Practical Advice

How to find a co-founder

Practical Advice

How to find a co-founder

Words Raluca Ciobancan

June 20th 2023 / 8 min read

Many entrepreneurs will start out on the business journey alone, but what many quickly find is how difficult it is to do things by yourself. 

Of course, “hiring the best”, as Steve Jobs said, will be one of your most important tasks as a founder. But how about that person who is your equal partner in the business: who’ll sit alongside you day and night during the most crucial stage of building your startup, a co-author for your vision, a joint partner in your biggest business decisions.

Before any hire you make, product you build, or culture you define, finding the perfect co-founder may be the most important decision you make. 

What’s hard is that there’s no empirical methodology for finding the right partner for your startup. Most of the time, the people you go into business with will be people you already know: friends, colleagues, members of online communities you’re a part of. Some of them may be second or third degree connections, people you’re introduced to by trusted contacts, or who you meet at industry events. Choosing who to work with will be built on instinct and trust, finding someone whose motivations and values are aligned with yours. 

For some founders, the serendipity involved in finding the ideal co-founder doesn’t transpire.. In this scenario, there are reliable processes and methods I recommend that can make the search far easier for solo founders in this position.

I’ll break it down in five main steps: 

  1. Defining the co-founder profile

  2. Communicating your vision

  3. Understanding where to look

  4. Narrowing down the field

  5. Bringing them onboard

Before we start—why find a co-founder?

You may know the leaders of many successful tech companies—Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs—but the reality is, almost all of them had co-founders in the early days. If you’re interested in very basic pattern matching, then finding a co-founder is one of the most foundational things you can do. 

A co-founder is more than just your first hire: this is your business partner, the person you’ll be building a vision with, a person you may end up spending more time with than your family and closest friends. 

Broadly, there are three compelling reasons to hire a co-founder:

1. Skill set gap 

You can’t do everything as a founder—hiring a co-founder is about finding someone to do what you can’t do. Literally, you can only juggle so many balls at one time; but also proficiently, you’re unlikely to have all of the skills needed to build a tech company. This isn’t just in terms of technical skills: soft skills matter too. One of you may enjoy pitching, while the other is more comfortable at networking. Both demand different skill sets, but are hugely complementary for building a business. 

2. Support

Leaving aside the mountain of effort it requires to build a business, it can be lonely at the top. Having a co-founder means having someone with whom you can address problems, who can support your decisions, and will be able to pick you up when you’re struggling. Trust is central to this: you need someone you can trust to make the best decisions when you aren’t able to. 

3. Financial reasons

A very practical reason—but your financial resources are stretched thin enough at an early stage startup. Making someone your co-founder (AKA paying them equity instead of a top salary) will allow you to afford someone you wouldn’t otherwise be able to hire. This is particularly true for technical co-founders. 

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Five steps for hiring a dream co-founder

1. Defining your co-founder profile

It might sound obvious—you’ve got to know who you are looking for before you start looking—but this step is often overlooked. 

Many founders start looking without any real intention or thought behind this process, and guess what happens—they look for like-minded people with little or no complementary skill sets. The result of that? A non-innovative, highly inefficient team with little traction and promise.

One of the biggest mistakes Focus founder Will McCabe made at one of his past ventures was co-founding with someone of the same profile. “Rather than multiplying your efficiency, it halves it. You just end up arguing over everything.” 

This process should start with self reflection. Be realistic about your own strengths and weaknesses: not just in terms of hard and soft skills, but also personal preferences. For example—you’re a commercial founder that can do a bit of growth, a bit of finance, and a bit of product, but your preference sits mainly on the growth/vision setting side, then you should make sure the person you hire is a tech co-founder with a personal preference for taking on product responsibilities. Then maybe you could even outsource the finance element which none of you have a preference for. How efficient (and enjoyable) would that be?

Matching skill sets isn't, nor should it be, an exact science. Ultimately, the most important decision is 1) finding someone who you'll work well with and 2) someone you're excited about building a business with. 

It's not too early at this stage to start thinking about the values you want to build your business with. The person you end up choosing to go into business should be firmly on the same page as you with regards to the kind of company you want to build, and where you see it going. If you're aligned on this, decisions down the line will be far more organic, allowing for much more autonomy. 

Here are some of the workshops we run with our founders to help with profile identification.

