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Process for Picking the Right Co-Founder?

I've been down this road enough times to recognize my mistakes in retrospect, but I can still say that I don't really have a good process for vetting and selecting a co-founder objectively yet. The prompt for this question is a recent split with a guy I met and brought into a co-engineering space I've been working on the last few years. It was basically a combination of coworking, an engineering firm, and a prototype shop...

Anyway less than two weeks after getting the keys to our building he was already stressed, and avoiding me, and had quite twice! Yesterday I realized that one of us had to go, and I'm spread to thin to do it alone so I gave it to him. Disappointment aside I feel good about walking away rather than taking on more than I can, but it leaves me wondering how I can make sure that the next partner is really a good fit.

He was the right guy technically, had the right expectations, lived in the right city, came with cash, seemed to have decent start-up experience, etc. Most importantly he saw the larger vision immediately, and volunteered to jump on board from day one. What he didn't have was the ability to communicate what he wanted to me, motivation to work through business planning detail, or a graceful way of moving forward constructively when shit hit the fan. This last one I didn't really see until the last few days. Objectively I should have been able to spot the problems a mile away (some of them I did see honestly), but I convinced myself I could work with the shortcomings because the rest was so good. Also he showed up at a time when I was about to put the project on the back burner for at least a year if now more, so taking him on really felt like the only option to make things happen at all.

So that was a long backstory, but what I'm really asking is how do you prioritize these things? A separate, and maybe more important question: Is there a way to tell how a potential partner will deal with the stress and mistakes that we all know are part of a start-up, before committing to them and experiencing their process in real time?

Thanks for all your input!


10 Replies

Karen Leventhal
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Karen Leventhal Entrepreneur
Founder & CEO at SE Rising
So I had a similar experience. What I learned is that I want make sure to have the hard conversations ahead of time. Especially about what might happen when it gets hard, or you're tight on funding, on there are bumps or pivots. It helps to clarify expectations. But it is scary.

Also, I had a conversation about this yesterday with someone I met on here. To potential investors, you are expected to presented a story how your start up is a guaranteed rocket ship to the moon, when the truth is everyone knows there is uncertainty-- if there weren't you would be opening a McDonalds's franchise not a brand new idea. But the risk is the reason why it can pay off WAY higher than a McDonalds franchise. I've also heard that sentiment echoed on the site, that you have to tell potential partners it's a guaranteed win. But I'm playing with another idea..

...I had a friend in the military, who then was in an organization that ran civilians though paramilitary training situations. The message was the exact opposite than what you hear in this field. It's was "this is going to suck." "You will be in physical and psychic pain" "This is going to be a significant emotional event for you and maybe the worst night of your life."... BUT "it will give you the greatest sense of pride and accomplishment and teamwork you will ever know"

And you know what-- this organization grew like wildfire, they have a rabidly devoted following. People were actually motivated by the challenge.

While there seems to be a lot of pressure to sugar coat things-- isn't this the exact opposite of entrepreneurism? It's the risk and the challenge that are the fun parts (in my opinion) --why do we keep trying to say otherwise?

Just a ponderance.
Rachel Zheng
1
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Rachel Zheng Entrepreneur • Advisor
Business Development Manager at Honyee Media
Thanks for your post Kris, I find it's very helpful to always do a search first. We had a lot of discussion on this topic already, check out these for you to jump start: http://members.founderdating.com/discuss/2368/What-are-the-most-important-characteristics-to-look-for-in-cofounders, http://members.founderdating.com/discuss/2327/When-talking-with-potential-tech-cofounders-don-t-judge-quickly, http://members.founderdating.com/discuss/1748/What-are-the-right-skill-sets-for-cofounders, http://members.founderdating.com/discuss/727/10-Things-Tech-Co-Founders-Should-Look-for-in-Entrepreneurs, http://founderdating.com/discuss/717/Best-Strategy-for-Find-a-Technical-Cofounder.
Karen Leventhal
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Karen Leventhal Entrepreneur
Founder & CEO at SE Rising
That being said, I think if you're smart you mitigate as many risks as you feasibly can--- but that is also part of the challenge and the journey. But if it anyone is afraid of hard work or some uncertainty-- it may not be a good fit.
Ben Sweat
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Ben Sweat Entrepreneur
Director, Product at Idealab
Sounds like you did a pretty good job vetting him. I think it's just really hard finding the right partner. I'd also love to know the secret if someone finds it. Not to dodge the question, but one alternative is just not have a co-founder. Start without one. Make progress. Build first version. Something. That could make it easier to get someone else excited about it. It'd be clear that you'd have more control of the company. You're not giving up as much equity. You could still give out the title if you wanted but not the same equity expectation. Two of my favorite entrepreneurs gave me the same advice. Don't get a co-founder. It was a liberating feeling actually. You don't have to feel desperate. You can build a team on your terms. Good luck!
Michael Barnathan
3
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Michael Barnathan Entrepreneur • Advisor
Co-Founder of The Mountaintop Program, Google Alum
As someone who has had to disengage, sometimes forcefully, from nontechnical co-founders, I'd suggest examining how you're communicating and what your expectations are. Are you calling at weird hours of the day? (Before 9 am, after 11 pm). Do you know not to interrupt developers in the middle of working on something, and why? Are you micromanaging, or treating the person as a resource rather than a partner? Does the info always flow one way, with the only point of feedback you ask for being estimates of when work will be complete? There's an art to communicating with developers, and it's very easy for someone who isn't from that world to step on a mine without even realizing it. Read "Herding Cats: A Primer for Programmers Who Lead Programmers", it goes into this a bit. It's also possible that your cofounder is antisocial or just doesn't work well with you. But if it's a pattern you see more than once, check your communication style. What you see as normal, your partner may see as annoying, and that may be the root of the problem. I'm particularly sensitive to this myself because I've succeeded on a venture (faster, ironically) by taking a more balanced approach than many entrepreneurs would be comfortable with. As a result, I see a lot of the frenzied late night texting as totally unnecessary, compensating for good planning and a habit of steady, strategically prioritized work. But YMMV.
Samuel Lehane
1
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Samuel Lehane Entrepreneur • Advisor
Freelancing with Virgin StartUp and startups
You appear to done a hell of a lot of what you should have done. I am unsure how long you knew him before signing him up. Him saying he would jump on board (if he was a stranger at that time) without going through the details seems a small bit desperate on the face of it.

