out what works for you.
- Think about the to-do list
What needs to be done for your start-up? Do you need specific skills to achieve your mission? What skill gaps do you personally have? You may need a software engineer, for example, to code the initial piece as part of the co-founding team, because it’s core to the business. Or, you may need some serious B2B sales savvy and a network. Or, you might be fine with a founding team of strong business people.
Once you know how you enjoy working and what needs to be done, you just need to map the gaps. The ideal on-paper co-founder is one who enjoys doing what you dislike and is good at the stuff you’re weaker on.
- Keep an open mind and don’t write-off blind dates
I’ve had a few co-founders at this point, and some of the best have been total strangers I met to do the startup with. At Rocket Internet, the company behind businesses including The Iconic and Hello Fresh, they believed in throwing co-founders together without previously introducing them! The results could be great or horrendous.
Maria, my current co-founder, and I found each other at Antler, an incubation program. I knew I wanted to disrupt the lazy lingerie industry and that I didn’t want to do it solo. Maria was looking for her next thing, was excited about areas of the business I didn’t want to spend time on and so smart sparks were practically flying off her. I would have been mad not to get excited.
- Have a prenup, but get married
Before you commit, talk it all through. In particular, talk through what you think would be a fair outcome if things don’t work out. Agree on what you’ll do – can you agree on someone who could intermediate? Will you seek coaching if something goes wrong and how would you find the right person to do it? What would be a fair outcome if one of you wants to quit?
The process of working this through will give you a good feeling for each other and how you’d handle this situation. It’s normal to feel de-energised by this conversation, but if it’s a tough negotiation (particularly if the other person only seems to care about themselves) or you leave feeling completely demoralised, it might be a sign you’re not the best match.
The lawyers will hate this, but I also believe you should both lose out if one person leaves the business. Don’t make it one-sided. Don’t make it too easy for one of you to fire the other. It’s important once you’ve decided to go-ahead, that you’re both committed and see any problems in the relationship as challenges to be overcome.
ALSO READ – Taking a phased approach to founding a start-up
- Nurture the relationship
This is now your work equivalent of a life partner. And, like any other human relationship, it needs to be nurtured and invested in to succeed. Make the time for those coffees or drinks. Be grateful for what they bring to the team and say thank you. When something goes wrong or is hard for them, assume that it’s because it is hard, not because they’re lazy or stupid.
Be aware of the value of having perspective – we often say that we actually report to each other on the things we are in charge of. If I’m working on a new design, I’m down in the depths of the details, then I’ll show Maria to get a feeling as to whether I’ve gone off track or not. She does the same thing. It doesn’t mean she’s better at design than me, it means she has the benefit of not being stuck in the details. And vice versa.
Good luck! Finding a great co-founder isn’t easy, but when you hit the jackpot it’s the key to a fulfilling, fun work life.