Dear Advisor: How do I Find a Cofounder? (or) Why you Don't Need One
As a solopreneur, I can only imagine how rewarding, yet occasionally stressful, it is to run your own business that’s expected/experiencing growth – and you’re looking for more support. You keep hearing from start-up communities – and maybe even from investors – that you need a co-founder. Where do you even start?
I’m no stranger to opinionated blog posts (such as Biggest AI/ML mistakes made by startups and What should (not) be your AI roadmap? (or) Why You Don't Need AI in your SaaS MVP), so bear with me :)
When founders ask me this question, they’re often surprised to hear me say that – if you haven’t started a company with someone already, then I actually don’t recommend looking for a cofounder now. Here’s why.
Part 1: Understand your "Why": Why are you looking for a cofounder – and not an advisor, or a consultant?
The typical answer I hear (especially from non-technical founders) about this, is: there’s no funding, but I need to develop an app. Since we need an app, the only way I can bring-on a technical person to develop this app for us, is to have them be compensated in equity.
Let me stop you right there – do you actually need an app? :) Or will an interactive wireframe work just as well for what you’re looking for? If that’s the case, no cofounder is needed – and you can create an interactive wireframe yourself, and get in front of customers for feedback.
As a side effect, you’ll be able to modify this wireframe yourself to better reflect how you solve your customers’ pain point(s) based on their feedback from your demos. And – once there’s interest from your customers, you’ll be able to share this wireframe as you interview and hire the technical team/consultant/agency/etc. to make a prototype of the app a reality – and be on the same page about what you’re trying to achieve and what it should look like.
Another way to think about whether or not you need a cofounder is: will this person help you execute on your idea, or (as Gary Livingston puts it) "expand on it" – and make it a joint effort? I probably don’t have to tell you that if it’s the former, you don’t need a cofounder. :)
Part 2: Understand Compatibility: Do you trust this person to have your back during tough times?
You may have heard that finding a great cofounder is like finding a partner in marriage. Potentially there’s a handful of great partners out there for you, but that’s before filtering out prospective partners based on expertise and complementary skills you’re looking for in a cofounder.
Speaking of, what gaps are you trying to fill in your expertise, product offering and start-up trajectory by bringing on a cofounder?
Whomever you’re considering, consider if they’ll be there for the long haul, through thick and thin. When you interview them, can they share a time (or two) when they’ve done just that in the past?
Part 3: Understand Cofounder Compensation
There are many resources out there on how to think about and structure cofounder compensation; here are some of my favorites:
Why 50/50 partnerships are lazy and the expensive lessons learned from a toxic business partnership, by Cathryn Lavery
Consider starting with "Contributor Credits: A new way to compensate contributors to early stage projects", before discussing promoting them to be a cofounder
Advice and resources for handling equity and "cliff" for part-time cofounders:
Eman Aboulatta’s advice on "How I Split Equity With My Part-time Cofounders"
Gary Livingston’s advice is to try "Slicing Pie" (no affiliation)
Having said all of this, we’re all entitled to our own opinions :) If you still think you need a cofounder, here are some resources for you.
Part 4: Where to Find a Cofounder
There are many resources out there for platforms and events to help you meet potential cofounders. I’ve even gotten cold outreach through LinkedIn, asking me to be a cofounder, even though I’m not looking to do so!
(Free) Start-up events and communities, such as: 805 start-ups (where I’m a mentor), CoFoundersLab (where I’m an advisor)
(Fee-based) Platforms: The Fourth Floor’s “Asks” (no affiliation)
My biggest recommendation is to find (virtual/hybrid/in-person) start-up events/communities that you enjoy attending regularly, and keep showing up! You’ll see a handful of the same people each time (!), and be able to build relationships; down the line, you may potentially find a promising collaborator or mentor.
Part 5: Interviewing Potential CoFounders
Say you’ve found a potential cofounder, here are a number of ways to learn more about then to see if there’s an opportunity to collaborate:
Remember in how we talked about understanding you 'why', how to evaluate compatibility, and evaluate whether they’ll help you fill expertise/skillset gaps (above), I highly recommend asking behavioral questions around these topics to help you evaluate potential fit.
In additional, I recommend reviewing advice from First Round Review on attributes to look for in a cofounder – and see if you can frame behavioral questions around those attributes as well
Can you tell I typically ask a lot of questions to help me understand something? :) Here are 50 more from (another article of) First Round Review to ask of a potential cofounder
Since company culture starts from the top, listen for: how open they are to feedback, to an alternate point-of-view, or (as Sophia Matveeva puts it), to how comfortable they are in saying "I don’t know".
Remember to lean on your network (which includes your accelerator cohort, mentors and advisors) to help interview top candidates, especially if you're a non-technical cofounder looking for a technical founder.
If you bring on a cofounder, you’ll be working very closely together for the next 5-10+ years. Do you respect and trust this person to be on this journey with you, to be there for you?
Watch for red flags, from potential cofounders – and even investors. You’re looking for a partner from both.
I hope this advice helps you think about, evaluate or potentially find the right cofounder for you! Good luck on your journey!
You may also like:
Aligning Product, Technology and AI: Advice from Due Diligence
Lessons learned from other cofounders around worst things they've done
More advice on How to Pick a Co-Founder, by Alex Iskold