The Right Time to Search for a Co-founder

Summary:  Most investors, entrepreneurs, and startup advisers discuss “should I get a co-founder” as a false dichotomy, a “yes” or “no” choice.  In reality as founders we have a lot of options, and my advice is to get traction before you start searching for a co-founder.  

“Thanks Kevin, But We’re Breaking Up”

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to help out a startup that seemed to have everything going for them:

  • Highly-talented, multi-skilled team.
  • Systematic and rigorous Lean Startup approach.
  • Identified a real problem and obtained early customer revenue.

The best way I could help them was to get out of their way.

A few weeks later they sent me an email: “We’re breaking up.” Since the team seemed to be working so well together I was surprised by the news.  I shouldn’t be surprised. I’ve seen it too many times in my career.

The Co-founder Question: A False Dichotomy

I meet far more second or third time entrepreneurs who wouldn’t do a 50/50 (or 33/33/33) partnership ever again than you would image. I am one of them.
Mark Suster, The Co-Founder Mythology

The “should I get a co-founder” question is a great example of a false dichotomy, a situation presented to you as having two options when you actually have many.

Option 1 – Get a Co-Founder

Since startups are so hard, you must first find another founder to join you. Just make sure you recruit another superhuman.1

Option 2 – Be a Single Founder

You must be greedy, foolish, or a control freak but if you happen to be superhuman you can try it.

These are not your only choices, and for most of us either option is a bad one.

Risk and Reality

The reality is that getting an early co-founder is the highest-risk event in your startup’s life. You can change markets or rebuild your solution as you learn the business. You can get rid of crazy Angel investors when you raise the A-round. But start with the wrong early partner and you’re startup is probably doomed2

And by “wrong” I don’t mean that your co-founder isn’t competent. But ideas evolve, interests evolve. Some people can’t grow with the needs of an organization. People move, get married, get divorced, have children. There are lots of good reasons why great people can no longer commit to a startup. It happens all the time.

At the same time, you’re smart enough to realize that you can’t do it all yourself and having the right partners can be the difference between success and failure.  So what should we do?

Co-founders: WHEN, not IF

The co-founder question should be presented as WHEN and not IF. If you happen to have a great early co-founder like my friends Johnny Lee and Stephen Tse of Spotsetter, congratulations.

Unfortunately if you’re over 30 or live outside of a startup hub finding the right early co-founder is tough. My advice is to stop looking for a co-founder and to start getting traction.

By “traction” I mean start doing everything you can to reduce the perceived risk of your startup and make your startup an attractive one to join. In most web/mobile startups the biggest risks are (1) Not finding a real problem to solve, (2) Not identifying a source of revenue, (3) Failing to find channels to bring on customers.3

If you’re technical, perhaps building an early product and getting users is the best way to demonstrate traction. If not, perhaps signed Letters of Intent from perspective customers or a popular blog are the best options. It all depends on your business and skills, but think of getting traction as your opportunity to prove to the world that you have the determination and resourcefulness to succeed.

The best people – the people you need as co-founders – have lots of options and will be attracted by opportunity of your traction, not your ideas. If you’re looking for that technical co-founder, you’ll be in the best position to earn one when you have traction.

Best of all you’ll be able to reduce your risk by building a team under the most fair and stable terms when you have traction.  It may take you a year or more, but it’s a better use of your time than spending 4 months looking for a co-founder and ending up with nothing.

New Advice for a New World

When I did my first startup in 1998 I needed founding team to get money just to get started.

Today I have practically free technology platforms, best practices like Lean Startup, and cheap online marketing channels. I’m productive as an individual in ways I never would have dreamed 15 years ago. I can systematically reduce risk by bringing on the right resources at the right time.  Bringing on co-founders too early just raises my risk of premature scaling.

It has nothing to do with greed or control and everything to do with risk and timing.

If you feel like you get conflicting advice about this topic, you’re not alone. Heck, check out remarks from two Y Combinator founders:

If you don’t have a cofounder, what should you do? Get one. It’s more important than anything else.
Paul Graham, Y Combinator Founder, March 2007

The second biggest [cause of startup failures] is founder disputes… Unfortunately, I’ve seen more founder breakups than I care to count. And when it happens, it can crush a startup.
Jessica Livingston, Y Combinator Founder, 2012

“Better get a co-founder but don’t pick the “wrong” one!”

No wonder we’re confused.  I think it’s time we start talking about co-founders as timing, fit, and risk and not as a false dichotomy of either-or.