Here's a curve ball. You could try to bring a potential co-founder to a start-up weekend (where you pitch, form teams and work on it for 48 hours) and work with them. It involves a lot of elements of a start-up (pressure, quick decision making, product development, marketing, pitching etc etc). You don't necessary have to work on the idea you plan with them, but could come up with an idea and go for it for the weekend. You would get quite a good feel for how they react to situations, how they communicate and if you think you could work for them. I know quite a few people who found co-founders at them, but it could be a good place to test someone also. Just an idea that popped into my head.

Sam


Julien Fruchier
0
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Julien Fruchier Entrepreneur
Founder at Republic of Change
It's simple and complicated.

Finding the right co-founder is like finding your future wife (mind you, 50% get this wrong too!). You basically need to find your best friend with the background you seek. Someone who's values are aligned with yours. Someone who wants to create the same future for themselves as you do for yourself. Someone that gets you and that you get. Someone you communicate well with. Someone who is going to push you and whom is going to want the same in return from you.

Most partnerships don't work out because people treat them like a business transaction. If you study the partnerships that did work out over the long term, the overwhelming majority started out as friendships, much the same way strong marriages do.

So what to make of this? If you don't have a friend with the background you need, you need to start making them and be prepared to wait a long time to find the right one. In the meantime, hire people to do the jobs you need. Unless you're building something truly complex, technical co-founders are really not that necessary if you do your homework. API and SAAS have really made it easy to build things. You just need to know the basics (which you should in any event) and know how to communicate with techs well (not that hard to figure out).

Taking the long/hard road is not always popular in the age of hacks and shortcuts, but it always wins the race.
Kris Young
0
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Kris Young Entrepreneur • Advisor
Optop-Mechanical Engineer at Advanced Energy
I really like Karen's suggestion of being as realistic as possible with potential cofounders on how much work it's going to be. We need to paint a rosy picture to most people, but anyone who will actually be doing the work with us should know what they're getting into!


Sam's idea of taking a potential partner to a start-up weekend seems like exactly what I was thinking of. I've never gone to one personally, and had always thought of them as a thing to do with an established team, but using it as a trail run sounds like a huge win/win opportunity, and if the fit isn't right very little was lost.




Kris Young
0
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Kris Young Entrepreneur • Advisor
Optop-Mechanical Engineer at Advanced Energy
Very good point about hiring tech cofounders, but my situation is a bit different than the standard software idea that needs to be build up by a tech guy. I was opening a physical location that was meant to serve as networking hub and coworking space up for consultants and local startups. Additionally there was a full manufacturing and prototyping facility that covered small to mid-sized prototype fabrication of plastics, metals, and wood, along with a complete electronics prototyping and testing lab.

To complicate things a bit more I'm currently out of the state 3/4 time on a long term contract. The only reason I even tried with this partner was that he was willing to move his current business into the new location and be there 60+ hours per week for the first year. This meant he'd be managing and maintaining all the equipment, as well as all the people, and the normal day to day in person operation. If I had more capitol I could have just hired a full time manager, but the money wasn't there. The plan was to start with with less than $20k in startup capital, and a monthly cash infusion of about $5k/month for the first year.

All I had to do was manage the back end and pay for half. It would have been a killer deal with the right partner, but it really was asking for much more than was reasonable.


To answer a previous comment about going alone first, I would agree with this to a point. in my case I did the first year at a smaller location alone. It was a challenging year and if I did it again maybe I could have made it work, but honestly the biggest lesson I learned was that it would be much better to bring in a 50% partner, sleep more, and provide a better experience than to try to maintain total control.


Peter Jones [LION: li.blueoyster~@~gmail.com]
1
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Peter Jones creates solutions for product USP, market messaging, team building, venture and other commercial capital
There's an old saying about marriage: marry in haste, repent at leisure.

Many great comments above, but the key thing is to test the product, even if that is a working relationship.

Every product development will have setbacks. How do people respond to that? What did they do in the past? What did they learn?

An issue we all face is, do we continue? This product isn't running, isn't firing, why? What are we doing that means something is misfiring?

Very, very important is your market research. Who has said they will buy such a product? What was their motivation? Ignore totally friends and family, their motivations are skewed by emotion.

Only with robust market research can you have a strong platform to recruit partners. After that it's execution, what you do, that makes or breaks product and business growth.

And the best point to recruit is when stuff is already working, and you just need to delegate what is already working.

If you recruit because something isn't working, you have a gap to plug, who will recommend them? Which third party can tell you how they react when the stuff hits the fan.

Could go on all day, I really wish you luck with this, hope some of the above helped.

@innov8tor3
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