Should you go solo when you launch your new business? Or do you need a co-founder to help start things?
Getting a new business off the ground can challenge even the most creative minds. When your business is still embryonic, you might think you have everything lined up in preparation for growth. But once you start onboarding new clients, looking for funding, hiring a team, and dealing with customers, you can quickly discover that all entrepreneurs face fresh difficulties every day.
That’s why many first-time business owners forge into entrepreneurship with a partner– they want to have help on hand when problems arise. Some founders rely on a spouse, sibling, close friend, or college buddy to help kick things off. Others aren’t so sure about the partnership model, though. You have to split your profits with a partner, share a common vision, and agree on big decisions.
Is a partnership worth it? How do you know if your new business needs a co-founder? What do you do if you don’t have a business partner to work with? Can you just hang out an ad for a co-founder and forge a reasonable partnership that way?
Do You Need a Co-Founder? (Cause Not Everybody Does)
Not every founder needs a partner. In fact, a study from Crunchbase shows that the average entrepreneurial enterprise with a profitable exit had 1.78 founders. Thus, slightly more than half of the businesses that made it big did so as solo ventures. Jeff Bezos started Amazon on his own, after all, and no one has made it bigger than Bezos. But the founders of many other top companies such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and Twitter all had partners.
If you want to tread the waters of entrepreneurship on your own, that could be a good idea. In fact, some businesses, including content marketing startups, artisanal shops, tutoring businesses, and design companies, often do well with a single founder.
Larger enterprises probably need two parents, though. Co-founders at these organizations can help make tough calls, shoulder the financial burden, provide accountability, and engage with new ideas. By leveraging entirely different but complementary skill sets, two or more founders can improve their new company’s chances of success. Try to imagine Ben without Jerry, Proctor without Gamble, or Jobs without Wozniak. Hard to do, right? These well-known co-founders meshed their skills and networks together so well that their identities have largely merged in the popular imagination.
What about you? Do you need a co-founder? Consider these possibilities:
If you’ve read those possibilities and realize now that you need a co-founder to help you start a business, what do you do if you can’t find one?
You can hire one. Seriously.
How to Hire Your Own Co-Founder
Hiring a co-founder involves making monumental decisions. For a new business owner, the whole process can seem a lot like getting married. Just as you wouldn’t rush into a lifelong relationship, for example, you shouldn’t rush into a business partnership. Take the time to get to know the person well before signing your life away on the dotted line.
How do you know when the “right one” shows up, though? Here again, consider the parallels to your personal life. In the U.S., most people date around. Through that process, they learn what kind of person works for them as they meet and get to know new people. When someone seems right, they take a chance on a long term relationship. As that relationship deepens, the couple might consider marriage. In some other cultures, people rely on their parents or third-party brokers to introduce them to compatible potential partners. If the interview goes well, the couple will get married and start a family together.
As a small business owner, you should also get to know a lot of people and see what kind of person works for you. But don’t forget that third-party brokers can be a big help as well. When you’re looking for a co-founder, try some of these ideas:
Most importantly, don’t rush into the relationship. Hiring someone that’s a co-founder level employee is an opportunity to test the partnership model and possibly make them an equity partner in the future.
What Qualities Make a Great Co-Founder?
Your co-founder will shape your small business’s culture, products, services, and style. What kind of person do you want doing those things?
Together, you and your co-founder need to hold some values and ideas in common.
First, you need a shared vision. Make sure whoever you consider for your co-founder role shares your vision for the company. “The best teamwork,” said James Cash Penney, founder of JC Penney’s, “comes from men who are working independently toward one goal in unison.”
Second, you need to share the same core values. An organization’s core values determine the way you conduct business, deal with clients, manage a team, and brand your company. Holding common core values matters more than holding common interests. You and your co-founder may not take an interest in the same parts of entrepreneurship — in fact, you probably shouldn’t — but you should believe in the same fundamental building blocks of your company.
Finally, you and your co-founder need similar levels of passion for the business. If one of you is bursting with ambition and the other takes a more lackadaisical approach, you’re setting yourselves up for frustration and failure. But with similar levels of energy and interest, you can create a long-lasting, viable enterprise.
You and your co-founder also need complementary skills and interests.
A strong co-founder will not agree with all your ideas. In fact, they’ll probably push back on a lot of the things you want to try. That’s good. Healthy conflict sharpens skills, eliminates excess activity, and helps ensure that only the strongest ideas survive. Hire a co-founder who knows when to go along and when to press your thoughts hard. This person needs to know how to handle conflict graciously, keep focused on the issues instead of the person, and stay committed to the organization.
Don’t be fooled by excitement. Look for drive. Better yet, seek out zeal. Anyone can get excited about your idea. That doesn’t mean the person will still be standing with you when there’s no money to pay the invoices or when your top client has decided to go elsewhere.
A driven co-founder will stay with you, work hard for the company, and hang in there for the tough times. But a zealous co-founder will hold the same feelings and commitment level you do. Zeal roots deeper than emotion or even drive. It’s committed to change no matter the personal cost. Look for someone like that to help you realize your vision.
Only partner with an emotionally stable person. Feelings can run hot when you carry the responsibilities of a new business and personal relationships, all while trying to negotiate your entrepreneurial partnership. You don’t need someone who will push your buttons when things get tough. Reject any co-founder who demonstrates rage, throws out bitter comments, or indulges in inappropriate outbursts of emotion. And remember that few people will show signs of things during the good times. Emotional self control reveals itself best when things get the toughest.
Looking for a Technical Co-Founder? Consider These Three Things.
Finding a technical co-founder who is willing to work for pure equity can prove challenging. The top technical talent is often very pragmatic and can secure a salaried position at a number of large established companies such as Google or Facebook. It’s rare that these people will forego a secured post to work at a startup with a high likelihood of failure. For first-time founders, hiring technical talent as an employee is usually the only option.
So what do you need to consider if you are hiring a technical co-founder?
While not every startup needs multiple founders, most enterprises can benefit by having more hands to do the work, more brains to solve the problems, and more creative spirits to help the team make it through the hard times. If you believe your startup could use a co-founder, consider the importance of the role. Is it the right fit for a friend or family member? In most cases, the answer will be no. So you’ll need to look elsewhere.
Hiring the right co-founder through a formal process can lead to a partnership that benefits your business for years to come.
Check out all of the articles in the ‘How to Survive the First Year of Your Business’ series:
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