Stop Chasing Co-Founders

“How do I find a good co-founder for my startup?”

It sounds like a simple enough question. But if you’re asking this question then you’ve already gone wrong.

Don’t misunderstand – there are plenty of ways to find co-founders. You can go through your personal network (which, nowadays, means looking at your LinkedIn and Facebook contact lists); you can attend startup events; you can go to co-founder ‘dating’ nights or hackathons; or you can sign up to online marketplaces such as WorkInStartups, Founder2Be or Enternships.

But if you’re asking yourself ‘how do I find a good co-founder for my startup?’ then the chances are that you won’t find a good one. You shouldn’t have to find one; it should always be a case of attraction rather than promotion.

A great blog post by Jason Freedman entitled Please, please, please stop asking how to find a technical co-founder quoted startup mentor Gregg Fairbrothers’ response when asked for help finding a technical co-founder:

“I can’t help you with that, but all the good entrepreneurs seem to figure it out. Hopefully you will too.”

So here’s how to figure it out.

First, embrace the reality that co-founders meet just like couples – in many various and unexpected ways.

Some of the most famous entrepreneurial teams have met in shared office spaces (Dennis Crowley and Naveen Selvadurai at Foursquare), at shared apartment blocks (Nathan Blecharczyk, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia at AirBnB), through shared friends (Daniel Ek and Martin Lorentzon at Spotify).

Matt Robinson, co-founder of London-based GoCardless, met his co-founding team whilst working as a consultant at McKinsey:

“We had all experienced a lot of frustration with both making and receiving payments. Simultaneously we had been spending a lot of time working with financial institutions gaining an insight into the payment mechanisms that underpinned them.

“I worked and lived with Hiroki [Takeuchi, a co-founder] for the last 2 years before starting GoCardless. We met Tom [Bloomfield, the third co-founder] as we were starting and quickly decided that we wanted him to be part of what we were doing.”

Do the obvious things, of course, like attending conferences, talk about what you’re doing, and be open to introductions. But don’t go anywhere with the single intent of meeting your co-founder. That’s just like going to a party trying to find a wife.

As Christian Busch, co-founder of Sandbox, who met his team at London School of Economics, put it:

“Try to choose the people you work with at least as selectively as you chose your girlfriend, you will most probably spend more time with them than with her”

Second, ask yourself why you need a co-founder.

If the answer is ‘I need a techie to build my idea’ then that won’t impress anyone. You won’t attract a quality co-founder to your team on the strength of an idea alone – no matter how good it is.

If the answer is ‘I need a marketing guy to start promoting my product to customers’ then that won’t impress anyone either. Good startup operators can spot a product with no customer validation a mile off.

Think about how far you can really get without one. Learn to code. It’s easier now that it’s ever been – just sign up at Codecademy and read this post by Jimmy Li.

Take out a credit card, go to Elance, oDesk or PeoplePerHour and find a freelancer who will give you a start.
Run adverts on Google Adwords for £50 for a day and see what response you get. Call some people. Set up some meetings. Ask for feedback.

Co-founder of Tristan Kromer appeals to entrepreneurs looking for co-founders to show the value of their work so far:

“What have you done so far to start company? How many customers have you spoken to? Do you have a website up?

“If you’re waiting for a technical co-founder to put up a landing page with signup form, you’re lazy.

“If you’re waiting for a marketing guy to talk to customers, you’ll never understand the target market.”

Third, stop trying to find a co-founder and get on with building your business. The best co-founders will come to you when they see you making real progress.

The most important thing in a startup is being able to get tangible things done in circumstances of extreme uncertainty. That has a huge consequence on how you should approach recruitment – for a co-founder and any other early positions.

Recruiting for a startup is not like recruiting for a corporate executive. The latter is about relevant experience and profile: you test it by doing rounds of interviews and talking about relevant examples of past behaviours and lessons learned. You can’t test past behaviours for a startup role because you’re doing something new. Nobody has experience in exactly what you’re doing. That’s why it’s a startup.

Jason Cohen, founder of WP Engine and Smart Bear Software emphasises the differences:

“HR departments look for key words in your resume to ‘weed out’ people who don’t qualify. Education, years experience, technologies, sales numbers.

“These are (mostly) irrelevant for startups.

“Besides being a three-time entrepreneur myself, I constantly meet and talk with startup founders. Almost never does their resume ‘prepare’ them for starting a company, and it doesn’t matter.”

So how do you test whether someone can get something done under conditions of extreme uncertainty? Simple – ask them to do something.

Christian Busch again:

“I did a lot of scenario planning with my co-founders…we had a very healthy trial and error process, which brought the team together very closely.

“We have quite different personalities, but the great respect and sympathy for each other and the strong vision and motivation channeled into a constant ‘mutual re-enforcement’, particularly in tougher times.”

Recruit a lot of people to do small tasks. Pay them if you can. Offer small amounts of equity or options if you can’t. If you offer equity then pick up a standard template and make sure you use ‘vesting’ so that you’re not giving away everything to someone who will work for ten hours then leave.

Create a funnel of people that are part of your business to a greater or lesser extent. Some will move on quickly; some will inexplicably disappear; some will not add value in the way you’d hoped; others will outperform your expectations and if you’re lucky they’ll even start to think of your business as their own.

Give them more and more responsibilities. Find out how they work under pressure. Spend time with them.

Ed Molyneux, CEO and co-founder of FreeAgent, met his co-founders Olly Headey and Roan Lavery, whilst working on freelance projects.

“We all agreed that although we really enjoyed working for ourselves, the experience of sorting out accounts was painful. We hated using rigid spreadsheets for our accounts and we were frustrated that there was no software available specifically for freelancers so they could do their bookkeeping themselves – so we decided to develop one ourselves.

“All three of us dived into 6 months of rapid development, prototyping the service and developing the business model.”

At the right time you’ll want to bring up remuneration preferences – whether they would be more motivated by equity or salary. Soon enough you’re making a decision together about becoming genuine business partners.

Sure enough you’ve found yourself a co-founder and you haven’t even had to look for one.

Finding a co-founder should be a long, rigorous, and careful process. “The one most important decision you make is who your co-founder is” – Drew Houston, CEO of DropBox

Look at your time working together as your due diligence on the potential co-founder (this, incidentally, works both ways: he or she will also be assessing you as a potential business partner).

And it has the added benefit that even if you don’t find someone to take on that ‘co-founder’ role then you are still building your business.

So as a final summary, here are some pointers for you to stop chasing co-founders and start attracting them: