I didn’t get married too quickly, not to my amazing wife Shera at least! But, I’ve almost gotten married to business partners and co-founders too quickly in the past.
The concept of starting a company is exciting. Just like in the movies, you have a flash of genius during which your mind births the greatest idea in history. At this moment, no one can tell you your idea stinks; you and your idea are going to take over the world.
However, for those of us not fortunate enough to live in a fantasy, it’s a bit of a struggle to actually start a company when we have a brilliant idea (or at least think we have a brilliant idea and give it the ole’ college try).
For me, getting a new business idea in my head can be intoxicating. Please note that the failure of said business ideas may lead to me being intoxicated, which is an important difference. Regardless, we’ve all experienced the euphoria of a newly hatched idea, the kind that keeps your mind spinning all day and keeps you up at night.
But, before you jump head first into the shallow end of the pool, there are a few things you need to think through and consider. This will be post #1 of 2 about not getting married to an idea, or a co-founder, too quickly.
I’ve had my ups and downs with trying to launch new businesses and finding co-founders. Here’s some of what I’ve learned along the way so far…
Know What Kind of Business You Want to Build
With your idea in hand, before you start researching the industry, talking to potential customers or building a CAP (co-founder attracting product), you should first decide what kind of business you want to build. Decide if you want to build a Side Project while you keep a full-time job, a Lifestyle Business that you enjoy and are complacent with as long as it provides you income, or a Growth Company that you’ll look to raise venture funding for. There is nothing wrong with any of these options; just be sure to choose one before you start so you properly set your own expectations, along with those of anyone you talk to about your business.
If you decide you want to try and start a ‘Growth Company’ (i.e. a startup), know what that means. This may seem obvious, but I’ve met and worked with people that didn’t know what being a startup meant, and didn’t know what others would expect from them as an entrepreneur. If you’re not sure what this means for you, a good place to start is by reading blogs about entrepreneurship. Two that have great broad content as well as very specific advice are http://www.avc.com/a_vc/ and http://www.bothsidesofthetable.com/.
Be Passionate Before You Get Engaged
Getting engaged is fun, and presents often follow, but it’s a big commitment. Regardless of the type of business you want to build, make sure you are ready to devote your time, energy, emotions, and money to an idea before you get engaged and truly commit. Entrepreneurs often come up with an idea because they think they’ve identified a unique solution to a specific problem. Don’t get me wrong; this is exactly the kind of thinking that sprouts disruptive businesses. But, being passionate about your solution isn’t enough. You also need to be passionate about your industry.
If you’re able to build a successful business, you’re going to have to dedicate yourself to the product/service you’re creating AND the industry that it operates in. If you come up with an amazing way to allow people to keep track of their underwear, design their own styles and order more when they are running low, you damn well better love both underwear and the clothing industry.
Passion for the industry you operate in is particularly important if content and social marketing will be a key part of your growth model. Because everyone pushes out content 24/7 (think blog posts like this, Facebook updates, Instagram photos, Tweets, etc.), people are more adept than ever at sifting through the junk. It’s really hard to produce quality, engaging, non-junky content if you aren’t passionate about the industry you’re about to start operating in. Thankfully my ‘junk’ is mostly about marketing and product management for startups, which I love, and hopefully you do too.
With Wedkey I made the mistake of being passionate about my solution but not about the industry it operated in. Doug, Ryan (my partners), and I came up with a solution to a problem that our wives had experienced while planning our weddings. We also saw a major problem with value proposition that the big ‘deal’ site (Groupon and LivingSocial) were offering small businesses. We were extremely passionate about our solution, but we were not at all passionate about the wedding industry. Had we been more passionate about the wedding industry, it would have made it a lot easier to stay motivated when things weren’t going so well.
Similarly, we were not customers of our own product, and that put us at a disadvantage. Despite our efforts, we never really understood the emotional process that women went through when booking their wedding vendors. The miracle of me truly understanding women may one day happen, but I haven’t yet reached that epiphany. Furthermore, I’ve heard multiple investors say they will only invest in a company if the founders are customers of their own product.
So you have an idea, you want to start a business, and you’re passionate about your solution and the industry it operates in. Now it’s time for some help.
Finding a Co-founder, or Two
Being a one-man (or woman) show is a risky proposition because there is only so much time in the day to do work, and your dog can only help answer so many of your tough business questions. But, finding a co-founder is a tricky dance, and it’s not the kind you can learn with a few pre-wedding dance lessons at a Fred Astaire studio.
I’ve heard conjecture for years that being a solo founder is more risky than have a 2 or 3 person founding team (meaning the failure rate is higher). I’ve been searching for some data to back that up but haven’t been able to find any. If you have some, please add a link to it in the comments of this post.
Statistics aside, there is a lot of value in have a co-founder early in your business development process.
