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 Incredible Benefits of Being Action-Oriented

One of the greatest assets we can build in our lives is an action orientation. No great things are possible without action. Are you action-oriented?

Dreams and visions are good, but worthless without action. Plans may impress, but they lose all value if not acted upon. Opportunities fade if we don’t seize them soon enough.

If we want a good life with good work, we must get good at taking action—and putting ourselves in a position to be able to do so. Too often, we hesitate. We wait to long before acting, as we try to line things up perfectly. A costly mistake.

“Action is the foundational key to all success.” -Pablo Picasso

 

The Incredible Benefits of Being Action-Oriented

There are many benefits of being action-oriented, and their effects accumulate and compound over time. Here are 14 of the top benefits:

1. Being action-oriented builds our confidence.

When we’re out in the world making things happen, we naturally begin to trust ourselves more. We develop self-assurance, which becomes increasingly valuable for future scenarios.

“Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.” -Dale Carnegie

2. It helps develop our courage.

The process of taking action and dealing with the consequences shows us that we can overcome fear and survive challenges, often becoming stronger in the process. Courage is one of the most important qualities we can develop, because most great things in life are impossible without it.

“Often the difference between a successful man and a failure is not one’s better abilities or ideas, but the courage that one has to bet on his ideas, to take a calculated risk—and to act.” -Maxwell Maltz, surgeon and author

3. Being action-oriented helps us avoid the cost of regret for not trying.

Most people have regrets. Some of the most common ones are about the things we wished we had tried: the new ventures we dreamed of starting, the new relationships we wished we pursued, the places we longed to visit.

“The price of inaction is far greater than the cost of making a mistake.” -Meister Eckhart, German mystic

4. It comes with a learning premium.

We develop knowledge and insights from trying things and seeing how they go. Learning is one of the best investments we can make. It pays rich dividends.

5. Being action-oriented changes our self-identity.

Suddenly, we think of ourselves as doers. As people with power, potential, and agency. We become the kind of people who act when others are watching or waiting.

6. We learn about ourselves when we take action.

It reveals our character and our tendencies. Our doubts and fears. It gives us a glimpse of our resourcefulness and persistence—and the things we need to work on to get better.

“Self-knowledge is best learned, not by contemplation, but by action. Strive to do your duty and you will soon discover of what stuff you are made.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, German poet, scientist, and statesman

7. Being action-oriented expands our sense of possibility.

Entrepreneur Steve Jobs spoke about this in an interview—about how everything changed for him when he learned to stop accepting life as it is and start poking and pushing it instead (and, in his case, start building things). When he realized that things around him were made by people who weren’t smarter than he was, he felt excited about improving his life and putting a “dent in the universe.”

8. Being action-oriented builds momentum.

Things start to click, almost moving of their own accord once we’ve done the heaviest lift of beginning. Things pick up speed and start bouncing around. The game is afoot.

“The path to success is to take massive, determined action.” -Tony Robbins, author

9. It positions us as a doer and leader—and people respond to that.

The best leaders and entrepreneurs are doers, with a strong bias toward action. People respect us for trying, for starting, for daring. They respect us for getting things done—and for being the kind of person to jump into the fray. It inspires them to start doing so as well.

“The world has the habit of making room for the man whose actions show that he knows where he is going.” -Napolean Hill, author

10. Being action-oriented yields better results over time and increases our probability of success.

We get better results in part because we get more attempts. (There’s simple math at work here.) Also, we learn what works and what doesn’t, and we develop experience, confidence, and resilience.

“You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.” -Wayne Gretzky, legendary hockey player

11. Being action-oriented invites serendipity.

When we take action, we start making unintended or unexpected but fortunate discoveries.

When we’re taking purposeful action and following our bliss, as Joseph Campbell advises, we start meeting people who can help us, and doors open for us, almost like magic.

12. It’s more fun to be in the game than on the sidelines.

Do we want to watch others play, or be the ones in the maelstrom facing challenges and having a chance to prevail?

13. Being action-oriented gives us more chances at breakthroughs.

Windows of opportunity are only open for so long. Without taking action consistently, even when we don’t feel fully ready, we’re prone to missing big chances, including opportunities for breakthroughs.

14. Since there’s no such thing as a perfect time or “the right time,” we might as well get started.

What’s the point in waiting? Where does that get us? How many times will we sit and watch opportunities pass us by?

“Do not wait; the time will never be ‘just right.’ Start where you stand, and work with whatever tools you may have at your command, and better tools will be found as you go along.” -Napolean Hill

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

What It Takes to Be Action-Oriented

Clearly, there are many powerful benefits to being action-oriented. It changes our trajectory and prospects.

But it’s not easy. It requires at least five big things from us:

1. Being action-oriented requires motivation.

We must summon our drive to achieve, and our desire for a better future. We must get off the couch and get to work.

2. It requires courage.

It requires a willingness to act in spite of our fears. A willingness to go for it, despite the risks.

3. Being action-oriented requires a willingness to pounce when opportunities arise.

We must be willing to strike, even when the picture isn’t fully clear. This requires tapping into our warrior spirit.

