5 things you need to know about startup co-founders

Starting a company is a lonely job.  You’ve got to do all the work – from designing your product to picking up business cars from the printer.  You’ve got to make all decisions, big and small – from the colour of your logo to the colour of the folders you buy to keep your documents.  You put insane hours into your project, and while there’s plenty advice available, nobody volunteers to take some of the load off your shoulders.

It really is no picnic. So get a co-founder or two before you start working on your project in the earnest.

I’ve got a bit of experience with that.  My business, westartup started with two co-founders (today it has none) – and my project HealthStartup is a collaboration of three partners.  I’m a partner in a fashion brand.  I’ve worked for a successful PR agency started by three people – and I have observed dozens of startup founder teams.

Here’s what I’ve learned about finding, keeping, and working with co-founders.

1. What kind of co-founder to look for 

First, out with the obvious: you need someone who complements you professionally.  If you’re a developer, look for someone with a business development/sales background.  If you’re a marketing type like yours truly, you’ll need a technology expert.

Why?  Because each profession usually comes with its own perspective and with its own set of professional blind spots – and those can be deadly for a business.

You don’t really need a finance specialist as a co-founder, nor do you need a lawyer (unless your business is heavily into finance or into law, of course.  You don’t have to bring in all the knowledge your company needs at this early stage – you can buy that knowledge later.

Now for the less obvious: you need someone who complements you personally.  If you tend towards creative and disorganized, look for someone methodical and meticulous.  If you’re introverted, find someone outgoing and exuberant.

2. How to find a co-founder

A special note on starting a business with friends: don’t. Or at least don’t do it for the wrong reasons (for example, a friend just happens to be the first person you talk to about your project).

Granted, I’ve seen it work.  But I’ve seen it fail more often.  You’re building a business, and your co-founder is there to get things done.  If a friend cancels that night out you’ve been planning it’s no big deal.  If she doesn’t deliver his part of the project on time, it’s different. Consider yourself warned.

Now, finding a co-founder is difficult (especially you keep the above point, complementarity) in mind.  There’s no silver bullet approach – but there are a few things you can do.

  1. Find an entrepreneur-friendly coworking space – there’s at least one in practically every major city in Belgium.  BetaGroup Coworking in Brussels, Coworkig Namur in Namur, Bar d’Office in Hasselt, Leuven and many more cities across Flanders, Co-nexion in Mons and Burooz and Acospace in Antwerp, La Forge in Liege.
  2. Take part in entrepreneurship-related grassroots events – BetaGroup obviously, Bizcamp, Startup Weekends (there are more coming soon), and more – plenty are listed in Agenda on DataNews in Dutch here and in French here, and a few more at BetaGroup’s agenda of Tech Events here.
  3. Sign up for any of the “co-founder dating” websites.  Nearest one is right here in Belgium (http://westartup.eu) with 130 projects looking for co-founders.  If you’re looking for a co-founder opportunity elsewhere check out the one in Finland and of course one in the US.

3. How to choose a co-founder

Attitude is everything.  Co-founder with the right attitude will learn whatever he needs to – that’s what being entrepreneur is all about anyway.  Co-founder with the right knowledge but without the right attitude will just drag you down.

So, my personal tip: offer the candidate to work together for three months, with nothing on paper and no mutual obligations should things not work out.  If after the three months you’ve seen consistent performance, and you’ve not been once tempted to punch the co-founder candidate… you’ve got a winner!

And while you’re doing this “probation”, ask your co-founder to do something (obviously, something that needs to be done for the project) that he has no experience in doing, would find difficult to accomplish, or that would lie outside of his professional domain.  In a startup everyone has to do a bit of everything.  If he’s not prepared to leave his comfort zone now, guess what – not the right attitude.

4. How to convince a co-founder

Co-founder is your first investor.  You’ve got to convince her to leave the stability of a job, do an incredible amount of work for no money whatsoever for a while, and put up with you too.

So you have to pitch your business to her.  Don’t expect everyone you come across to get excited about your project just because you are.  So yes, show her the money.  Show the exciting future ahead.  Show that you can actually get the business to be there.  Show that you have a plan.

Above all prove that you believe in that business yourself: that you’ve invested time and money.

5. How to divide up money and equity with your co-founder

This is the number one question I hear about co-founders, and ironically the least important.  If you’ve found someone with whom you can work effectively, this question can be solved as you go.  So, don’t worry about this one too much until you’ve found a co-founder and have worked with her for a few months.  If you do continue the relationship beyond the first few months, you’ll either have an open, honest discussion about money then – and if you can’t, it’s not a good co-founder.

I know this is not a terribly helpful answer, but you’ll see the truth of it once you get there. So, what are you doing still reading this article?  Go out and find your perfect co-founder!

This column was written by Leo Exter for the DataNews Start-Ups and appears in Dutch here   and in French here.  Re-published with thanks to Frederik Tibau and DataNews.

[Photo: Box.net co-founder & CEO Aaron Levie, Robert Scoble, Flickr]

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About the author

Leo Exter

Sideways thinker, pragmatic planner, professional cynic, marketing guy to the core and part-time perfectionist. Founder of Westartup.eu, partner at HealthStartup, co-founder of Bizcamp.be, Startupweekend Brussels, and BetaInvest. You can follow Leo on Twitter and connect to him on LinkedIn.

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