2. Communicating your vision

At this point, you want to start thinking about how you are communicating the value proposition of joining a startup at this early stage, usually via a job description. Channel in all of the hard work you’ve done in step one. 

More important to this is communicating your vision for the business (AKA clicking into sales mode). People don't just look at job postings to see if they match the listed requirements—and if they are, you probably don’t want to hire them. The best individuals look for opportunities to dedicate their time and skills towards meaningful impact. Use this job description to make clear statements about your vision for the company and the culture you want to build, as well as clues to help people find alignment with their own personal career values. 

A good job advert 1) spurs the correct audience into action, 2) acts as a self-selection point for those who are not right, 3) is a great exercise to help you build up the right team composition. 

A good way of approaching writing a job description is a top down/bottom up approach:

Always keep an open mind. You will rarely find someone who fits your requirements perfectly, but you will most likely get someone who comes with skills you didn’t expect or set out to find. This will drastically help the diversity of people you see coming in! 

Other tactics to consider:

  • Hyperlink your pitch deck in the job description 

  • Hyperlink your own LinkedIn profile 

  • Be descriptive about why they should join—e.g. solid equity, impact, learning opportunities 

Check out our example job descriptions for the most typical co-founder roles we see

3. Understanding where to look

Now you know who you are looking for, how do you go about finding that person? 

Start with your network. Reach out to people you know who have the skills, knowledge, and passion to help you create a successful business. These may be former or present colleagues, friends and family, or beyond. It is helpful if they have experience in the field you are starting, but certainly not necessary: more important is that they fit the skill set you’re looking for. Start off by building a 'hit list' of your ideal people for starting a business (you can seek recommendations from your network on this). 

You also have a number of platforms at your disposal. LinkedIn is a particularly useful tool for sharing new job opportunities, and has the advantage of enabling potential candidates to view your profile too. Lever, Otta, AngelList, and Meetup are similarly popular for people seeking jobs in tech. It’s also worth exploring other industry specific job boards that may help you find founders with experience or specialisations in, for example, fintech or healthcare. 

While you may seek support during this aspect of the search (potentially using talent partners), I’d really recommend taking ownership over outreach. You should be the person sharing the job description, posting it in relevant forums, asking for referrals. You should always aim for your founding team members to be people you’ve worked with before where there is mutual respect, complimentary skills but alignment on values. 

You can even go a step further: manual outreach can be a particularly effective tool for job seeking. Message people who may not even be looking and see if they are interested in a chat. For this, you’ve really got to have your value proposition nailed—how are you going to convince people to leave their juicy salaries and take a risk with a person they’ve never met before? This may be one of the most valuable sales you ever make. 

4. Narrowing down the field

This is the most important part of the process—the million dollar decision of who to go into business with. 

Narrowing down the field has objective and subjective elements to it: on the one hand, you’ll relay back to the original co-founder profile you defined; but on the other hand, making the final call will be based on gut instinct. 

Assessment is lengthy—as it should be. It’s no small decision, so you want to give yourself as many opportunities to meet as many strong candidates as you can. You want to give yourself as much time as possible so you don’t feel rushed into a final decision. As Bundant founder Ike Cooke describes it: “It’ll be like making a decision on who you’re going to marry after four dates.”

Interviews (if you can even call them that—they should be more like conversations) should take on a variety of formats and mediums. While these should be informal conversation, at the same time, you should be looking to assess a number of things: basic competency for the role, their reactions to certain situations, cultural alignment. Whiteboarding sessions are a good way to start to map out your shared version, and judge this alignment. All this may culminate in a co-creation/workshop task, to see how well you actually work together, how you communicate, and approach challenges as a team. David Joerring, founder of HealthKey, also recommends speaking to potential co-founders in-person, on video, and on phone calls, “To see how they work across different contexts and frequencies.” 

Here are some examples of interview structures and co-creation workshops that you can set candidates..

Seek support on these interviews where appropriate. As Factory’s Head of Talent, I sit in on most of our founders’ earlier interviews (similar to where a talent partner may fit in). Look to bring in people with particular expertise (e.g. if you are hiring a CTO co-founder, bringing in a technical person): you are hiring someone who isn’t like you, so you need to understand what good looks like. 