Co-founder Finding Services

My personal bias is that these type of relationships best work when they grow organically.Or, as I read on Hacker News,

 “You don’t ‘find’ a cofounder, just like you don’t ‘find’ a wife. It’s a relationship with someone else that evolves over time and then someday, someone pops the question.”

I’m increasingly seeing references to services and groups that promise to help entrepreneurs find co-founders. While I’m skeptical on their efficacy, I confess that I don’t know anything about any of them or how they work.

But I am open to the evidence, feel free to comment below.

  1. Seriously, you’re not helping entrepreneurs like me when your blog post about “What to look for in a co-founder” has a picture of Steve Jobs.
  2. A bit of hyperbole on my part. Obviously you can greatly mitigate the impact of having the “wrong” partner with vesting, prenuptials, etc. But even in the best of circumstances these breakups are often long, painful processes and a huge drag on progress. If you don’t believe me start asking around for people who have gone through them.
  3. If you’re wondering how to do this I suggest reading Ash Maurya’s Running Lean or taking Steve Blank’s Udemy course.  Obviously if you’re in biotech, medical devices, semiconductors, etc. this advice won’t help much.

11 Comments

  1. Edison Acuna December 15, 2012 at 8:29 pm #

    Great post Kevin, om my perspective and experience this is a big deal for every startup founder. I find in depth analysis of all those related topics in the Founder`s Dilemma book of Noah Wasserman http://www.amazon.com/The-Founders-Dilemmas-Anticipating-Entrepreneurship/dp/0691149135/. Being aware and well equipped with a good map will help you a lot crossing the mine fields of facing the risks of early talkings, commitments, partnerships and equity sharing between co founders.

  2. Wolfgang Bremer December 16, 2012 at 8:03 am #

    Great and very thorough article, Kevin.
    You mention some valid points and both – being a single founder and being part of a founding team – have their pros and cons.

    Regarding your thoughts on online co-founder finding services, I’m Wolfgang, one of the guys behind http://Founder2be.com – the online matchmaking service for startup co-founders.

    What’s probably most similar to services like this are online dating sites. You get access to many talented people, you’re able to narrow down to possible matches via searching and filtering, and then you go from there.

    Of course nobody would expect to marry a person after one message on a dating platform…

    But I can tell you Founder2be works and we have success stories from our more than 10,000 members worldwide. For example one of the success stories, which has been covered publicly can be found here: http://siliconallee.com/startups/2012/02/29/founder2be-inspired-startup-ziliot-goes-into-beta

    • kevindewalt December 18, 2012 at 10:03 am #

      Wolfgang, thanks for the comment. WRT … “pros and cons”…

      If I gave you the impression that I’m making a pro/con, either/or, good/bad argument then unfortunately I wasn’t clear enough. I actually think framing the decision this way is the problem itself, so I apologize for that.

      The startup ecosystem is constantly pounding on us to “GET A COFOUNDER!” Nobody talks about the risks of this decision. You don’t read press articles about they startups that failed because entrepreneurs brought on partners too early.

      It is a complex, multi-variate decision and I hope we can start a more frank dialog about it.

      • Wolfgang Bremer December 21, 2012 at 7:00 am #

        Hi Kevin, no need to apologize for anything. As I said, I think the article is great.

        IMHO, people should not do anything because someone pressures them into something. There are a lot of people looking for a co-founder because they need complimentary skills.
        I agree with you that one does not read a lot about failed startups (unless they fail spectacularly 🙂 for any reason actually. And that’s probably OK. Otherwise, we’d read 9 failed stories for every success story. Anyways, people should do what they think is right for them: some go it alone, others look for a co-founder. It’s up to each individual. IMHO, there is no one size fits all.

        Keep up the good blogging! Merry Xmas

  3. Tony C. December 26, 2012 at 1:25 pm #

    Kevin,

    Thanks for the post. I’m one of those founder’s being told to find a co-founder. It’s been a bit vexing because I want a co-founder, but I don’t want to rush to find one. I’ve had two previous startups, one as a solo founder and the other with partners. After the solo venture, I have no desire to go it completely alone again. My other venture had co-founders and I much prefer sharing the load.

    That said, I feel like the guy that has just been told that I have to meet and marry someone on the next 30 days or get cut from the will. This is too big a deal to rush into, so while I am looking, I’m going to make sure that I take the time to get to know the person. My concern for many entrepreneurs is that the pressure to grab a co-founder before taking another step has the potential to push some of them into making a premature decision. That’s a shame at a point where they might be making 100 good decisions for their startup and then make one bad one… with the consent and pressure coming from their “advisors”.

    • kevindewalt December 26, 2012 at 1:47 pm #

      Awesome comment, Tony. FWIW, I would trust your gut.

