Co-founders (and where to find them)

If you are a scientist or engineer working on a really promising technology and thinking about starting a company, one of the most difficult tasks early on is finding great co-founder(s).

While there are plenty of examples of very successful solo founders, having the right co-founder(s) can make a big difference. Starting and growing a company can be extremely frustrating and isolating at times and it’s important that there is someone who has your back, helps you stay on track, and stay motivated. On the flip side, teaming up with the wrong ones can be very damaging — many startups fail because of conflicts within the founding team.

Most technical founders we talk to at SciFounders think they need someone with “business experience” (often that translates into finding someone who has done an MBA). Teaming up with someone that is good at presenting, negotiating, team building and fundraising can be a very strong catalyst but at the same time, this doesn’t mean you should only scout for business-savvy co-founders. At such an early stage of the company, when technology development is key, teaming up with someone who is a good personality fit and who can support you with an important technical skill set can be a very good (and sometimes even better) alternative [1].

The right chemistry between the founding members is very important. In many cases, it sets the foundation for the internal culture of your company which can be a big factor for candidates that are deciding to join your team and can be critical for talent retention. 

It sounds a bit cheesy but you can think of starting a company together as getting married to someone: You will spend a significant amount of time together for the years to come. You need to make sure you make a good team, be able to make compromises, have constructive arguments, and are able to solve conflicts in an effective way.

That’s why it’s often a really good strategy to team up with someone you have worked with before, have a strong history with, and can trust.

This all makes sense in theory, but the ideal co-founders are really hard to come by, and often if you have someone in mind it might be difficult to convince them to quit their current secure job to join you.

So, what to do if you can’t find a good co-founder from your personal network? There is always the option of writing a job ad and recruiting a co-founder. But teaming up with someone you hardly know and giving that person a large chunk of your company, and with that decision power, is risky. You could also join (bio-) tech or entrepreneur clubs, join an accelerator, or attend networking events and conferences to meet like-minded people but these initial interactions are often very superficial and it’s hard to evaluate if you would make a good team long-term.

One approach we’ve seen working well is to hire potential candidates first as first lead or staff scientists/engineers, giving them adequate equity for a first employee (~0.5-1 %), and then exploring how it will be to work together. You can use this time as a mutual diagnostic to see if it could be a good fit for both of you and if you still make a great team once the initial honeymoon period is over.

In the best-case scenario, you might find with this strategy a very reliable person you can trust, who challenges you intellectually and complements your skillset. If not, you might have found a good hire, and in the worst-case scenario, you need to let go of someone, which is often much easier than removing a co-founder.

Having a co-founder is also not something that’s ultimately required. There are plenty of examples where solo founders built impressive companies. But having someone with you in the trenches can be a very strong adjuvant.

Thanks to Bianka Seres, Matt Krisiloff, and Pablo Hurtado for reading the drafts of this post.

[1] Plenty of technical founders get better at those skills too and something that can come with practice. If you think it will be very hard for you to get really good at it, then it’s probably the right decision to team up with someone who can support you on the business side or another technical founder that can indeed pick it up.

1 Comment

  1. Mike Ferguson says:

    This a great idea for finding a suitable cofounder. Honestly the first practical solution I’ve heard. The only problem is that more investors need to accept this as a solution and invest in solo founders. This solution only works if you as a solo founder initially have enough capital to hire someone. Yet, to get that level of capital, you usually need investment (unless you are just lucky and are rich or have rich friends).

    This is an opinion of a solo biotech founder who has struggled to find a suitable cofounder for years. Nearly ever investor I have talked to says they like the technology I invented, but want me to have a cofounder. Yet, for the reasons mentioned in this post, I have not found one. That being said, this is a sensible solution. Will pitch it if asked about a cofounder.

    Please tell your investor friends that this is a better path. I’ve heard way too many stories about cofounder disputes to just randomly pick one. Even among people who have been labmates for years, there have been disputes. Starting a company is entirely different. Hiring a first employee is a good way to filter for people passionate about the problem you are working on. But you have to pay them money first. You can’t just offer pure equity because no matter how passionate the person is, they still need to eat at the end of the day. So even if they wanted to join you, they couldn’t without a salary.

Let me know what you think!