At least once a week somebody asks me, “How do I find a co-founder for my startup”? Sometimes it’s because the startup journey is long and lonely as a solo founder and it can help to share the burden of changing the world. Sometimes it’s because a founder lacks skills in a specialist area, like marketing or software development. Sometimes (but rarely, unfortunately) it’s because a founder is self-aware enough to recognise they lack the temperament for being the CEO, leading sales, or managing a team.
Creating demand is better than finding supply
When it comes to business partnerships, creating demand is better than trying to find a partner. So the best way to find a co-founder is to make it easier for a co-founder to find you. In other words, get started, do great things, communicate about those great things, and people will be attracted to all the awesome you’re putting out there in the world.
Start a personal Twitter account. Refer to your startup in the Twitter bio so people know what you’re working on. Now start talking openly and honestly about the problem you’re solving, the customer you hope to solve it for, and the questions you have yet to find answers for.
If you need a longer form to communicate, start a Medium blog and tweet excerpts and links. Don’t clutter your Twitter feed with anodyne inspirational quotes on stock photo backgrounds because you’ll be the billionth person doing it and nobody useful to you will care.
Don’t follow people just because they’re followed by lots of people. Use Twitter search to find the people with the skills, experience and motivation to help you. Don’t setup a Twitter bot to direct message them and ask them to follow your blog and connect to you on LinkedIn because building a social brand has never been a game of “who has the most followers”. Let them gradually become aware of your awesomeness at their own in pace, for their own reasons.
Once you’ve got an archive of insightful thoughts on a particular topic, find a news outlet like Startup Daily or StartupSmart which might accept your next blog post as an ‘op ed‘. Do that a few times and then approach a conference organiser, coworking space, incubator or General Assembly about doing a talk or workshop on that topic.
A left field idea: be the co-founder
You may be convinced your idea-stage startup will change the world, but every startup has a right time and place, and sometimes you’re better off if you keep that startup idea in your back pocket for later. If you’ve been trying to find a co-founder for more than, say, a year, there’s a good chance that the ecosystem is sending you a message: now is not the right time or place for your idea.
How do you make progress, develop your startup skills and keep building your track record? Well, consider this: how about becoming somebody else’s co-founder? I love observing the reactions I get to this question. Sometimes, the person I suggest it to physically backs away from the words as I say them, leaning back in their chair, tensing their arms and shoulders, beginning to shake their heads, about to tell me that there’s something fundamental about them which means they must always be the founder and CEO, that they wouldn’t be happy working as a co-founder on somebody else’s startup.
Really? Then ask yourself this: are you really looking for a co-founder? Because if you can’t be a co-founder yourself, you’re not ready to have a co-founder. Co-founders share the risks, the rewards, and most importantly, the strategic directions and tough decisions. If you can’t imagine sharing all of that in your startup, you don’t need a co-founder. What you need (but probably don’t want to pay for) is an employee, contractor or outsourced service provider. Don’t mislead yourself and somebody else by selling them on being your co-founder when really you want to make all the big decisions yourself.
The economics of being a co-founder vs finding a co-founder
The startup industry has too many CEOs and not enough cofounders; too many people investing too much time and emotional energy in convincing themselves they’ve been chosen by the universe to become the next figurehead of the innovation economy. But economics tells us when demand exceeds supply, value goes up.
So why be an undervalued CEO when CEOs grow on trees and cofounders are in short supply? Aim to be a great cofounder yourself and satisfy the market demand.
Don’t rush in to this because you can’t rush out
Entering a co-founder relationship is no less significant to the outcomes of the rest of your life than choosing a marriage partner, and sometimes much more difficult to exit from, so you should not take any shortcuts, and you should ‘date’ for as long as possible to make sure you and your potential cofounder have a great working relationship and respect for each other’s skills.
You can ‘date’ a potential co-founder by employing them as a contractor or employee for a period of time. Allow them regular opportunities to step up and contribute to the big strategic questions, accept responsibility for critical functions, and do the difficult and time-consuming things co-founders can be expected to do.
Make sure you negotiate a co-founder vesting schedule upfront so that you’re not left trying to buy out somebody’s full share of the company when they don’t want to leave, or when they don’t agree with your valuation of their equity.
Here’s a great article on what founder vesting is all about and Sam Wong from Blackbird makes some great recommendations on how to do the right thing by your cofounder, your investors and yourself here.
In summary, the best way to find a co-founder is to make it easier for the right co-founder to find you. The next-best way is to be the co-founder yourself, and if you can’t imagine being somebody else’s co-founder, you’re actually not ready to have one.