So, you've got a great startup idea. Fantastic! You might be thinking that your next step is to hunker down and build something, then pitch it to an accelerator program or a funder, and you're off to the races. Right? Wrong! At SparkLabKC, we are big believers in finding someone to build it with you first. If you can't find someone to share your enthusiasm and vision (a.k.a a co-founder), it's probably not the right thing to build in the first place.
Entrepreneurship is a Team Sport
Let's face it, building a startup company is hard work. It's a grueling way to get an idea off the ground and commercialized, especially if you are a solo entrepreneur. Building and taking an idea to market is something that usually happens quickly, especially in the technology space. That means doing everything yourself is extremely difficult. When you have the right team with the right skills and a shared vision, your chances of building something that others will actually buy is much higher.
Currently, 80 percent of startups are founded by more than one person. However, "people problems" are the reason why 60 percent of startups fail according to Dr. Noam Wasserman, Harvard Professor and author of Founder’s Dilemmas: Anticipating and Avoiding the Pitfalls that can Sink a Startup. Picking a co-founder can be a make or break decision for your startup, so it's not something to take lightly. Many great ideas have gone down the tubes because they didn't have the right team behind them.
Based on our experience running the SparkLabKC accelerator program and interviewing hundreds of founders, we have seen a number of co-founded teams that have endured and many that fell apart at the first sign of trouble. We have a few ideas of what it takes to build a great co-founding team. Read on for our thoughts on how to ensure that your co-founding team is an asset and not a liability.
What's a Co-Founder?
First, it is important to define the term. According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a founder is "one who establishes something or formulates the basis for something." So by extension, co-founders are two or more people who establish a company or organization and take all the risk and reward of creating something from nothing, according to an article written by Gregg Fairbrothers and Catalina Gorla for Forbes. At SparkLabKC, we view co-founders as co-leaders, co-owners, and co-creators.
This is a shared leadership model that few business books or classes teach. It certainly doesn't look like an hierarchical corporate structure, but it appears to be a key ingredient for innovation (and definitely for getting through an accelerator program). If you don't get the shared ownership, leadership, and creation pieces of the co-founder equation, problems can arise down the road when the company hits it big or fails miserably.
Finding a Co-Founder
Just like finding the right partner for marriage, finding the right business partner can be a challenge. First, start by telling others that you are looking for a co-founder and what skills you need. Your network may produce someone that is a good fit.
Another place you can start today is an online founder "dating" site. The three top sites include: CoFoundersLab, Founder2Be, and FounderDating. Like their counterparts in the romance department, you fill out a profile that indicates what skills you have and what you need in a co-founder. Then you get recommendations on potential matches and compatibility, or you can peruse others' profiles and reach out through the site.
If online co-founder dating doesn't seem like your cup of tea, then check out all the local events in your area that are likely to attract people interested in startups. If coffee is your drink of choice, then check out 1 Million Cups. It is a weekly event that attracts entrepreneurs with diverse interests and skill sets. 1 Million Cups is hosted in 51 cities across the United States at 9:00 am every Wednesday morning.
Startup Weekend is another great way to find compatible co-founders. It is one of the best ways to "test drive" potential co-founders through the 54-hour, build a startup in a weekend program. The true colors of the entrepreneurs who only "talk the talk" and can't "walk the walk" will come through loud and clear in the pressure cooker that is Startup Weekend.
Picking a Co-Founder
One of the keys to finding a startup mate is to first understand yourself — your strengths, your weaknesses, and your gaps in terms of skills. Founders who are very clear about what they do best and what they stink at are usually more successful than those who lack this self knowledge. Just the exercise of filling out your online profile on a co-founder dating site will help jumpstart your thinking about yourself as a founder and the type of person who would match well with you. You can also take an online personality test like 16Personalities or Gallup's StrengthsFinder as a way to identify your strengths and weaknesses. Once you have the language to describe yourself, it's a lot easier to ask the right questions of a potential co-founder and assess whether they are complementary to you.
I've seen a lot of co-founder matches that looked great in the skills department (e.g., business vs. coding), but failed miserably in the shared vision department. Just like in marriage, there needs to be a spark — something that holds you together and gets you through the grind of building a startup company. According to an article in Tech Cocktail by George Meszaros,
"It's all about chemistry. Whether you are looking for the love of your life or a co-founder, there must be a dynamic energy that spurs you toward the future and never holds you back."
You will spend a ton of time with your co-founder(s), perhaps even more than with your family. So, it's important that you enjoy spending time together and have deep respect for what you each bring to the startup. Get that right and you are well on your way to building a great startup company.
What are your thoughts on what makes a great co-founder or where to find them in your community? Tweet @SparkLabKC or comment on the blog.