In my experience, the initial idea for a new product usually comes from a single entrepreneur, but the implementation plan for a new business requires a team, or at least a cofounder. The reason is that any one person rarely has the bandwidth, interest, or skills to manage all the tasks required to build a business. Thus I find that two heads are usually better than one in a startup.
Way back in the early eighties, I had the privilege of working with Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, when Microsoft was still a startup. I realize now that these two were near-perfect cofounders, with Bill having the technical passion, and Steve bringing the business experience from his prior stint at Procter and Gamble. Their skills and interests were complementary, and their trust in each other was palpable.
The challenge is how to find that elusive perfect-fit partner. As a mentor to aspiring business owners, I often get asked to find that partner for them, since founders are usually too busy with their solution. I always laugh, and ask them if they want me to find a spouse for them as well, since the right partner requires many of same attributes of chemistry, values, and passion.
I may indeed be able to mention a couple of possible names from my meeting with others, but I believe that finding the right cofounder or partners is more critical than any other task for a new entrepreneur, and it needs to be done personally. Thus I always recommend a common series of steps that I have seen working for other entrepreneurs:
- Write a partner description for that ideal cofounder. Take a hard look at your own business strengths and weaknesses, and write down what partner skills and experiences would best complement yours. Your best friend, spouse or a family member is the least likely candidate, so don’t start there. Seek input from seasoned investors and peers.
- Network to find cofounders as you network to find investors. In fact, your ideal partner may also be an investor. Many of the same venues, such as industry conferences and entrepreneur forums are useful for both. Online, it pays to join entrepreneur and investor groups on social media, and build relationships with people meeting your criteria.
- Explore matchmaking sites for business partners. Cofounders are business partners for startups, so don’t be afraid to join and explore sites such as FoundersNation, StartupWeekend, and CoFoundersLab. Also start a discussion on the wealth of business blogs frequented by entrepreneurs, where you can make your interests known.
- Support local university entrepreneur organizations. University professors and student leaders always know a selection of top entrepreneurs, alums or staff members who are just waiting to find the perfect match for their own interests, skills and ideas to change the world. Support local activities and you support yourself.
- Look for a partner from a different culture or background. In today’s global economy, your ideal partner may be half way around the world, from a different geography and business culture. Every startup infrastructure is flush with smart people from all cultures, many of whom may be ready and able to bring new energy and creativity to your startup.
- Re-connect to strong associates from prior assignments. If you were impressed with someone’s drive and capabilities in a prior work role, now is the time to connect again to check their interest and availability, or recommendations they may offer. Use caution to avoid employer conflicts of interest and non-compete clauses.
- Relocate to a more lucrative geography. Finding a high-tech cofounder in the middle of Kansas may be a long search. There’s a reason that Silicon Valley and Boston are hubs for high-tech startups. These areas may have not just your cofounder, but also the robust ecosystem your startup needs for investors, programmers and customers.
- Explore candidate values and goals outside of work. Cofounder chemistry and interest matches are best explored outside the office. Find some common hobbies or sports to get acquainted before giving away half your company. Business partnerships are long-term relationships, so take your time getting acquainted before closing the deal.
- Jointly define major business milestones and key deliverables. This process is the ultimate test of a true shared vision and working style. Building a startup is hard and unpredictable work, and people get busy, so now is the time to jointly commit. If you can’t work as a team now and easily agree, it probably won’t happen at all in the future.
- Negotiate and document roles early, including who is the boss. No matter how equal you all are, there is only room for one at the top to make the final decision on hard issues. Especially when everything feels good today, don’t be hesitant to ask the hard questions of each other. Investors and stockholders expect only one chief executive officer.
There are so many challenges in a startup that no founder should try to go it alone, as you need someone to share your successes, and help you recover from the inevitable setbacks. When you find someone that works, I’m betting you will be together on your next startup, and the one after that. Great teams persevere, and success breeds success.