My fiancee isn’t the jealous type but she likes to joke that I’m already married to my co-founder. Paul and I are three weeks into working full-time on our startup (details TBA), and we’re spending a ridiculous amount of time together. We’re bootstrapping, so that means working everyday out of his living room. We buy groceries together, we cook for each other, and so in a funny way she’s kind of right.
The co-founder relationship is an intense one. You are together for long stretches, working under high levels of uncertainty and risk. Stress levels are high, but I couldn’t imagine going at it alone. A good co-founder, like a good spouse, is a balancing force. But just like getting married, it’s not something to just rush into.
In this post I’d like to share some of things I’ve learned about finding that special someone — your co-founder.
TAKE THINGS SLOW
Too often the search for a co-founder is a rushed one. You have a great idea, and decide over coffee or a phone call that a friend that you respect, but have never really worked with, will be your co-founder. This is risky as you now have an unproven idea and an unproven partnership.
Ideally, the co-founder should come before the idea. The truth is that a great partner is harder to find than a great idea, so expect to invest time in this. Paul and I spent over a year working on weekend projects before we decided to go after something full-time. We spent much of that time building random things like a portfolio site, Twitter clones, and SMS applications. None of theses projects really mattered; they were simply a means for us to work through technical and design problems together — the kinds of things that co-founders deal with everyday.
Projects are like dating for entrepreneurs. Make sure to go on plenty of “dates” with someone before you start calling them your co-founder.
WRITE EACH OTHER LOVE LETTERS
At some point after Paul and I got a few projects under our belts, we started seriously thinking through ideas we could see ourselves pursuing full-time. When we finally landed on one, we took one additional step: we wrote each other really long emails.
The importance of open communication and transparency between co-founders cannot be overstated. Your agility and effectiveness as a company is largely determined by how aligned the founders are. That doesn’t mean you have to agree on everything; but you should absolutely get your viewpoints out in the open and debate them.
Paul and I took this head on by creating a list of questions we wanted one another to answer. These are some of the questions we addressed in our emails:
* How does work fit into your life? What do you seek from it?
* What are your good/better/best outcomes for this company?
* How do you envision us working towards that vision while we are at our current jobs? (e.g., specifics on schedule, projects)
* What will you need in place in order to leave your current job? (e.g., specifics on savings, traction, timing)
* What are your strengths and weaknesses?
* Why do you want to work with me?
The emails were several pages long, and the conversations they spawned were priceless. I heartily recommend creating your own question list and going through this exercise with your prospective co-founder. It will help drive alignment for the long journey ahead.
TAKE TIME TO APPRECIATE ONE ANOTHER
Finally, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that a strong partnership is based solely on the bonds you build upfront. Ask any person in a happy marriage and they will tell you how much the relationship continues to grow even after tying the knot. The same is true for co-founders. You must not let the mountain of work ahead of you blind you to the other person’s well-being.
My advice here is two-fold. First, make it a point to celebrate successes. You will be shocked at just how far simple statements like: “You did an awesome job with that” go in creating a positive work environment.
Second, set a dedicated time each week to talk solely about your work culture. Paul and I allot 30 minutes on Fridays to this. Having a blocked time forces us to open up; otherwise we’d just be sitting in silence. These weekly chats help blow off steam as well drive course corrections before bigger issues develop.
There’s a reason that many of the great tech companies were founded by two people: Bill and Paul. Larry and Sergey. Steve and Steve. Strong partnerships are always greater than the sum of their parts. We should all seek out people that make us better and unlock new possibilities.
But we should do it with deference: Put in the time to get to know each other, align on your convictions, continue to nurture the relationship and there’s no limit to the things you can build together.