- You can brainstorm together
- They are theoretically complementing your good ideas with their own
- They can call you out on your horrible ideas
- You have another person who is devoted to the business to help with customer development and research
- You have someone to confide in
Side note for those lucky enough to be married to wonderfully smart and creative spouses: they can be an amazing sounding board when you don’t have a co-founder as long as you open yourself up to being criticized by them. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Having a more fully developed idea makes it a lot easier to find a co-founder. I most often find myself looking for a technical co-founder when I think about starting a project. How else can I actually build a product to test… right? Wrong!
By leveraging some really great, and idiot-proof, simple-to-use apps, you can easily develop your idea to what I call a ‘co-founder attracting product’. It’s not an MVP (minimum viable product), or an MDP (minimum desirable product), it’s a CAP (co-founder attracting product). You can check out my blog post about building a CAP here. In short, the CAP is a product (or service) that you’ve refined enough to prove that there is something there worth pursuing. The goal of getting to a CAP is to show a potential ‘technical’, ‘design’, or ‘business’ co-founder that you have a legitimate idea, you care enough about the idea to work through early iterations on your own, that you’re resourceful enough to build a crude prototype, and that you generally know how to get sh*t done.
Once you have your CAP, you’re ready to go co-founder hunting. Note, this should in no way involve camouflage clothing, firearms, or waking up at the crack of dawn.
Time to Go Hunting
Whether this is your first time to the rodeo or not, you may be unsure of what type of person/people you should be looking for. In the words of Dave McClure from 500 Startups, ‘The ideal startup has a hacker, a hustler and a designer. The hacker can code, the hustler brings in the business, and the designer architects the concept to make it appealing to a consumer or investor. You may have one or all of these skills, but often not enough time in the day to wear all of the hats.’ Just like the 1992 Dream Team, it takes 3 key players to win.
In addition to the hacker|hustler|designer construct, I look for a few general things in a potential co-founder:
- People with different personality types than me
- People who are willing to make an equal time commitment
- People who are willing to make an equal effort commitment
- People who have a similar work ethic to me
These items are extremely important to me personally because I know that I will get frustrated if I’m working hard on something while my partner is not.
When we were working on Wedkey, Ryan, Doug and I were a good mix of co-founder personalities. I tended to be analytical and aggressive in my decision-making, Ryan was pretty cautious and conservative, and Doug found a happy middle ground. Despite me wanting to strangle Ryan sometimes (side note, he is a great friend of mine and I love the guy), having this mix of personalities on our team was great for our business. It forced us to attack problems together, ensured that we kept moving forward at a good pace, and helped us make smarter decisions when major issues came up. It also provided the right environment for some hilarious inside jokes.
Stalking Your Prey
With your CAP in-hand, and a clear idea of the type of person you’re looking for as a co-founder, your next adventure is figuring out where the heck to find him/her. There are so many places to try, online and off, that it can be overwhelming. Here is a quick summary of ones that I’ve tried:
CoFoundersLab (http://www.cofounderslab.com/) – An online network of entrepreneurs that are looking for co-founders for their business. You can create a LinkedIn-style profile for free, and search for entrepreneurs that fit a certain set of characteristics (engineer, within x miles of me, etc.). They also have ‘Pro’ accounts for $10-$20/month that have added features and boost your profile in search results. In addition to the online networking site, CoFounders Lab concentrates heavily on in-person networking events. I personally prefer to have a co-founder who is local and that I can sit in a room and work with in-person, so in-person events like these are great for me. The people running CoFoundersLab are awesome, and I actually, once, got a sweet co-founder date out of one of their meetups and ended up working on a project for a few months. However, as with any networking event, their meetups can be hit or miss with the crowd that shows up. Several that I’ve been to in the DC/VA area have been full of people who were a bit older and appeared to be there to network, rather than to find a co-founder and launch a business. I have, however, found the online search and discovery tools to be extremely helpful!
Founder Dating (http://founderdating.com/) – Also an online network of entrepreneurs that are looking for co-founders for their business. They screen all applicants and ask for professional references, which is cool because it makes you feel a little better about contacting other entrepreneurs that are on the platform; however, honestly, I don’t know of any entrepreneurs that have applied and been rejected. There is typically a quarterly networking event for new members of the platform but only new members are invited. Further, there are no organized ongoing activities. Fortunately, what they lack in in-person meetups, they more than make up for with the content on their network. The discussion boards on the site are extremely active and can be very helpful for getting honest answers to tough questions about running your startup. Last time I checked, Founder Dating had a one-time $50 application fee and no monthly fees.
Meetups (http://www.meetup.com/)- If you’re in a major metropolitan area, there are likely several meetups a month happening in or near your city. Just type ‘entrepreneur’, ‘startup’, or ‘tech’ into their site search and find one that interests you. I’ve found the meetups in DC, specifically the DC Tech and Lean Startup meetups to be the really beneficial overall. They are fairly regular and give me a chance to build relationships with people over time so I have friends in the community to call on when the time comes for finding my next co-founder.
