Choosing a co-founder is one of the important decisions you’ll make as a founder. How do you identify and choose the right person? Hundreds of online articles provide tips for locating qualified people, from leveraging your network to applying formal recruiting techniques. We talked with leading entrepreneurs, including the founder of AlleyCorp and the co-founders of Tinder, Flatiron School, and NOW Corporation. Each shared what they learned in their search for great co-founders. After evaluating various sources, we devised a framework to help you evaluate potential co-founders.
4 Crucial Questions to Consider When Choosing a Co-Founder
- Is this person obsessed with solving the problem?
- Can this person embody the culture I want to create?
- Will this person attract and retain talent?
- How does this person present to investors?
Unlike conventional approaches, which emphasize the importance of finding someone with complementary skills, these questions help you reframe your search by forcing you to evaluate skills within the context of a co-founder’s larger role. Seeking the answers to these questions can help you assess potential candidates in a more active, dynamic way.
Is This Person Obsessed with Solving the Problem?
“Make every single moment count.” Tinder‘s motto could serve as a guidepost when you’re choosing a co-founder. When Dinesh Moorjani co-founded Tinder, one of the world’s most popular online dating sites, what traits did he look for in his business partners? He agrees that co-founders should possess essential skills. But he identifies two equally important traits: curiosity and passion for the problem.
Does This Person Have Relentless Curiosity?
I’m looking for the art and the science. The art is this indescribable obsession boarding on unhealthy—but not unhealthy—where the person is compelled to solve this problem.
How can you determine if someone possesses perpetual curiosity and passion? He recommends meeting with potential co-founders on several occasions. Each time, search for evidence that the person has grappled with the problem and feels compelled to solve the problem beyond the confines of your meetings.
Does This Person Share My Passion?
Serial entrepreneur and investor, Adam Enbar, agrees that passion for the problem is a prime consideration when choosing a co-founder because shared passion helps enable you to scale. Enbar co-founded the Flatiron School because he felt passionate about developing an alternative model for higher education. The school provides students with intense hands-on coding experience. Instead of amassing years of student debt and struggling to find a job after graduation, Flatiron grads secure good-paying jobs in tech.
Enbar’s company isn’t the only coding boot camp or alternative to higher education. But Flatiron continues to grow and flourish. The school’s success results from his co-founder’s deep passion for coding and Enbar’s deep determination to solve a problem the plagues higher education—how to deliver relevant learning that aligns with industry needs.
Be Alert for Shared Passion
When he first had the idea for Flatiron School, Enbar, “couldn’t find anybody doing anything interesting in education.” Then he met Avi Flombaum, a self-taught computer programmer. Flombaum was informally teaching people computer skills because he felt deeply passionate about helping them learn useful skills that would lead to employment. And people who learned from Flombaum began getting jobs at well-known companies. Enbar remembers, “It blew my mind. It solved so many problems.” He tried to convince Flombaum to open a school and offered to invest in it. At first, “he thought I was crazy.” But passion drove Enbar to persist. When he vowed to Flombaum, “I will quit my job and do it with you,” the partnership began.
There’s a real reason I’m connected to this and there’s a real reason this moves me. Most companies have founding stories of a similar flavor. That passion is one of the things that VC’s look for.
Does This Person Offer a Different Perspective on the Problem?
Similarly, when searching for a partner to co-found her ventures, Lara Hodgson discovered that having passion for the problem matters immensely. Hodgson, the co-founder, CEO, and President of NOW Corporation, a rapidly growing B2B payments company, reflects, “you’re more effective if your passion is in the problem you’re solving than in what you’re doing.” When your passion comes from a belief that you have the right solution, you run the risk of becoming ego-driven and not seeing other valuable insights.
But when you’re driven by a passion for the problem, “then you’re constantly reevaluating it.” And, she continues, “it’s important for both partners to have a passion for the impact, for the solution, for what they’re trying to achieve.”
You are more effective if your passion is in the problem you’re solving than in what you’re doing. Because if you’re both driven by solving a problem, then you’re constantly reevaluating it which is really important.