In terms of assessing fit across interviews, here are a number of questions you should ask yourself:

  • Are they value aligned?—do they believe in what you are building? Is this something they’re going to be committed to for the long term? Part of this is built off of how well you sell your vision to them

  • Do you trust them?—do you have faith in them to lead on things if you weren’t there? This covers everything from decision making ability to character   

  • Do they respect you?—this can be easy to overlook, but it’s crucial that they respect who you are as a founder, especially if you are a female or ethnic minority founder

  • How well can they communicate?—remember you are taking this person on as an equal partner in your business, so communication is key. Are they open and honest? More importantly, are they willing to debate and disagree with you?

  • Is there a personal connection?—ultimately, is this the type of person you want to build a business with? You want someone who is aligned with you in the culture you want to build, and on a personal level, who you’re happy to spend all your time with in the early stages

  • Is their lifestyle compatible?—it’s no small undertaking joining the founding team of  a startup, so you need to assess if this person is willing to put the time and effort in, and if they’re willing to take a pay cut for a number of years

  • Are they curious?—you don’t just want a builder or a doer. You want someone who is going to bring their own ideas to the table. In the interview process, they should be asking lots of questions about the business, and sharing their own vision. To go back to Steve Jobs, who said, “It doesn't make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”

Try to keep an open mind. “Be conscious that some people don't do well in interviews, or might not fit the classic image of what good looks like, so try and accommodate these people where possible,” says Becky Lane, founder of Furbnow. Striking this balance can be challenging: considering and advancing a pool of more diverse candidates, some of whom may come from non-typical backgrounds, while also narrowing down options within a reasonable time frame.

Throughout, you should consider this a two-way process. Assessing fit works both ways, so make sure you lay out your own vision clearly and talk about your own approaches, as well as offering ample opportunity for them to ask questions and inquire into various decisions you’ve made. Be as honest and open as possible here—if you hide anything, that will only come back and bite you once it may be too late.  

This will all funnel into making the final decision. If you are lucky enough to still have a choice to make at this stage, it will be very hard—they’re probably both great, and it will fall to a kind of gut feeling. This might not sound empirical, but it’s not a bad thing: David from HealthKey says, ”An emotional decision here is good, as that’s a big part of working together.” So try to imagine who you are more likely to regret not picking.

Also bear in mind that just because you pick them, this may not mean they’ll accept. If they are still unsure at this stage, then you’ve probably not done a good enough job of communicating your vision and selling the role: in this case, it may be worth reconsidering and taking a step back in the process.

5. Bringing them onboard

If you’ve landed the interview and assessment process, then this should be fairly easy. The whole way through, you should have been communicating your vision and bringing them ‘onboard’ in a broader sense. You may have also used this time to understand the sort of company you want to build together, understanding and potentially codifying your shared values. 

That said, onboarding will still be time consuming process. In their early weeks at the company, spend as much time with them as possible. Bring them into meetings you are having, talk them through everything you’ve built so far (even if it isn’t stuff that falls specifically under their remit). Even if you are remote first or distributed, try and have face-to-face meetings wherever possible at these early stages.

Facilitate open learning where possible by creating an open source tool for all documents/information you create across the organisation (you can use something like Notion for this). This will prove invaluable to you as you scale and bring on new team members further down the line. 

Here’s our rough checklist for onboarding, as well as a guide to meeting expectations

Another early aspect of onboarding is figuring out and agreeing on an equity split. There is no wrong or right way to agree equity split: ultimately, this will fall down to individual situations and agreements. There are a few things worth bearing in mind when approaching this negotiation:

  • Success comes down to execution, not ideas. You may feel that you were the one who came up with the idea, who put in the hard work in the early days. But realistically, successful companies take 5 to 10 years to build, and a good co-founder will more than prove their worth over this critical period 

  • More equity means more motivation. The more financially invested your co-founder is, the more invested they will be in your success

  • Equity is a strong proxy for how you value your co-founder. Investors will pay attention to discrepancies in equity, as it tells them a lot about how you value their contribution to the business

Tools to use throughout the recruitment process (and for future hiring)

[See our full list of recommendations]

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About Raluca

Raluca Ciobancan is Head of Talent Investing at Founders Factory, sourcing and investing in founders to build businesses in our Venture Studio, as well as supporting founders build founding teams in our Accelerator. She’s held a number of roles in tech and talent, including at CTO Academy, Aspen Insurance, and Bank of Valletta. She founded her own business, Snice, a hand sanitiser wristband to promote everyday cleanliness.

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