Choosing the right co-founder

08 November, 2021

As a founder, one of the most crucial decisions you’ll make is selecting a co-founder (or not). Make sure you get it right.

When I first met Aman Gupta and Sameer Mehta, the co-founders of boAt. I was struck by the chemistry, camaraderie and trust they had in each other. They have complementary strengths – Sameer is the product visionary and Aman is the brains behind the brand. While they have their share of differences, they openly speak their minds and find common ground. They joke that they have spent more time with each other than they have with their spouses. In fact, when they travel, they still share a hotel room (both to reinforce a frugal mindset and to spend time with each other since one lives in Mumbai and the other in Delhi).

A common friend introduced them to each other several years back. At that time, co-incidentally, they were both thinking of doing something in the personal audio space. They hit it off instantly. And instead of launching separate ventures, they decided to pool their strengths and become co-founders to build boAt.

If you are thinking of launching your own startup, this is a vital question you’ll need to answer as early in the game as possible: Should I get a co-founder on board? And if so, how do I pick the right person? As Michael Fertik points out in his Harvard Business Review article:

This decision may be the most important of your company’s entire history. Most early-stage startups fail due to founder disputes, not the substance of the business. And founders spend so much time together that the business relationship is the closest some of them will ever get to marriage. This is a high-octane, high-consequence, long-term date.

So, this week, my message focuses on the co-founder relationship. What are the benefits and drawbacks of having a co-founder? And how should you go about choosing the right person for your startup?

The pros and cons

The upside of having the right co-founder can be summed up in a single word: true partnership.

You have someone by your side who shares your mission and speaks your language. Someone who brainstorms with you, challenges you and grounds you. Someone who works with you at every step to solve the core problem at the heart of your business proposition. Such a person adds undeniable value to your startup.

Entrepreneurship can be a lonely and taxing journey. It’s impossible to predict all the peaks and valleys at the outset. Having a co-founder gives you a true ally in the trenches, which even the most qualified manager cannot be. You can support one another when things get tough and celebrate together when you win. Plus, you can be honest with each other to an extent that may be impossible with employees.

Bringing in an appropriate co-founder also bolsters the credibility of your startup. As an article published by Harvard Business School Accelerate explains: 

Investors look favorably on ventures with dual founders. The Startup Genome Project reports that solo founders take 3.6 times as long to scale as 2-person founding teams. Additionally, they are 2.3 times less likely to pivot successfully.

While the benefits of having a co-founder are undeniable, the potential downsides also merit serious consideration. Disputes between co-founders are common enough and can derail the future of a budding startup. If things go really sour, you could even end up losing part of your business. Moreover, if a co-founder leaves, the startup could flounder or fail. Given these risks, some entrepreneurs prefer to go it alone, especially if they already have the requisite expertise, along with a well-crafted business plan and a strong set of advisors.

In some instances, you may feel pressured to offer the co-founder position; for example, as a way to bring in top talent or to meet the requirements of an accelerator programme. Experts advise against structuring a co-founder relationship to meet short-term goals such as the above, as it can create unintended long-term problems. As the authors of the HBS Accelerate piece explain: 

Offering a co-founder title to attract talent or to get a particular domain expert onboard essentially dilutes the value of the initial co-founders. It strains your culture and sets a bad precedent. And if everybody thinks they’re a co-founder it can lead to conflict on the management team.

Choosing the right co-founder

If you do decide that a co-founder is what you and your startup need, here are 10 key recommendations to keep in mind as you embark on your search:

1. Ensure a shared motivation and vision.

As an entrepreneur, your passion, vision and values underline your daily experience: they are at the heart of each decision you make. It is therefore critical that your co-founder is just as invested in the mission. As one founder puts it: 

Is this person obsessed with solving the problem?

Alignment on values is equally critical when you’re building something brand-new, together. The HBS article notes: 

Unlike an employee who follows your direction, a co-founder shares the power to establish company values. They also model those values, internally and externally. 

2. Look for complementary qualities.

If you tend to be conservative, find someone who is more willing to take risks and embrace new ideas. If you are charismatic and bold, seek out a partner who is more cautious. The aim is to have a co-founder who shares your vision but brings new strengths to the table, including a different mindset and counterbalancing ideas, so your business can benefit more broadly.

