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Advice on founding teams

One of the questions I receive most frequently from aspiring entrepreneurs is “Should I have a co-founder, and how do I find them?” This seems particularly common among those who have a business idea but don’t feel confident that they have the skills to build it out themselves. As with most things in life, people have an intuitive hunch about the answer, but also have the secret hope that there are other, easier options.

My answer, in short: yes, you should have a co-founder or co-founders. And you probably already know these people.

Strength in numbers (of co-founders, that is)

Article by: Pat Martinson, Campus Lead Mentor

I believe that in the long run, a three-person co-founder team makes the best decisions. Why?

1. When dealing with hard-to-solve or complex problems, multiple co-founders can bring a broader perspective to the challenge. Co-founders will have different, but complementary, skill sets that cover for each others’ blind spots.

While it’s possible with enough time and effort for one person to become a top 5% salesperson, product manager, and technical developer (and thus have the perspective of a common three-person founding team), I don’t believe one person can do it all. There’s something to be said for having a civilized debate between equals, rather than all important decisions being made by a single person in their head. I think that it leads to more rational and robust decision-making.

This is especially true in the earlier days of the business when you’re moving fast, taking lots of shortcuts, and rarely have the time to pause and think about big decisions from multiple perspectives.

2. As the business grows, founders will need to grow with it – learning to both broaden their knowledge and develop really deep knowledge in a few areas. This is also easier for multiple people to do since you can each specialize in your particular area and branch out from there. It’s true that your early hires (and ideally, everyone on the team) will need to learn on the fly and grow themselves to keep up, but your lead SW dev typically will not need to learn GAAP & EU trade policy, but as CTO or CEO, you might.

3. Lastly, when we look at truly successful tech companies– locally and on the international stage – there are a remarkably small number that actually started with a single founder and are still thriving today. The best local example would be Pebble. But very shortly after starting at Y Combinator, Eric brought on Andrew Witte, who would stay as CTO until Pebble was sold to Fitbit.

Now, how the heck do you find these people?

Usually, these are people you already know, and ideally, they’re someone you’ve already worked with. This is important because your success will depend on their competence, ingenuity, and resilience. Every so often, there will be a plan or a decision that this person puts forward (which you may not agree with entirely) and you’ll need to go along with it regardless.

That’s why you will need to have immense trust in this person’s judgment, and that almost always takes time to build.

In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t need to be a long time, but my gut feeling is that most successful co-founders knew each other for at least six months before making it official. Some of them took one to two classes together, and some worked together (either full-time or on a co-op). For example, the founders of ExVivo met through a Velocity brainstorming event when each was working on their own idea part-time.

Think of it like dating…

Dating is a great analogy to finding a co-founder: it’s important to make the right choice, not just the right choice out of three or four immediately-available candidates. In spite of this, I often see aspiring entrepreneurs ask someone they met two weeks before to be their co-founder. To me, this is the equivalent of proposing to someone on the second date!

There is a strong mental pull after meeting someone who sounds incredibly smart and to believe that they will make all of your technical (or sales, or legal) troubles go away. That is a sign of a very persuasive person. But until you have done some amount of work with that person, treat those claims the same way you would treat a blurb on someone’s dating profile: maybe they can live up to the hype, but don’t get too invested emotionally until you learn what they’re really like.

You will probably be spending a lot more time with your business partners and have more heated “discussions” with them than you would with someone you date, so it is well worth applying the same level of patience and selectiveness to the process.

What skills should they have?

If you have a major technical component to your product, it is extremely beneficial to have at least one technology-savvy co-founder. There are many prominent voices in the startup community who suggest that the CEO should have a strong technical skillset as they believe that it’s easier to turn a hacker into a CEO or business person than vice versa. Velocity has seen a lot of successful startups that do not have technical co-founders, but I think that they are the exception rather than the rule.

Probably the biggest benefit of having a highly-motivated tech co-founder, with enough knowledge to be dangerous, is that they can help you get to a v1 more rapidly. This can put your business in front of paying customers (and non-paying users) sooner than others.

If these technical hires are treated as a barrier to moving forward, where you feel like you can’t talk to customers until you’ve hired them, then this can lead to either rushing the hiring process (and increasing your chances of making a mis-hire or finding the wrong co-founder) or avoiding talking to customers (and increasing your risk of putting a lot of time and energy into something people don’t want). Both of these are not great outcomes. Be patient in finding the right people and talk to customers before you have a demo-ready product.

A final thought

How do we split equity? This question comes up a lot, and I’ll defer to folks who are more versed in this stuff.

As they say, and I’ve tried to emphasize throughout this post: all of the hard work lies ahead. I hope you are able to assemble the right team for that journey and wish you the best of success with it.