      30 days??? Crazy. Even putting your interests aside, what potential partner would rush into something like this?

  4. Deverick McIntyre January 8, 2013 at 10:43 pm #

    Hey Kevin, Great reading! Case studies always make for the best blog stories.

    I just noticed that we published similar articles around the same time. In fact we drew some parallel conclusions, which I am happy to see! My article was focused on Chinese co-founders, but the same principles still apply in all cases. In fact my research also dug up a few of those co-founder ‘break up’ cases, within the Chinese context.

    http://startupmba.biz/chinese-co-founders-in-startups/

  5. Michael January 15, 2013 at 6:27 pm #

    Great article Kevin. Thanks for sharing!

    Check out what we’re up to at CoFoundersLab, http://www.cofounderslab.com/, a free online matching platform to help entrepreneurs find co-founders. We augment the online matching with in-person, Co-Founders Wanted Meetups in various cities: http://www.cofounderslab.com/entrepreneurs-meetup-networking.

    Leveraging the power and reach of the internet allows our members to find people outside of their small inner circles of friends, family, co-workers, etc. The in-person events are a great way for us to help facilitate the actual “dating,” but there is certainly plenty of dating that needs to happen outside of our events too in order to find the right partner/co-founder.

    We’re committed to looking at a multitude of assessments, beyond simply location and complementary skill sets. We believe that shared goals, values, vision for what the company can and will be someday, and personalities that mesh are equally as important in a successful co-founder relationship. To that end, we’re building tools like our new Entrepreneur Archetype Assessment into the product: http://www.cofounderslab.com/find-a-co-founder/what-type-of-entrepreneur-are-you/.

    The good news is that it’s working, as we’ve made many matches already. Like Mobiplug, a 2012 TechStars grad. More on their co-founder story here: http://www.cofounderslab.com/find-a-co-founder/success-story-spotlight-mobiplug/

    Finding the right co-founder(s) isn’t easy. Any process involving people and relationships will never be perfect, but we can certainly help to drastically improve the co-founder matching process. Our mission is to help anyone, anywhere, in any industry find the right co-founder(s), and we love going to work every day!

    • kevindewalt January 15, 2013 at 7:02 pm #

      Finding the right co-founder is a tough process for everyone, so I applaud your efforts to make it better. One small suggestion: I think you’ll get more credibility if you try to address some of the key risks that I and others are raising and advocate a solution for them.
      Nice story on Mobiplug, sounds like it is working out for them.

      Thanks for the comment!

      • Michael January 15, 2013 at 8:53 pm #

        Hi Kevin,

        I couldn’t agree more that the co-founder question should be presented as WHEN and not IF. I’m going to use two examples to address some of the key risks you and others raise.

        First, I’ll use our own experience at CoFoundersLab. Shahab Kaviani, our CEO, worked on CoFoundersLab part-time after work at his “real job” and weekends for over a year before making the leap into doing it full-time. He was lucky enough to find a great co-founder, Culin Tate (coincidentally at the very first Co-Founders Wanted event in Maryland), but only after meeting several times and working together part-time for a while did they decide to make CoFoundersLab a full-time job.

        Moreover, Shahab and Culin talked at length early on about the co-founder relationship. They both made sure that they were prepared for inevitable changes in the business, relationship, etc. and established a great report early that has allowed them to get through each bump in the road. They didn’t simply say “OK, we’re partners, glad that’s over,” but rather “Let’s be sure we are the right partners and above all commit to always doing what’s best for the business, not ourselves.” That has carried us to this point, and although the company and co-founder relationship has evolved, the mutual respect, support, and commitment of our two co-founders remains strong.

        A second example: At one of our recent Brooklyn events, Greg Whalin, one of the co-founders of Meetup, talked to the attendees about this exact issue. When he left Meetup, he had lots of requests to join people as their tech co-founder. He made it very clear that the only requests he took seriously were those people that could show him more than simply an idea, i.e. a prototype, customer/market research, or any type of traction. He wanted to see that his potential co-founder had already done something and also was passionate about the idea. Moreover, Greg said he looked for people that wanted him to build something with them, NOT for them. A co-founder, whether technical or not, needs to be treated like a true partner, not simply the person who will build your code.

        A co-founder can definitely add tremendous value to a startup, but it needs to be the right co-founder at the right time.

  6. Ramananda March 21, 2013 at 11:30 pm #

    Nice Article, Finding the right folks who has the same vision is really hard.

    Best statement in the article.
    “My personal bias is that these type of relationships best work when they grow organically”

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