How to find a co-founder
I recently went on the hunt for a new co-founder. This ended up being my process.
Starting principles #
Meet as many as you can in parallel. Like a sales pipeline, you wouldn't only talk to a single customer at a time, nor should you for founders.
Give yourself a deadline, goal setting matters, it also creates urgency so you can close.
It takes longer than you think, several months for me and I know many others that took a lot longer.
Decide on some initial parameters:
- Geography: Initially for me, this was East coast US to Europe for some timezone overlap. This narrowed to UK and western Europe. I realised having the Atlantic ocean between us was going to be too big of a hurdle to de-risk the relationship.
- Profile: I started with 'either a CEO or CTO type'. Typically you'll have a CEO/CTO founding combo. Being technical myself and having reflected on my previous venture, I narrowed this to CEO.
- Idea or not: I was looking for someone with an idea, validated ideally.
- Quit their job: candidates that haven't quit don't have the same urgency. They are comfortable. And sometimes flirting with the idea of startups rather than being ready to commit now.
- Not an existing duo: you want to be on as equal terms with your co-founder(s) as possible. After meeting a few duos, I realised it was unlikely I would feel on the same level as the original duo.
The process #
This is somewhere between dating and hiring someone. You want to keep it natural and a lot of it is about getting to know the other person. But you have a deadline and a business to start!
Top of funnel - get swiping #
In dating the 'old way' was being set up by friends. The 'new way' is dating apps. Both work for co-founder leads, but just like Tinder, you'll get many more leads through Y Combinator's co-founder matching app.
1. The first date #
This is the initial meet and greet. I kept these to a 30min video call or a quick in person coffee. The goals:
✅ Get to know them. Do you vibe? Yep, it's a lot about vibes. If you don't vibe on a first date with someone, you don't go on a second date.
✅ Do you respect them? This is really about whether you see them on eye level.
2. The written assignment #
The aim here is to have the most time efficient process to get to know your potential co-founder. The 50 Founder questions get you to introspect on why you're founding a company, reveals your areas of expertise and raises thorny questions early like how would you resolve a stalemate? The best founders were already aware of the 50 Founder Questions. If someone hadn't heard of them, I'd give them time to get back to me.
✅ Exchange 50 Founder questions - ensure values, expertise and thinking alignment.
3. More dates - discuss the Founder Questions and any other questions #
If the potential co-founder's responses revealed a gap too large, I'd just say so in an email. If you only have minor flags, question marks and areas you want to dig deeper - have as many calls to work through them as required.
✅ Each meeting is increasing your confidence in each other, to the point you are ready for a work trial.
✅ With a view to commencing a work trial, if the co-founder is committed to an idea, get across the idea.
4. Part time work trial #
By this stage you've worked through values, any possible question marks you've had about each other and are ready to test out what it is like to work with each other. I did this with several people at the same time. Using the dating analogy, this is that tricky and tiring phase where you haven't committed to one person yet. You're switching contexts and trying to not mix up details about each person! The work trial can look quite different depending on each person. For example, with one they hadn't found an idea, so the working together was about making progress through the ideation phase. For another, it was about doing joint discovery calls and validating ideas.
✅ Complete a timeboxed work trial together.
5. Commit #
This doesn't mean you have incorporated. But from step 4 you need to pick one person to move forward. And hopefully you have a strong sense of who the right person is. Having committed to each other, set yourself ambitious goals that are aligned to each of your primary areas of responsibility. For me that looked like developing a prototype and for my co-founder it was securing design partnerships. If this all goes well, you're already a company, you just need to sign the dotted line.
Other inspiration #
- Whalesync's trial period template
- YCs doc on co-founder matching my highlights:
- Someone you enjoy spending time with and get along with. Would I want to be friends with this person?
- An exceptional person - smart and effective
- If you have hesitancy towards someone, listen to it.
- Find people you have things in common with - shared interests, hobbies and values
- The person is more important than the idea
- The median time between when the founders joined the site and when they matched with the person they ultimately ended up working with is 100 days
- EF advice
- Both co-founders are technical, or technical with a domain expert
- Both co-founders are involved in everything
- No ‘pity founding’ - we're mates!
- A co-founder isn’t a ‘must-have’, a generic role that needs to be filled... they are a vital value-add
- "Each co-founder needs to have a strong relationship with each co-founder. In our experience, in a three this often isn’t the case. Someone is usually making a compromise and although that may seem ok in the short term, this doesn’t lead to harmonious founding teams in the long term."
- you have, or can quickly acquire the skills needed to build the product you want to build
- Paul Graham
- "You haven't seen someone's true colors unless you've worked with them on a startup."
- "the relationship between founders was more important than ability"
- Share startupschool FAQs with them - aim to pick a trial project to work on together
- More questions to ask each other from YCs doc here
This is a good opportunity to stress test the relationship too. Really question the idea, poke holes, debate it and see how they respond. What would it take to work on something else? You probably need to pivot in the future, which is a difficult conversation if you don't arrive at it at the same time. ↩︎
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