3-Day Intensive Weekends – The two most popular intensive startup weekends are Startup Weekend (http://startupweekend.org/) and Lean Startup Machine (https://www.leanstartupmachine.com/), both costing ~$100. Both weekends push you to cultivate a team and try to launch a product in ~54 hours. After attending both, I’ve found that Lean Startup Machine is better for new entrepreneurs, and Startup Weekend is better for more experienced entrepreneurs. Lean Startup Machine tends to have much more ‘startup education’ throughout the weekend and more hands-on coaching. The session I went to in DC was also mostly ‘business’ people with not many designers or developers in attendance. My Startup Weekend experience, on the other hand, had less ‘coaching’ and ‘startup education,’ drawing a much larger group of designers and developers in addition to ‘business’ people. Startup Weekend also has some big-time supporters like the Kaufman Foundation and Google for Entrepreneurs so they occasionally give away great prizes to the winners.
Conferences – By this I mean events like TechCrunch Disrupt and Launch Festival. These conferences are centered around a handful of companies pitching their startups to judges and press, but there is always a demo pitch for companies that either didn’t qualify to be on stage or are too far along with their business to ‘launch’ on stage. The demo pits are amazing places to meet other entrepreneurs and, while you may not necessarily find a cofounder at one of these events, they are fantastic places to make connections.
Get Off Your Knee and Put the Ring Back in Your Pocket
Successful founder partnerships are cultivated over a period of time, not by chatting online, talking on the phone, or working on a project together for 54 hours.
If you are able to articulate the type of business you want to build, and have done the work to build your CAP, then you will find potential co-founders for your business. You’re now in this great position with a great idea and people that want to work with you.
But, what is so so so important, is before you get ‘married’ to one these co-founders and make your partnership official, you should work together first; for a while! So get the hell up off your knee, put the ring back in your pocket, and ‘date’ these people first before you get married to one or more of them. You don’t want to give it all up on the first date.
I know it can be hard to hold back; trust me, I’ve been there wanting to propose to a co-founder too quickly. You’re excited that people like your idea, the people you met seem great, but you know nothing about them, not even their dog’s name, where they’re from, or whether they like milk in their coffee. These things may seem inconsequential, but they’re not. Actually knowing those pieces of information is not what’s important; it’s the time it takes for you to learn those answers, and actually get to know that person that is critical.
Think of it this way: would you marry a spouse without knowing whether they leave all their dirty laundry on the floor of their bedroom or put it in the hamper? How about if they snore? Or if they shower every day, or only once every other day? You might be okay with not knowing, I don’t know. What I do know is, if you have the opportunity to find out, why wouldn’t you?
If the person you’ve identified as a potential co-founder is serious about joining your business, ask them to work with you for a time (a few weeks or months) just to see how it goes. If they ask you for money to do this, tell them to f* off.
‘Dating’ will give you a chance to get to know the person, see how well you work together, how they think and act, and will give you a sense of whether your ideas and attitudes are complimentary. Does asking someone to work with you for free make you uncomfortable? It shouldn’t. You’re opening up your business idea to them from which they could reap a serious reward.
I’ve been on both sides of the table for this. I’ve asked others to work through things with me for free, and I’ve offered to help other’s for free to ‘see how it goes’. Instead of thinking of it as a negative situation, think of it this way:
- For the business idea owner, you are getting free help on your idea, you’re learning from this person, and you’re teaching them a thing or two about your area of expertise and the industry that you’re so passionate about.
- For the entrepreneur offering their services for free, you are gaining a chance to continually hone your skills with a new business idea that you didn’t have to think of. Someone else has done a bunch of the work and you have the opportunity to help them turn it into something real. You may also learn a thing or two from your scrappy, CAP-creating, potential co-founder.
One More Time Around
Trying to start a business is no small feat. Hence the discussion of everything from the type of business you want to build to wearing camouflage clothing and firearms. Enough of us have failed at this to provide some perspective on major mistakes to avoid, and what works well.
Remember that, before you go off to the races with your idea that will change the course of history and your bank account, you should start by deciding what kind of business you want to build. Once you have that down, be sure you’re passionate about both your solution to a problem and the industry you’ll have to operate in. From there, the puzzle pieces will all start to come together.
You’ll go through the process of building a CAP, decide what skills you need from a co-founder, and what important personality traits will make them the right fit for you. Then you’ll be able to leverage some great online and offline tools and events to round up a group of potential candidates, force them to work for you for free to prove themselves, and the rest… well the rest we’ll talk about next time. This damn post is over 3k words already!
Have you gotten married too quickly? I’m interested to hear if it ended up working out or totally crushing your business?