“All of us, whether or not we are warriors, have a cubic centimeter of chance that pops out in front of our eyes from time to time. The difference between an average man and a warrior is that the warrior is aware of this, and one of his tasks is to be alert, deliberately waiting, so that when his cubic centimeter pops out he has the necessary speed, the prowess, to pick it up.” -Carlos Castaneda in Journey to Ixtlan

4. It helps to have a growth mindset.

A growth mindset is a belief that our intelligence, abilities, and talents can be developed. By contrast, if we have a fixed mindset, we’ll be preoccupied with the prospect of looking bad or being wrong, without realizing that it doesn’t matter as much as we may think because we can always learn and develop.

5. It helps to be clear about what we want and where we’re heading.

Action is must better when it’s pulled from a powerful vision of success, a motivating dream of a desired future, as opposed to being pushed from a troubled situation we seek to flee.

 

Warrior and Sage

Of course, being action-oriented isn’t the only thing we need to succeed. We need discernment and insight. Experience and wisdom.

We’re better off when we iterate between action and reflection, when we flex between being warrior and sage. We’re better off when we take action, then learn and adjust. But too often, people get stuck in thought and doubt when what they really should be doing is getting started.

 

Reflection Questions

 

What are you waiting for?

 

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Postscript: Quotations on Being Action-Oriented

  • “Those who say it cannot be done should not interrupt the people doing it.” -Chinese proverb
  • “Successful people start before they’re ready.” –James Clear, author
  • “Do not wait till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.” -William B. Sprague
  • “I think the number one advice I can give is: you just have to start it. Just get your feet in the water and do it. I learned a lot from just trying it out.” -Yoshikazu Tanaka, Japanese entrepreneur
  • “I said to myself, You know what? This is the wrong time to do it, but there is never a perfect time. We have the right idea, and I’ve got to try.” –Seth Goldman, social entrepreneur, when thinking about launching Honest Tea

 

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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 (a winner of the International Book Awards). 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!

Founder-Venture Fit for Entrepreneurs

With startups, many people focus on what entrepreneur and investor Marc Andreessen calls “product/market fit”: “being in a good market with a product that can satisfy that market.” It’s a great point, and too many ventures fail or founder because they never find it.

But not nearly enough attention is paid to what I call “founder-venture fit”: when the venture matches well with the founder’s (or co-founders’) knowledge, strengths, passions, and values. Some have written about similar ideas—“founder-market fit” or “founder fit”—but too many aspiring entrepreneurs miss this critical point.

Serial entrepreneur and investor Brad Feld wrote: “I’ve come to believe that—especially among first time entrepreneurs—founder market fit is much more important than product market fit at the inception of the company.”

 

Examples of Founder-Venture Fit

When we survey the startup landscape, we see founder/venture fit in spades:

We see it with Elon Musk, who grew up fascinated by technology and physics, learned to think deeply about “first principles,” and became unsettled by dark scenarios about the planet’s future without bold action, big bets, and breathtaking innovation. Looking back, he said, “I really was thinking about this stuff in college…. I like to make technologies real that I think are important for the future and useful in some sort of way.”

We see it at Spotify, where co-founder Daniel Ek combined his two passions growing up (music and technology).

We see it with Oprah Winfrey, who found a brilliant and personal way to “Turn your wounds into wisdom,” as she says.

We see it with Virgin’s Richard Branson, who exudes personality and fun in all his endeavors.

We see it at GoPro with founder Nick Woodman’s love of adventure and entertainment: “It comes down to how much authentic passion you have for something.”

We see it at Patagonia with Yvon Chouinard’s background in rock climbing and environmentalism. At Patagonia, they “use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

Thinking back about his early days with Paul Allen at Microsoft, Bill Gates mused, “We just loved writing software.”

So what are we to make of this? Tech entrepreneur and investor Chris Dixon notes that “founder/market fit can be developed through experience: No one is born with knowledge of the education market, online advertising, or clean energy technologies. You can learn about these markets by building test projects, working at relevant companies, or simply doing extensive research.”

He adds this important note as well: “founders should realize that a startup is an endeavor that generally lasts many years. You should fit your market not only because you understand it, but because you love it — and will continue to love it as your product and market change over time.”

And how do we gauge whether we (or others) have it? James Currier from NFX, a seed-stage venture firm, identified4 Signs of Founder-Venture Fit”:

  1. Obsession: he counsels founders, “don’t start a company unless you can’t not do it… unless you can’t sleep at night and your brain is exploding with the idea.”
  2. Founder Story: a compelling “why” inside the founder that resonates with the venture’s target customers.
  3. Personality: a nature and set of interests that resonates with peers and customers.
  4. Experience: knowledge and experience can surely help, but he notes that “too much experience is not always a good thing. Certainly, we do look for founders who have enough industry experience that they understand the market. But not so much experience that they don’t have any disruption left in them…. Too much knowledge is a blocker to innovation.”

Too many aspiring entrepreneurs want to be founders for reasons that may not serve them well or stand the test of time—reasons like a desire for recognition or fame.

Entrepreneurship isn’t for the faint of heart. For many, it will require an obscene amount of commitment, persistence, and resilience—the kinds that usually flow from a true sense of purpose, calling, and conviction. Do you burn for this idea, for this cause, for this opportunity to generate value and have impact?

The entrepreneurial path is both exhilarating and exasperating. You’re wise to find a great founder-venture fit at the outset.

 

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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!