So, you want to start a company? Great ideas aren’t built overnight and likely you’ll need help for the long road ahead. If you’re starting a business, three things are true: you’re short on time, money and sanity. Teaming up with a co-founder is often the path to success, but it’s important to commit to the right partner. After all, the paperwork and emotional obligation required to cofound a company is comparable to marriage.
As someone with two co-founders, I can tell you that while the path to starting a company is riddled with stress and endless challenges, having the right partners enable you to get going sooner, faster, and smarter than if you were to forage the path alone. The rapid growth at Scout Lab, the creative agency I co-founded in May of 2017, was directly related to finding two incredible co-founders who brought diverse skill sets and immediate value to the business. Through due diligence and aligned vision, we were able to quickly attract purpose-driven startups and name brands like adidas and Motorola as clients.
If you’re in the market for a co-founder, here are some tips to finding the right fit:
1. Define Your Why
First, you need to understand the change or progress that you’re trying to create by starting your business. Do you want to make money? Do you want to make people’s lives better? Do you want to create beautiful art? Whatever it is that drives you, identify it and be specific. Make sure that as you begin to evaluate co-founders, you pressure test alignment on that shared vision. After all, companies with strong, actionable cultural values outperform those that do not. Ultimately this shared vision is what will drive you forward day-to-day as well as keep you mentally afloat when unavoidable challenges come your way.
2. Find the Bonnie to your Clyde
In order to expand the breadth of work that you’re able to accomplish with the limited resources you have, it’s important to find someone with skill sets that contrast to your own. Not only that, but friction occurs between co-founders where there is overlapping workload. Harvard Business School Professor and author of The Founder’s Dilemma, Noam Wasserman, studied 10,000 founders and found that 65 percent of startups fail as a result of leadership conflict. Develop a plan for clear domain ownership to avoid duplicative work, power struggles and/or lack of clarity. If you’re technical, find someone that can sell what you create. If you’re a big idea person, find someone that can execute your vision. There’s more than enough work to go around, so make sure that your prospective co-founder adds value to your business that you would not otherwise be able to provide.
3. Source from Your Network
Talk to anyone and everyone whose opinion you trust (and/or will listen to you). This is a great way to create idea exposure as quickly as possible while also seeing whose eyes light up at what you’re looking to build. You might be surprised at the people in your existing network who are inspired to solve the same problem as you. Companies like Reddit, Airbnb and Warby Parker were all co-founded by people who knew each other through their personal network. My co-founder and creative director is a woman I’ve known and respected professionally for many years. My second co-founder and chief strategy officer was introduced to me through a friend. While we were all so different, we shared the same perspective on our industry and were aligned on the impact we desired to create in the world. After many FaceTime calls, philosophical conversations and bottles of wine, we took the plunge together, which leads me to my next tip...
4. Test Drive Before Leaving the Dealership
You’ve found someone who you believe will make a great co-founder. The next step is to see how you work and communicate together. Pick a project that’s relevant to starting your business whether that’s beginning to develop a pitch deck, fundraising collateral or a preliminary website. Scope a body of work you can collaborate on for a month or two to see if you truly do work well together. Take note of their work style, communication, personality, ethic and working hours. This is someone who you’ll be interacting with more than any other person in your life, so make sure you’re compatible. This is also someone who will be integral to building the culture of your business, so make sure your leadership values are aligned.
If all goes well during this trial period, draft a founders’ agreement and make it official. Creating this document together is a great way to evaluate if you’re on the same page in regard to commitment level and output expectations.
5. Get an Executive Coach
Even if you get along swimmingly, there will always be challenges that need to be talked through with an unbiased third party. Executive coaches not only work on individual professional development (which should always be a priority for leaders), but also help troubleshoot, translate and give perspective to challenges that may come up internally and externally.
As an entrepreneur, your intuition is your most valuable asset. When choosing a co-founder, make sure that your gut, head and heart are all aligned with the decision. Once you’ve picked that perfectly imperfect partner, commit to that relationship by putting in place mechanisms for growth (e.g. executive coach) and boundary setting (e.g. founders’ agreement). That dedication will keep you learning and growing through the spectrum of good and bad moments that you’ll undoubtedly have to tackle, together.