We are raised as children to think about who we would like to marry and spend the rest of our lives with, but no one prepares you for the momentous decision of picking a co-founder for your startup business. The right cofounder may be the answer to your wishes and desires, but if the selection process isn’t done right, having a co-founder can be a disaster. Harvard Business School professor Noam Wasserman says 65% of startups fail because of a co-founder conflict.
When people from different backgrounds with diverse perspectives decide to build a company together, it is a pretty tough and important decision to make. It’s more important than your product, market, and investors.
What is the Ideal number of co-founders?
The ideal founding team is two individuals, with a history of working together, of similar age and financial standing, with mutual respect. One is good at building products and the other is good at selling them. In this article,we outline and explain some factors that should influence your decisions when looking for the right co-founder
The power of two
Two is the right number — avoid the three-body problem. Think Jobs and Wozniak, Allen and Gates, Ellison and Lane, Hewlett and Packard, Larry and Sergei, Yang and Filo, Omidyar and Skoll, the greatest co-founders come in pairs.
One founder companies can work, against the odds (hello, Mark Zuckerberg). So can three founder companies (hello, @biz, @ev, and @jack). In three founder companies, the politics can be tough — gang-up votes, jockeying for board seats, etc. — but it’s manageable. Four is an extremely unstable configuration and five is right out. When 4–5 founder companies work, it’s because two founders dominate.
Two founders works because unanimity is possible, there are no founder politics, interests can easily align, and founder stakes are high post-financing.
Your ideal co-founder
Who is the ideal co-founder then? Is it that person that you share a lot of similarities with or the guy with a completely different personality? The Leader or the perfect wingman?
Someone you have history with
You wouldn’t marry someone you’d just met. Date first.
If possible, it’s best to work with someone you’ve known for a while or with whom you’ve collaborated before. Easy familiarity helps conversations move quickly and allows trustworthy cooperation. This does not mean you need to work with your best friend of many years. Doing so presents its own risks. But a long-term relationship can help you leapfrog the learning curve of the close collaboration, which can sometimes take years to develop.
One builds, one sells
The best builders can prototype and perhaps even build the entire product, end-to-end. The best sellers can sell to customers, partners, investors, and employees.
The seller doesn’t have to be a “salesman” or “business guy”. He can be technical, but he must be able to wield the tools of influence. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs aren’t salesmen, but they are sellers.
Aligned motives required
If one founder wants to build a cool product, another one wants to make money, and yet another wants to be famous, it won’t work.
Pay close attention — true motivations are revealed, not declared.
Criteria: Intelligence, energy, and integrity
It’s not the kid you grew up next to. It’s not the person you like the most. It’s not the hacker most willing to work for free.
It’s someone of incredibly high intelligence, energy, and integrity. You’ll need all three yourself, and a shared history, to evaluate your co-founder.
Don’t settle for less
If it doesn’t feel right, keep looking. If you’re compromising, keep looking. A company’s DNA is set by the founders, and its culture is an extension of the founders’ personalities.
Pick “nice” guys
Avoid overly rational short-term thinkers. There are bounds to rationality. Partner with someone who is irrationally ethical, or a rational believer that nice guys finish first. Be especially careful with the “sales” guy here.
You and your partner must be committed to telling each other the truth all the time, even if it’s tough to say or hear. This requires practice and emotional investment. You can’t pick a partner who is afraid to tell you what you need to hear.
What you don’t know
Business founders who don’t code use bad proxies for picking technical co-founders (“10 years with Java!”). Technical founders who don’t sell also use bad proxies (“Harvard MBA!”). Learn enough of the other side to have an informed opinion. If you’re not seriously impressed, move on.
What if the right guy already has his own startup? Convince him to work on yours part-time — he’ll drop his idea once yours gets traction.
Nearly everything I’ve written on this topic applies to dating and marriage. Coincidence?
Go forth and multiply.