What we’re talking about
The process of finding a co-founder (or co-founders) involves selecting a person who will share the running, ownership and leadership of your business. Usually this happens in the early stages of a brand’s story, but occasionally it happens further down the line – often when a solo founder realizes they don’t want to, or can’t, run the business alone. Sometimes co-founders join because they completely buy into the business’ vision and want to start a company; sometimes they become involved at that level because they have an essential element of expertise that the other founder doesn’t – be it in tech, finance, product or marketing.
Why it’s important
Co-founder characteristics and compatibility can make or break a business. Rushing the process and selecting the wrong person can have ramifications when it comes to… well, everything – from overall strategy and responsibilities to the division of equity and lending moral support. Analysis into startup failure by market intelligence company CB Insights suggests that 23% of small businesses fall by the wayside due to not having the right team – the third most common reason for failure. Spending time mining your network and beyond, and not just settling for someone who *seems* viable, can give your business what it needs to grow. This isn’t about hiring someone, it’s about finding someone to build your business with.
Things to note
Having a co-founder is often preferable to going it alone. Unless you need someone for a specific technical function, one question you’ll probably be asking is whether you really need a co-founder. In plenty of cases, the answer is ‘yes’. According to technology venture firm First Round, teams with more than one founder outperform those going it alone by 163%. Two heads and sets of lived experience are generally better than one, and jointly founded businesses are also more credible in the eyes of investors. That said, plenty of successful businesses are run by a solo founder. So, if you’re debating the decision, check out three contrasting perspectives in this piece on our website.
A technical co-founder might be essential. If you want to build a software product but don’t know how to code, you’ve got a few options: you can learn the necessary skills yourself (very time consuming), outsource the build (expensive), or build a rudimentary version and take on a co-founder or programmer after raising money. Bringing on a technical co-founder is likely to be the most logical choice – you’ll move faster, have the architect of the product at the core of the team and be more attractive to investors.
Differences are important. Contrasting skill sets are key for any co-founding team. These could be hard skills (such as product development, marketing or finance) or soft skills (leadership, communication or tenacity). Every co-founder should be indispensable, essentially compensating for abilities that the other lacks. Varied character traits and backgrounds will be an advantage for your business, whether in terms of the diversity of ideas you come up with or the range of connections you have. This split will also help you to decide on official job titles such as CEO and creative director.
So are similarities. It’s absolutely critical that you share the same values and vision. Things won’t work if one co-founder wants to start the next Google and the other doesn’t; if one is driven primarily by big profits and the other by social impact. The same is true of commitment, from how many years you plan on sticking around to how much of the working week you’re prepared to dedicate to building your business – though here you can sometimes reflect the difference in the way you split equity and ownership.
How to find a co-founder
1. Sketch out your ideal fit. Write a list of your own skills, experience and characteristics. This will help you to think about the areas in which you’re lacking, in both skills and personality traits. Set down the values and vision that hold true for yourself and your business, highlighting everything that’s non-negotiable. Make a corresponding list for your dream business partner so you know what kind of person you’re looking for.
2. Consider friends and family. This is a slightly contentious point, but there’s no harm in considering the people you know best, whose strengths and weaknesses you’ll be well aware of. You shouldn’t underestimate how enjoyable it can be founding a business with someone you’re close to. Equally, be careful not to let loyalties obscure your picture of a friend’s qualities and aptitude in relation to your own. Co-founding will almost certainly complicate (or, in the worst case, ruin) your relationship.
3. Get the word out through your networks. Utilize whatever means and avenues that are available. You might not want to go into business with friends and family, but they still might be able to introduce you to possible contenders. Share on your personal and professional social media accounts that you’re looking for a co-founder; contact people you respect, or who are particularly well connected.
4. Widen your network offline. Browse Meetup, Eventbrite, Facebook, LinkedIn and university or incubator websites for networking events, conferences, workshops and seminars. Don’t just look for events that are specifically geared to helping you find a co-founder – attend meetups related to the startup world, your industry, the issues that drive you and the skills you want to hone, to get in the same room as the right kind of people. This list – by professional events guide Selected – of 75 top US startup events and conferences might give you some ideas. Or this one from creative platform 99designs if you’re in London.
5. Widen your network online. Join Facebook and LinkedIn groups for small businesses and specific sectors; follow people whose interests, experience and entrepreneurial credentials appeal to you; and find relevant forums on Reddit – such as this one. Once you’re there, don’t be dormant. Interact, whether that’s by submitting a post outlining your situation, or starting a conversation by replying to an article someone has shared. We’ve listed some specialist sites designed for people finding co-founders in our Tool section below.
6. Get your first interactions right. With a bit of luck, a few interested parties will emerge for you to organize an informal chat about what you’re trying to build. Prep by thinking about what you want to know in advance and what you want to share about yourself. Write down a few questions to ask – this co-founder checklist by startup accelerator Founder Institute might inspire you – and pinpoint any doubts you have that you’d like to clear up in conversation. Hone your elevator pitch because any prospective co-founder will be sizing you up, too.
7. Work on something together. Hopefully, you’ll come away with someone who is serious about co-founding with you, but you obviously need to spend some proper time together to know if you’re compatible. One option is a trial project, where you work together on something related to the business. You’ll get insights into what your working relationship would be and hopefully spot any red flags before it’s too late.
8. Have an initial conversation about roles and responsibilities. If your test project goes well, you can give feedback to each other and have a more serious conversation about formalizing roles. Our guide to dividing up responsibilities as co-founders will take it from here.
• Co-founders should have different skills and backgrounds, but similar values and vision.
• When it comes to finding a co-founder, start with your immediate circles before moving to online and offline networking.
• You won’t be picking someone on the basis of one chat. It will take time – and experience of working on something together – to know whether you’re a good fit.
Perspective. Here’s a lecture from Y Combinator partner Harj Taggar on how to find the right co-founder.