How to pick your startup co-founder

Posted: May 27, 2010 in Uncategorized

Microsoft Founders

Bill Gates & Paul Allen getting ready to make their billions

Thinking of creating a startup? One of the first things you will need to do is select who is coming on this journey with you. You make the decision while everyone is enjoying the thought of fame and fortune, then have to stick with it over years of hard graft, late nights and dwindling bank accounts. It’s not that different from marriage really, and should be taken as seriously.

In many ways it is the most critical decision you make because let’s face it, even if you get your product wrong a great team can find a way through.

The big questions are, how many founders and of what skill sets?
1. The number
If there was a magic number of founders that magic number would be 2. There is considerable power in the bond between two people working towards the same goal, but from different angles. Two people have to settle differences quickly. Much like a marriage, you bring a third person in and all sorts of bad things can happen. With three or more founders you can get politics, lobbying and ganging up.

Think about all the great companies, Microsoft (Bill Gates and Paul Allen), Apple (Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs), Oracle (Larry Ellison and Lane), Google, HP etc.

There is nothing to say you can’t give shares to a bunch of different people, as long as there are two people running the show.
2. Skills
If there was one right answer that answer would be Development and Sales. One person builds the product and the other sells it. We all know that two introverted technical guys will create an amazing product and fail to sell it. There is always a component of selling or marketing which needs to be done and you need that skill set on board from the start. Why the start? Because people with sales and marketing skills will help you design a product which will be easy to sell. For example a person with online marketing skills will know how to design a product to fit the unique challenges they will eventually encounter.

Once you have that core blend of skills it is worth balancing them with the amount of work that needs to be done. If you have a massive amount of development work to be done, it helps if both of you can code (for example).
Founder Skill Mix

Founder Skill Mix

3. Date First
Most successful marriages start with a successful period of dating. If you last a couple of years you have proved you can work through problems together as a successful team. The same could be said of founders, before Bill and Paul founded Microsoft they were school mates and later close friends. The two Steves who founded Apple were best buddies. They knew they could work together, because they already did.

So look to people you already know and trust. You will be in a better position to judge what they bring to the table, and wither you will be compatible over the long term.
4. Passion
While larger companies run on money, most startups actually run on passion. Passion replaces a regular pay check, an office and a large team. Therefore passion is something you need to forecast and manage as closely as a functioning company watches its cash flow.

You need to pick passionate people with the right skills. Both skills and passion are important. Without skills you won’t create anything worthwhile, without passion you will give up before you succeed.

This ties nicely back into the point about friends making good co-founders. Friends enjoy each others company, they often get passionate about the same things. You may end up enjoying the work just because you are spending time with your friends. The reality is there may not be anything more to enjoy in the first few years of a startup, so grab hold of this. Good founders will keep each other passionate and motivated through the hard times.
In summary

When it comes to co-founders don’t settle for anything less than the right fit. Hopefully this will be a long term relationship, any lingering doubts you have now will destroy the relationship later. Look at people you already know and enjoy spending time with. Make sure as a team you have both sales and development (or service, product sourcing etc) skills.

When you combine that with enthusiasm you have a winning team.
  1. […] the issues, I need to define some nomenclature. Most online advice is aimed at start-ups where a small number of founders get together with a business idea. The idea is usually formed in a vacuum or out of their past […]

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