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So You Think You Need a Co-Founder...

Izabella Bray

Izabella Bray

Read Time: 3 minutes

Many entrepreneurs feel compelled to seek out a co-founder, with some facing pressure from investors to find a specific type of partner. This inclination towards co-founders is usually rooted in the desire for complementary skills and experiences, often overshadowing the significance of interpersonal dynamics. 

"When investors tell a founder that they need a business co-founder, they're actually giving you direct feedback on what they see as a deficiency in your appetite to do the work,” says Dalton Caldwell of YC’s podcast Dalton & Michael.

Still, there is a lack of conclusive research demonstrating whether co-founders are an absolute necessity compared to pursuing entrepreneurship solo. Unless your primary focus is in hard sciences, establishing a technology-driven or tech-dependent business is no longer as challenging as it once was. A key initial hire with technical expertise can often be adequate, just as someone proficient in sales, marketing, or other operational domains can serve the same purpose.

While partnering with co-founders can mitigate business risks and offer complementary expertise, the imposition of these relationships can lead to detrimental "marriages" that hinder rather than enhance business ventures.

“Many don’t appreciate that this is a similar courtship to mating and partnership,” says Harvard Business School professor Julia B. Austin. “Self-awareness, a willingness to lean into conflict, and ability to thrive in ambiguous situations will be critical in a co-founding relationship.”

With many reasons for and against having a co-founder, it’s ultimately up to the solo founder to decide what’s best for the business. If you’re looking to embark on your journey to find the answer that’s right for your startup, here’s a path that may help.

Start at the beginning

First, decide if you really want and/or need a co-founder. Some good questions to ask yourself if you’re considering a co-founder are:

  • Is domain expertise critical to your business? If so, and you yourself lack the expertise to innovate sufficiently, the answer may be yes.
  • Do you value partnership, shared risk, and collaboration with others? If so, you possess the right mindset to go at this with a partner. If not, collaboration may not be the best path for you.

How to begin your search

Decided you do indeed want and/or need a co-founder? Here’s how to approach finding the right candidates.

Conduct some research by meeting with and talking to other startup co-founders. Ask them about how they got connected, what their biggest challenges are in working together, but also ask what keeps them working together on the success of their business. The insights gleaned will help shape your vision for the type of person you want at your side. Austin refers to this as a “listening tour”.

Next, take some time to write a co-founder job description. Starting with a brain dump is fine. But be sure to heavily edit and narrow down the key requirements and responsibilities to just a couple of items. You can even share that description with some of the people on your listening tour and get their feedback.

Then, talk to at least 5-6 people who may fit your job description. This doesn’t mean conducting actual interviews, but rather gauging interest and fit before taking the leap into a full fledged interview/onboarding process. 

Stuck on where to look? YC has a great co-founder matching tool.

When you think you’ve found “the one”...

Think you’ve found the one? Be sure to go beyond work talk. Go out and do a new activity together to really test whether or not your soft skills are complimentary. Even once you begin working together, the idea of “founder honeymoons” can really help to fortify a working relationship. 

“The practice [of founder honeymoons] becomes a critical lever in the co-founder relationship, which in turn is instrumental to the health of the company.” says Khalid Halim, founder and professional coach who has guided the leadership at Coinbase, Lyft and Checkr through some of the steepest parts of their growth curve.

Lastly, it’s also recommended that each other’s partners/families get introduced early in the working relationship. As Austin puts it, “The most successful co-founding relationships I’ve seen inevitably end up being far more than co-workers. They are practically family and while that means potentially more emotions are at stake, it’s their mutual understanding and deep respect for each other that allows them to traverse this often treacherous journey.”

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