Ideally, your partner’s passion will complement your own, as Hodgson’s experience co-founding NOW Corporation demonstrates. Both she and her co-founder, Stacey Abrams, with whom she launched Nourish—another successful startup—in 2009, were determined to solve a problem they’d encountered in accounts receivables.
They both approached the challenge from the small business owner’s perspective. But Hodgson learned that your partner should “expand your view horizon.” Most people approach a problem from one side, as she and her initial co-founder did. She elaborates, “at best, we have a 180-degree view of the problem.”
Because Hodgson and Abrams felt passionate about the problem, not the solution they envisioned, they sought out different perspectives. They found a third co-founder who “had spent the last eight years trying to solve the problem from the other side.” Hodgson credits NOW Corporation’s impressive eight-year growth with the founding team’s diversified passion.
Find a partner who, through their life experiences, can view the problem from a place larger than your 180-degree view of the problem. That’s the best of both worlds.
Passion-Related Questions When Choosing a Co-Founder
- Does this person generate energy around the topic?
- Is this person truly engaged with the core problem and constantly thinking about potential solutions?
- Do I walk away from conversations with the person feeling invigorated?
Can This Person Embody the Culture I Want to Create?
People often focus on the hard skills they want their co-founder to possess. But soft skills become critically important in the long term. A solo founder is responsible for defining a mission, creating a cohesive culture, and modeling values. When you add a co-founder, that person visibly represents your company, both internally and externally.
Do I Have Chemistry with This Person?
Moorjani cautions not to underestimate founder chemistry and equates the co-founder relationship with marriage. It’s imperative, he emphasizes, that you choose someone with whom you’re compatible—who believes in the culture and values you want to establish. Many “startups never get off the ground because there is an altercation among co-founders,” he observes, equating startup with marriage.
Is This Person Compatible with Me?
When choosing a business partner—much like a romantic one—he stresses the importance of assessing long-term compatibility using emotional intelligence (EQ). “You can pick up on the EQ signals but I think you need to put them in a pressure cooker to really know how they’re going to perform” alongside you and on your team during difficult times.
You’re often spending more time with a co-founder than you are with a spouse or partner. If you’ve been with your co-founder 12 to 15 hours and you’re going to end up having a late dinner, do you want to tear your hair out? Are you looking forward to the conversation?
Is This Person Authentic?
Culture provides the backbone of your company, motivating staff during challenging times. Magnus Olsson, co-founder of Careem, a billion-dollar car-hailing service in the Middle East, ranks culture as the defining aspect of Careem. Like Moorjani, Olsson notes, “the most important thing is that co-founders are congruent and authentic.”
Because the stakes are so high, experts advise that you find a way to test whether a potential co-founder will embody the culture you want to create. Moorjani points out that a person may be cooperative and cheerfully espouse your values for a few hours. But how will he or she react when confronted with a grueling challenge requiring an 18-hour stint?
Values-Related Questions When Choosing a Co-Founder
- Is this someone who genuinely believes in our company values?
- Will this person model our culture, even under the worst of circumstances?
- What behavior about this person leads me to believe that?
Will This Person Attract and Retain Talent?
In addition to having expertise and a passion for problem-solving, a good co-founder adds value by helping you to build a dedicated and talented team. When choosing a co-founder, select a person who draws talent like a magnet.
Does This Person Have Charisma?
When hiring co-founders for his companies including Gilt Groupe, Business Insider, and Mongo DB, serial entrepreneur Kevin Ryan weighted the ability to attract talent and the ability not just to lead, but to inspire others.
“It is brutally competitive to hire people. Everyone has choices. People are drawn to work because they believe in the idea and the person. It needs to be someone that people respect and want to work for.”
Often, when choosing a technical co-founder, it can be tempting to downplay this aspect. But Ryan also points out that co-founders “have to have those generic leadership skills that are going to attract other people.”
Will This Person’s Personality Attract Others?
