Finding a co-founder is one of the most important things to get right when founding a startup. But it’s also one of the most difficult.
Your co-founder partnership is the foundation of your startup, and key to long-term success. Yet too many aspiring founders underestimate just how deliberate this process needs to be, and instead opt for a ‘co-founder of convenience’ such as a friend or colleague, rather than the optimal person for them to build with.
Most of the time, this has a negative impact on the company you build - if you build it at all.
In 5 years at Entrepreneur First in Paris, we have introduced the exceptional co-founders of some of France’s most exciting startups, including La Vie, Neoplants, and Genomines. If you want to build a company, and are gearing up to find someone to co-found with, here are 5 lessons to help in your search:
1. Be clear on the type of role (CEO, CTO, COO, other) you want, and find someone who complements it
Every startup requires a clear divide between roles, right from the start, to maximise productivity and establish the legitimacy of the team. So when you’re thinking about the type of profile you are looking for, start by asking yourself what role you want to occupy. What are your strengths and the skills you can capitalise on? Where do you lack? This will ultimately help you focus on what you want to find in your co-founder. For example, you might be outstanding at seeing the big picture and selling a vision, but need a co-founder who is more detail focussed and technical to make it a reality.
2. Have the right number of co-founders
Founding a startup alone can be a significant emotional and operational burden. As Paul Graham, co-founder of Y Combinator, said, "A startup is too much work for one person." But, on the other hand, having too many co-founders introduces complexity and can slow down the project. In a team of two people, you have one relational dynamic to manage. Adding an additional co-founder could make this dynamic more complex.
Having too many co-founders is also expensive. Dividing the capital into three means a third less capital for the other two co-founders. If the skills of the third co-founder can be found in a first employee, this means you could retain a greater share of the capital.
3. Beware the ‘co-founder of convenience’
First-time entrepreneurs who want to launch their startup tend to focus on an idea they already have in mind – often a problem they have faced and want to solve. They are therefore often inclined to accept a "co-founder of convenience", i.e. one of the first people available at the same time as them within their network. This means choosing someone similar, not complementary. This is what you’re looking for in a friend, not a co-founder.
The idea that you have to have been childhood friends or college roommates with your co-founder is a myth. You should subject a potential co-founder to the same standards that you would use when hiring a key employee; keep the decision objective and rational.
4. Cultivate your network to increase your options
If you decide you need to meet someone with a specific set of skills, which aren't necessarily your own, think about the people you know around you who have one or more of those skills. Then, follow their links; ask them who they know that might have the profile you are looking for.
Studies conducted by the American sociologist Mark Granovetter have determined that it is not “strong ties” (family and friends) that make it possible to find a new job, but “weak ties” (second or third-degree connections). The social sphere in which we gravitate resembles us and limits our exposure to new opportunities and information. Cultivate your “weak ties” to broaden your horizons and meet new people.
5. Look for the signs it's the right person
At the end of the day, you need to think about finding a partner, not a friend - someone who will be at your side for many years to come - not someone you will work for, not someone who will work for you. This is likely to become one of the most intense relationships you have in your life. You will spend more time with this person than with anyone else over the next 5-10 years.
The best co-founders share a deep respect for each other, and feel lucky to work together. Partner with someone who inspires you, makes you productive, pushes you to be the best version of yourself, and shares your values and ambition.
If you want to fast-track the process, Entrepreneur First brings together the most exceptional people to find the right person to build with, and found the next big technology companies. Find out more .
Lead image: Brooke Cagle