Part 1: How to pick the right co-founder
Picking a co-founder for your startup is one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make.
You’re going to be “married” to this person for 7-10 years minimum before your company gets acquired or IPOs. Through all the ups and downs of the startup roller coaster, you’ll need to lean on your co-founder for support, often in more ways than your friends, family — maybe even your significant other.
Just like you wouldn’t marry someone you just met, you should also not immediately decide to build a company with someone you just met at a hackathon.
Instead, slow down, think carefully, and (most importantly) test the relationship before you dive in to a long-term relationship.
In this Uncapped Notes episode, Eric Bahn (General Partner at Hustle Fund) interviews Ben Tauber, an incredible executive coach (who coached Eric for a period of time) and serial entrepreneur on his approach to picking the right co-founder.
Does it even matter if you have a co-founder or not?
A lot of investors say yes. But Ben thinks it depends. First-time founders should think deeper about what they hope to gain from a co-founder. Do you want someone to
- Keep you hungry and focused?
- Complement skill sets that you don’t have?
- Bring in their network to help the startup succeed?
- Have this entrepreneurial journey be less lonely and more fun?
- Make your team look more attractive for a successful fundraise?
Be brutally honest with yourself. After considering factors like these, you might realize you don’t need a co-founder after all.
But from personal experience, Eric had an extremely tough time as a solo founder for nine years at his first company. He felt isolated and burdened by the huge weight on his shoulders. Now after starting Hustle Fund with two co-founders, this weight is evenly distributed. And psychologically, the work becomes easier and more fun to do.
There’s also something to be said for having another person on the team who is as invested in the company as you are. Look - no matter how amazing an employee may be, no one is going to care about your company the way you do. Except your co-founder.
What do you look for in the “right” co-founder?
There’s the obvious stuff that everyone looks for like skills, experience, role, and responsibilities. But what Ben is most interested in is the non-obvious stuff like someone’s values.
Why do values matter?
Less experienced founders tend to view values as an afterthought. As something “fluffy” and non-critical. They’ll spend 10 minutes choosing random words like “courage” or “innovation” and put ‘em on a poster. Boom, these are our values! 🙄
When chosen with intention, values can shape your business. Values are how decisions get made when you are not in the room. So as your company scales from two people to two dozen people or more, your team can make decisions based on your values.
Actions speak louder than words
Values are what you do, not what you say. So let’s pretend your org has a value around integrity. What are the behaviors that demonstrate integrity?
- Admit when you’re wrong and share your plan to remedy the situation.
- Be open and honest when you communicate with others.
- Follow through on your commitments.
So if you (yes, you reading this) hide your mistakes, lie to investors, and don’t keep your promises, your organization will mirror those behaviors… even if the word “integrity” is all over your company office.
Action: Set aside time to think deeply about the top 4-6 values you want your organization to champion along with the behaviors that demonstrate what it means to live those values.
If it’s helpful, brain dump as many values as possible onto your notebook, and narrow your choices down from there. Ben recommends choosing four core values (maximum six) to keep your company’s focus directed.
How do you know if someone will be a good fit?
Ben is a big fan of the key questions from a hiring book called WHO. One question he loves asking for hiring is “What do you think your previous manager would say about you?” but in this case, you can ask “What do you think your previous co-founder would say about you?”
Checking in with people your prospective co-founder has worked with is another best practice (same goes for testing new investors). But the best way to truly know if you’re a good fit is to work together and navigate conflict.
- Are they avoidant when things get difficult?
- Do they get upset easily?
- Are they comfortable being wrong sometimes?
- Do they ignore your thoughts and feelings when you disagree on something?
- Are they open to learning and growth?
People’s true colors come out in conflict. If you can enjoy working together, your values are aligned, AND you go through conflict in a healthy and mature way, that’s a big green flag.
Action: Work on something together. It could be anything. Plan an event, ship a product, build a website, write an e-book, create a roadmap, whatever.
It doesn’t have to be a big project, but significant enough to give your working relationship a true test. When conflict eventually arises, lean into these hard conversations as early as possible.
This week we covered the framework for picking the right co-founder. Next week: how to nurture these co-founder relationships.