Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, November 7, 2022
by Neil Senturia
A co-founder, don’t leave home without one.
Every company that I have started has been started with a co-founder. In over half of them, it was the other person’s idea. You need to put your ego and pride to one side when a really good opportunity shows up.
There is a fishhook in that sentence. Picking a co-founder, or being picked — either one is not so easy and is fraught with potential landmines. How many times have companies imploded because the founders could not get along?
Finding the right co-founder is the stuff of legends and legendary disagreements. Just look at the 10 largest software companies — the folks that started them were not the same ones at the finish.
Looking for a co-founder for your company ranks right up there with finding a marriage/life partner. In fact, according to Julia Austin, lecturer at Harvard Business School, “the conviction to have a co-founder is often based on seeking complementary skills versus the softer and often more important relationship criteria.”
Now this co-founder picking problem is complex, because traditionally, you do look for someone who can do what you can’t. Betty can code, Harry can sell. After all, a baseball team doesn’t need two shortstops.
It is a similar problem to finding a mate. There are over 1,500 dating apps trying to help you find a partner and be happy. There are another 100 apps that help you get a divorce.
I am often asked by young entrepreneurs how they can find a co-founder. And my thinking has changed. I was always classically in the school of finding complementary skills. Match a business MBA with a scientific Ph.D. and the rest is history. Now I think I was wrong.
You don’t get married because you can cook, and she can sew or vice versa or gender versa. That’s why they started DoorDash. In the case of technology, the tools are much more advanced and much more accessible. You may not really need a tech genius co-founder as much as you need a partner with shared goals, experiential history, compatible back stories, and, most importantly, similar risk tolerances. That last one is a sine qua non.
Now, having found your risk partner at the blackjack table in Vegas, who wanted a hit with 18, the next thing you need is someone with “domain expertise.” In that case, it would be similar to card counting
Austin talks about finding a co-founder with a “committed relationship and the ability to be vulnerable, handle conflict and create compromise.” If you can find and bottle that, you could be a billionaire.
While we are designing the perfect co-founder, let’s add in the ability to manage and thrive in a sea of ambiguity. You might add “ability to juggle” in your job requirements.
Barry Diller just sold his Match Group dating empire for $1.9 billion. He is now betting on online gaming. I think a better bet would be to develop Tinder for co-founders.
Austin pushes hard for being patient. She understands the founder urgency, but the “I need a co-founder, I will take the first one that I meet at the networking event or Starbucks,” is a sure recipe for disaster. She encourages writing a comprehensive job description, complete with roles and responsibilities. I disagree.
I walked up two flights of stairs at the Manchester Grand Hyatt, said hello to Barbara Bry, and when I drove home an hour later, I called my mother and said I had met my future wife. Thirty years so far, no job description yet.
Once you think you have your co-founder, and assuming you can figure out how to split up the equity and who is really in charge etc., there is one more key understanding to embrace. You do not have to stay in love to get rich.
My first co-founder ended up hating me. When we sold the company, he made a lot of money. I haven’t talked to him in 20 years.
Austin talks about co-founders as family. Maybe, but personally, I like boundaries. I am already married and I have my own children. A barbecue once a year, great — otherwise, all I want is software that works and customers who are thrilled.
Rule No. 737:
Swipe left or swipe right.