Similarly, Moorjani noted that he searched for someone who, like “a gravity well,” could draw additional talent. He advises that co-founders need both gravitas and chemistry to create a team to build a startup with high velocity. At the same time, he stresses that personality matters.
“Someone with a phenomenal resume or great pedigree may be a very difficult person to work with on a team. And if the team can’t function, then you don’t have a business.”
Personal Leadership Ability Questions When Choosing a Co-Founder
- Do people want to work for this person?
- What kind of track record do they have?
How Does This Person Present to Investors?
Your choice of co-founder becomes especially important if you’re seeking venture capital but can’t yet demonstrate traction. Because solo founders take 3.6 times as long to scale as two-person founding teams, venture capitalists look favorably on startups with dual founders. Having a co-founder is reassuring to many investors as it signals greater commitment. It demonstrates that there is another person invested in weathering the inevitable storms, because they have an equal stake in the business.
Does This Person Have an Array of Soft Skills?
To impress investors, look for co-founders who can communicate with confidence and humility and consider the person’s connections and reputation. Choosing a co-founder with different expertise demonstrates a broader array of knowledge that might further de-risk your venture in the eyes of investors. For instance, if you’re an engineer with a vision, you might seek a co-founder who has a knack for raising money and building relationships. Moorjani clarifies, “you’re really looking for people who complement the skills you bring to the table.”
“The goal is not to replicate skills rather than to diversify skills specifically aligned with the biggest risk areas or core competencies you need for that company to be successful.”
Interested in learning more about co-founder relationships? Whether you want to hear the perspective of a solo founder, or seek tips on drafting a founders’ agreement or are deciding how to split founder equity, our series on Founding Teams can help.
We scoured hundreds of articles and talked with experts about their experiences and common mistakes founders make when choosing a co-founder. We recommend the following.
- In the “3 Biggest Mistakes When Choosing a Cofounder,” Jessica Alter, co-founder of FounderDating, discusses 3 aspects to choosing a co-founder: need, approach, and timing. She advises co-founders not to pitch a polished idea to potential partners but instead invite them to contribute. Most people “don’t just want to work on an idea, they want to be a part of something bigger.” In terms of timing, she recommends finding a cofounder as soon as possible—“Finding your partner should not be the last thing you do, it should be the first thing you do.”
- In “Looking for Love in All The Wrong Places – How to Find a Co-founder,” serial entrepreneur Steve Blank suggests simulating an environment to test potential co-founders. Host a hackathon and use the time to assess the person’s soft skills, like conflict resolution. “You want someone who exhibits intense focus in chaotic situations, keen decision-making skills when faced with little data, relentlessness, agility, and curiosity.”
Finding a Technical Co-Founder
- In “How I Found a Great CTO,” Miriam Naficy, founder of Minted.com, offers strategies on finding a technical co-founder: 1) find a well-networked, experienced engineer to make introductions. 2) “Embed yourself in the world of engineers to understand what person you’re looking for and how to talk to the person once you find her. Do it yourself and don’t delegate it.” 3) As you interview, your idea of the perfect type of person may change. Naficy shares that “chemistry with our team and have a deep passion” became increasingly important as she searched for a CTO.
- In “Why you can’t find a technical co-founder,” Elizabeth Yin, Co-founder and General Partner at Hustle Fund, advises “if you’re looking for a technical founder, the number one thing you should be doing is to get traction for your startup idea.” “Having traction on that idea will make it a world easier to find technical talent.” Yin surveyed 104 tech leaders to learn their criteria for co-founding a company with a non-tech co-founder. Contrary to popular opinion, her most surprising discoveries include that 1) location was not a barrier for most technical leads. 2) idea valuation was extremely important. And 3) having a pre-existing relationship with non-technical founder was not important.
Finding a Non-Technical Co-Founder
- In “A Tech Founder’s Guide To Picking A Non-Tech Founder,” Jessica Alter provides basic tips on the most qualities a non-technical co-founder should possess. Her recommendation: start a side-project with your potential co-founder as it’s easier to assess someone while you’re working on something real together.