What Do You Look For in Your Startup Co-Founder?

If you’re thinking about doing a technology startup, chances are you’ll need to find a co-founder rather than being a solo founder. Why? Well, even Mark Zuckerberg had co-founders as did Bill Gates. If that is not enough to convince you, then you should check out this blog by YCombinator’s co-founder. So, how do you find someone to start a business together? The most common one is probably to ask your friends want to team up with you. Some post job adverts. Well I chose to join incubator Enterpreneur First to try to find my co-founder. Regardless of approaches, eventually you’ll need to evaluate if he or she is the one. I would like to share what I have learned so far both from my own experience and also observation on companies.

  1. You don’t hate them. Yes, it is that simple. You don’t need to worship them like superstars or fall in love with them but to the very least, you don’t hate them. Maybe because the way they talk, dress or smell, it doesn’t matter, you can’t work with someone you hate. However, most people already know how to do it naturally so I’ll skip over the details in how to identify every irritating thing about a person.
  2. Good skills combination. Tech founders can be loosely grouped into two categories — tech people and business people. Therefore, the founders combinations can be tech-tech or business-tech while business-business is extremely rare in tech startup and I’ll focus on the first two combinations. There is no absolute answer as to which combination is the best and it also depends on the business you’re building. I would say, the safest combination is probably founders made up of two or three PhD graduates from top universities working on things which they are experts in the area that have been already identified to be huge e.g. self-driving car technologies up to a year ago. They could spend all their efforts building the technology and once it is built, they could just post a blog or send to tech blogger to make news headlines and people will flock to buy their products. Even failing to deliver products, they would still make a pretty good acquire-hire targets. The bad news is, the pre-requisite is that you must also an technical expert yourself. Then there is the business-tech combination. It is usually quite straight forward to identify which skills one posses, usually the business people do all the talking to customers (talker) and the tech person make the products and all things technical (do-er). Arguably, business skills are more important in B2B business where a company needs to develop good relationship with individual customers rather than B2C business especially online platform where products can go viral by virtue of the products itself and/or the use of social media. On the other hand, I have also seen a successful tech-tech team where both founders focused in building the product initially and one of them moved to full time business role later.
  3. Startup Experience. Of course you want to work with someone great but how do you know if they are great? If you can’t look into the future, then look at the past — their LinkedIn profiles. Some have amazing work experience e.g. manager at Google or Apple but you should take it with pinch of salt. When I worked at a startup back in 2007 developing the world’s first touch ebook reader (iPhone was released a few months later and effectively killed the product), the company hired a consultant from Apple who didn’t know sh*t and merely capitalise on the fame of Apple. Having worked at some of the world’s largest tech companies myself, I know there are many amazing people there but undeniably the company badges could be great distraction in how we assess people rationally. What would be good measures instead? Well, I will look highly on those with early stage start up experience. They have seen the challenges, ugliness, messiness of starting a business yet still decided to do one themselves. Apart from the valuable experience learn, it also gives promising signs of determination and agility which important ingredients of startup.
  4. Smart. You definitely want a smart team to weather the storm ahead. As mentioned earlier, having worked at a big company by itself is not a good measure of how good or smart a person is as large parts are due to team work and premium of company badges. I hate to admit this but graduating from top universities is still a good indication of how smart someone is (of course there are also other important qualities e.g. perseverance, honesty etc which are more difficult to quantity). While Stanford, MIT, Cambridge, Oxford etc are the names to look for but you shouldn’t ignore other less well known names. I for example, graduated from top university in my home country which was ranked world’s top 30 in the subject and none of my job interviewers have heard about it. I don’t blame them as surely I haven’t heard of many good universities myself too.
  5. You learn something from them. Alright, you will have identified the complementary skills after step 2, for example, you might be the CTO and have found a business person to be CEO but how do you quickly know if they are really a good match? (Think of it like shortlisting a job candidate from CV, or life partner from dating site) One criteria I use to test is — if you can learn something new from them. When you start a business, it is advantageous if the founders have competitive edges , it can be an insight knowledge of problems to be solved, connections to people, or senses on technologies that are ripe for harvest. When brainstorming or discuss about particular problems, they should give at least one moment of “wow, I didn’t know about that!” or you might be in a suboptimal team. This vetting is meant to give you better head start in the company and you must not use it as excuse of not learning something new yourself.

I dated many girls when I was young and so when I met my wife I instantly knew she was the one. This is my 4th week in EF Form and I have already broken up with partners twice and now in my 3rd relationship (after everything I said above …) so there are still much for me to learn. I don’t know how my entrepreneurship quest will end up but I will have at least learned more about myself. Well, I guess that is what matter at the end of the day.

Independent AI Consultant | Book author of “Hands-on Image Generation with TensorFlow” http://linkedin.com/in/soonyau

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