Not having a co-founder is one of the mistakes that can kill your startup. I would say it’s equally risky as having an unsustainable burn rate, going after a small niche and executing on a derivative and unscalable idea.
In his essay highlighting 18 mistakes that can hinder a founder’s chance at success, Paul Graham points to ‘single founder’ as a leading cause of startups’ death. Starting a business is exciting, but it’s hard. Incredibly so. After a while, you are left struggling to keep your head above the water and keep from going crazy. What is worse is going through that alone.
Building a successful company without a co-founder is possible. A handful of businesses in Silicon Valley and other tech clusters across the world have succeeded with one founder at the helms. However, the journey can be easier and faster with at least two people rather than one.
The startup stress is simply too heavy for one person to bear. Investors also balk at the idea of investing in a company with one founder. Adam Callinan, a venture investor with Beachwood Ventures, puts it this way: “If the founder burns him or herself out or gets hit by a beer truck, both the company and our investment are likely gone — sorry to be morose, it’s just reality…it’s just not worth the risk as an investor.”
Going it alone has its merits. You have more of the company to yourself and avoid co-founder horror stories. But there is a strong case for a co-founder.
“Entrepreneurship is a team sport. One person can do only so much.” – Steve Case.
One of the best ways to find a business is from your existing connections – proven friends or acquittance. However, events and websites like StartupWeekend and CoFounderLab have been known to help. It can also help to cold-call a mentor like Iyin Aboyeji of Andela did with Jeremy Johnson.
Choosing someone to start a business with is a lot like choosing who to marry. You will likely spend more time with your co-founder than you’ll spend with your spouse. Before you start this partnership, here are essential qualities you should look for in a co-founder.
It’s great if you and the potential co-founder have known each other for a while.
Although you can’t fully understand people, it’s worse when this person is an absolute mystery. It’s important to find someone you can get along with out of work. Someone with whom you can have fun. You need to like your co-founder. Your chances of success thins out significantly if you can’t get along with your co-founder.
Money has a way of pitting people’s interest against one another. Select your co-founder based on the level of trust you have in their ability to look after your interest when you are not there. Trust is built over time and often through peaks and troughs. Ideally, you want to start your business with someone you can trust with your life.
3. Dedication to the mission
At Amazon, Jeff Bezos calls every task a mission. It’s symbolism for the gravity with which the staff is expected to take their duties.
Does your co-founder share that gravity?
Both of you need to be invested in the company. Align your interests in the problem you are taking on. And your commitment to solving it with your product.
4. Complementary skills and matching values
Complementary expertise and matching values are by far the most important quality to look for in a co-founder. While your values, moral compass, and ethics should match, you need someone whose strengths balance your weaknesses.
“At a minimum, a startup needs at least one person to make the product (Steve Wozniak) and one person to sell it (Steve Jobs).” – Guy Kawasaki.
If all you have is your liberal arts degree and passion for entrepreneurship, you need to find a co-founder who can code. It helps the business when both of you take different approaches to work. You challenge yourself and can make well-rounded decisions. Pooling different skill-sets also mean it’s easier to define your specific roles.
5. Adaptability and openness
There will be surprises as the business trundle along. You will disprove assumptions, and you may even need to change the business entirely. It’s important that your co-founder is flexible and able to take pitfalls in stride.
Being adaptable and open makes your life easier. You don’t want to be the shrink always convincing your co-founder not to give up. Also, you want your co-founder to be open, not only to changes but about their feelings. They need to share their thoughts on the business and your relationship.
6. Do a driving test with you potential co-founder
Finally, it is important to test-drive a business relationship with your potential co-founder before you set things in stone. This is not only useful for people you meet at a founder’s dating event, but also for friends you’ve known for a while.
Chances are, you and your friend have never dealt with other people’s money and intense pressure before. Money changes people. Pressure too. Past behavior is a good prediction of future conduct. This trial period helps you see how you do in the trenches together and use it to predict how you’ll survive the real mortar.
Share off hours and extra-work activities to learn more about the person with whom you are about to share your entrepreneurial journey.
The only thing worse than starting a company alone is starting it with the wrong co-founder. It won’t be a plain sail with a co-founder, but you will last longer in the trenches with the right co-founder watching your back.
Dotun Olowoporoku is a technology entrepreneur based in Bristol, UK. He is Managing Partner at Starta, a soon to be launched business support platform for startup and small business entrepreneurs in Africa. The team at Starta believes that billion dollar companies will emerge out of Africa built by Africans and their mission is to help entrepreneurs that will make this happen.