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
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.
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩
- 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. ↩