How to Choose a Co-Founder

When we think of entrepreneurship we tend to think of famous entrepreneurs.

Elon. Steve Jobs. Oprah. Mark Zuckerberg. Richard Branson. Jack Ma. Sara Blakely.

Can you think of any companies with co-founders?

It’s more than you might think.

 

Prominent Companies Started by Co-Founders

  • Airbnb
  • Alibaba Group
  • Apple
  • Baidu
  • Ben & Jerry’s
  • Birchbox
  • DropBox
  • Facebook
  • Google
  • Hewlett-Packard
  • Infosys
  • Instagram
  • Intel
  • Johnson & Johnson
  • Microsoft
  • Netflix
  • PayPal
  • Rent the Runway
  • Skype
  • Snapchat
  • Sony
  • Spotify
  • Twitter
  •  YouTube

 

The Myth of the Solo Entrepreneur

We’re enamored with the myth of the solo entrepreneur, but in reality entrepreneurship is a team sport.

Entrepreneurship is a team sport.

It’s hard to know exactly what percentage of companies are started by solo entrepreneurs versus co-founders. Researcher Dr. Lerong He, writing in the Journal of Business Venturing, estimates that 50-70 percent of new firms are started by partners (more than one founder). Of the top 20 Y Combinator startups (in terms of valuation) recently, all of them have at least two founders.

When I taught entrepreneurship at the Stockholm School of Entrepreneurship, I used to enjoy asking my students if they knew what the following startups had in common: Birchbox, Bright Horizons, Dropbox, Google, HP, Rent the Runway, SoundCloud, and Yahoo? Any guesses?

Their co-founders were all classmates. If you’re in school, part of your job is to study and learn and pass your exams. Another part of your job is to meet interesting people that may become great friends or, who knows, partners.

 

The Critical Co-Founder Decision

Choosing your co-founder(s) is clearly one of the most important decisions you’ll make. Yet many people overlook it. And then it comes back to bite them.

Many have likened the co-founder relationship to a marriage, with all the time spent together, the pressures, the importance, and more. Too often, it devolves into blaming and mistrust. And sometimes into a painful divorce (and one that can destroy the venture).

“The moment of truth is when you ask, ‘Are these the people I want to be in trouble with for the next five, ten, fifteen years of my life?’ Because as you build a new business, one thing’s for sure: You’ll get into trouble.”John Doerr, Kleiner Perkins

How to Pick Co-Founders

In his article, “How to Pick a Co-founder,” entrepreneur Michael Fertik outlines ten helpful criteria for choosing a co-founder:

  1. Complementary temperament
  2. Different operational skills
  3. Similar work habits
  4. Self-sufficiency
  5. History of working together
  6. Emotional buoyancy
  7. Total honesty
  8. Comfort in own skin
  9. A personality you like
  10. The same overall vision

That’s a great list, and I’d underline a few—history of working together, emotional buoyancy, total honesty, and comfort in own skin—as being especially important.

 

What to Probe For

I’d also add eight things to probe for when considering someone as a potential co-founder:

1. Integrity. Fertik mentions total honesty, but integrity goes beyond that. It includes a strong moral compass, a commitment to ethical decisions and actions (”doing the right thing, even when it’s costly or hard,” as we defined it in Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations), and the sense of wholeness that comes from knowing who you are, embracing that, and not living a divided life. 

2. Affinity. Do you like her? Are you energized by her, or drained? Do you resonate with her?

3. Admiration. Is this a person you look up to, at least in some ways? Someone who can bring out the best in you and help make you better?

4. Culture. Do you agree on the type of organizational culture you’d like to build? Have you talked about it, and are you in sync about this critical piece (one that many startups overlook, at their peril)?

5. Commitment. Given the level of risk you’ll be taking on together with a new venture in brutal conditions of time pressure, resource constraints, uncertainty, and chaos, are you certain that this person is fully committed to this venture? And do you have evidence of this in their actions and investments, not just their words?

6. Emotional intelligence. Can he recognize and understand emotions in himself and others? And can he use that awareness effectively to manage his relationships and actions? Does he have emotional blind spots or triggers that get the best of him?