Besides being an asset for you personally, the resulting balance will also be felt by your employees, vendors and investors. Diversity on the founding team makes it easier for different types of people to connect with your startup: some folks will gravitate towards you, while others will be more in sync with your co-founder.

3. Fill in the gaps around your skillset.

The more key skills the co-founders can cover between themselves, the better. So try not to duplicate the areas in which you are already an expert. Tech gurus would do well to join forces with someone who has deep knowledge in sales & marketing or finance – and vice versa. The data backs this up, as mentioned in the HBS Accelerate piece: 

Balanced teams with 1 technical founder and 1 business founder raised 30% more money. They had nearly 3x more user growth and were 19% less likely to scale prematurely.

4. Prioritise reliability and self-motivation.

As leaders, we would like all our employees to be dependable and self-driven. But when it comes to a co-founder, these qualities are non-negotiable. There is nothing more frustrating than having to follow up constantly with someone who is supposed to be an equal partner. Your co-founder must be thoroughly self-sufficient and more than capable of getting things done on their own.

5. Make sure your work habits are in sync.

Ideally, you and your co-founder should have similar ideas of work-life balance. Neil Patel offers some useful practical advice: 

You want to make sure that your co-founder is willing to put in the same amount of work that you do, work similar hours, and communicate in a similar style. 

If you like to work a traditional schedule and be home to spend time with your kids by 5 p.m., it might be difficult to work with a co-founder who likes to roll in at noon and does her best work in the middle of the night.

6. Consider people with whom you already work well.

It is vital to partner with someone whom you trust and enjoy working with. Which is why you should start your search among people you already know and like. As Fertik explains: 

Easy familiarity helps conversations move quickly and allows trustworthy cooperation…. a long-term relationship can help you leapfrog the learning curve of the close collaboration, which can sometimes take years to develop.

Harj Taggar, a partner at Y Combinator, offers the following advice: 

Maybe if you’re working at a company, look at your co-workers and keep a list of people that you think are particularly smart, particularly capable, who impress you, and start getting to know them better. And ask them if they’re up for working on things in the evenings or weekends. That’s the kind of personality…that’s likely to make a great co-founder.

Having said that, do keep in mind that working with close friends or colleagues comes with its own risks. A strong friendship, even if it’s an office friendship, doesn’t necessarily translate into a successful co-founder experience. When disagreements arise, there is a chance that your personal relationship may take a hit.

7. Test the partnership in a side gig.

Entrepreneur Jessica Alter recommends working on a side project with your potential co-founder. As she notes: 

It’s easier to assess someone while you’re working on something real together.

Observe the way in which the person operates in stressful situations. Can they maintain focus and take good decisions under pressure? Do they approach conflict resolution with empathy and curiosity? Going through challenges with a person can often reveal their true colours and give you a deeper understanding of their character – a critical factor in any co-founder relationship.

8. Find your formula for resiliency.

Together, co-founders should be able to bolster the emotional resiliency and buoyancy of their startup. This means you and your co-founder shouldn’t have the same Achilles heel. For example, if rejections send you into a tailspin, look for a partner who can bounce back from them quickly. As Taggar notes: 

What I’ve noticed about the best co-founder relationships is they have this dynamic where both co-founders kind of balance each other out. So if one founder is having a bad day, they’re feeling a little down, despondent, and they’ve become a little pessimistic and feel like the startup is about to die, the other co-founder can just help bring them up a little bit, and keep them going and keep them motivated. And vice versa. 

9. Commit to total honesty.

The ability to have frank discussions with your co-founder is of paramount importance. You should be able to talk honestly with one another about uncomfortable things like finances, professional failure, emotional stability and so on. Each of you should be able to tell the other person what they need to hear. This means finding a partner who isn’t afraid to tell you the truth.

10. Trust your instincts.

Successful co-founder relationships are based on mutual trust and support. Getting along well with your partner and being able to rely on them is an absolute must. So, if at any point, the alarm bells start ringing, pay attention! This is a clear signal that the person is not a right fit for you. Of course, this doesn’t mean looking for perfection. Any co-founder will have their own drawbacks and weaknesses. Just make sure these are things you can live with in the long term.

Launching a startup is a Herculean task. It is a journey that can be stressful and isolating, which is why many founders choose to bring a partner on board. If you’ve decided to look for a co-founder, don’t be in a rush and don’t compromise. The right co-founder can be the key to long-term success – while the wrong person could derail your business before it even has a chance to get off the ground.


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