7. Different experience and outlook. You don’t need a clone. You need someone who comes from a different vantage point, with a different background, and with a different viewpoint on things. This will cause some confusion and conflict, but if you can manage through it you’ll end up making much better decisions in the long run.

8. Head and heart.” In Triple Crown Leadership we noted that most people tend to focus on “head” characteristics (like knowledge, skills, technical competence, and intelligence) when evaluating people, while ignoring “heart” characteristics (like courage, passion, resilience, and authenticity). The latter can be just as important, and sometimes even more so—especially when you’re under fire together.

“My biggest mistake is probably weighing too much on someone’s talent and not someone’s personality. I think it matters whether someone has a good heart…. Starting and growing a business is as much about the innovation, drive, and determination of the people behind it as the product they sell.”Elon Musk

 

Helpful Assessments

It can be hard to know a lot about someone before working closely with them over time. Sometimes assessments can provide more information as you explore complementarity and fit. Some examples:

Of course, assessments have their limitations.

The best way to vet this is to work with someone intensively under challenging conditions. Then you can really get a sense of how well you work together, your trust levels, and how well you work through challenges and conflict.

Bottom line: Look before you leap, and choose wisely. You’ll be very glad you did.

 

Reflection Questions

  • How much scrutiny do you use in assessing co-founders?
  • What’s your process, and how might it be improved?
  • What are you looking for?

 

Articles on Co-Founders

Videos on Co-Founders

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Power of Empathy in Leadership

These days, we ask much of our leaders. Organizations and governments are under great pressures to perform, and these days leaders are responsible for crisis management during a pandemic with its attendant economic destruction and social and emotional anxiety.

More and more we are realizing that empathy is a powerful aspect of leading well.

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from their frame of reference (i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another person’s position).

 

Different Types of Empathy

Researchers have identified several types of empathy:

  • Cognitive empathy is the capacity to understand someone’s mental state.
  • Emotional empathy is the capacity to respond with an appropriate emotion to another’s mental states, including a concern for others when they are suffering.
  • Somatic empathy is a physical reaction in our nervous system that entails physically feeling someone else’s pain (e.g., getting a sense of physical pain when you see someone else get hurt).

According to the research, when managers exhibit the most empathy toward their team, they are viewed as better performers. What’s more, when we exhibit empathy as leaders, we build trust with others because they see that we are paying attention to them and recognizing their issues and concerns.

When we empathize, we relate to and connect with people, and that contributes toward building a sense of teamwork and camaraderie.

According to Roman Krznaric in Empathy: Why It Matters and How to Get It, empathy “is not just about seeing things from another’s perspective. It’s the cornerstone of smart leadership. The real competitive advantage of the human worker will be their capacity to create relationships….”

 

Empathy and Leadership

Great leaders focus not just on vision and execution but also on building healthy and close relationships with people they work with.

Empathy shows up in several modern leadership frameworks. For example, it is one of the ten characteristics of a servant leader and one of the components of emotional intelligence (and its social awareness aspect).

In our “triple crown leadership” model for how to build excellent, ethical, and enduring organizations, it shows up in our “head and heart” practice, with leaders hiring, developing, and rewarding people not just for “head” skills like knowledge and skills but also for “heart” factors, including empathy.

What’s more, we can view leadership as a quest (e.g., to achieve a higher purpose). But as entrepreneur and author Jim Rohn notes, “As a leader, you should always start with where people are before you try to take them where you want them to go.”

Recently, we’ve seen troubling examples of narcissism in leaders, including an excessive need for admiration as well as a disregard for others’ feelings, interests, or safety.

That’s a real shame, because it keeps the focus on the leader as opposed to the larger purpose and the people in the organization and those they serve.

The best leaders leverage empathy to understand their customers much more deeply and thus lead their teams in creating products and services that solve real problems—and in seeing opportunities for innovation that others miss.

Empathy is an essential aspect of effective leadership and a powerful human trait that binds us together in the ups and downs of life and work.

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!