Choose your startup co-founder like you would a spouse

They started to arrive about eighteen months ago, an endless cascade of luxuriously quilted envelopes, thumping onto the doormat. The wedding invitations. Nothing to do with Harry and Meghan, but friends of my children. It’s that mid to late twenties age group.

It’s unstoppable, luxuriously creamy envelopes the thickness of a letter bomb containing a complex invitation. They are a triumph of paper engineering, a comprehensive dossier of mobile phone numbers, email addresses, web sites, how to get there, what to wear, Amazon gift lists.

This isn’t the first wave of weddings I’ve been witnessed, that was when many of my contemporaries married soon after university. In these wedding photos the bride and groom are seen raising pint glasses, raucous groups of silly 1980s haircuts, and modest wedding gifts.

There was a second wave, the late-twenties weddings, which still retained a little of that tongue in cheek home-made quality. The most memorable was a reception that took place in the groom’s parent’s gardens in Bristol, vows were self-composed and rigorously secular. But a cold, hard edge of professionalism had started to creep in: the idea of the pre-prepared ‘wedding list’ had begin to rear its head.

I remember the ‘entertainment’ was from an all-girl band – including the bride – that had obviously taken a series of wrong-turns and bad choices in their musical direction. Their sang their own songs, one was about miserable summer jobs. The bride subsequently packed up the band and took a course in Circus skills until is transpired that she had none. Trapeze was not the answer.

Then the third wave emerged, proving to be the most spectacular, weddings of friends in the early to mid-thirties who had been working for the best part of a decade, and had some money to throw at a once-in-a-lifetime event. Country House hotels, vast marquees like Bedouin tent cities; silk grey morning suits and top hats, hired and worn with absolutely straight faces, string quartets and Ceilidh callers, even ice sculptures. One couple left the reception in a hot air balloon.

Now I’m on the fourth wave as I say, friends of my kids. This weekend I was at one in Cheshire. I was on table twenty-four, near the back of the room. I didn’t take it personally, although I was tempted to tamper with the seating plan. What’s the main course I asked? The rumour mill says salmon. Salmon, salmon, salmon at weddings, I feel like swimming upstream.

A wedding requires immense reserves of love and commitment and time off work, not least from the guests. Confetti costs two pounds a bag – it had to be Vintage Rose Pink and White Heart Biodegradable Tissue Paper Wedding Throwing Confetti. A bag of fragrant boil-in-the-bag jasmine rice from Aldi wasn’t approved by my wife.

Will it be bonding, soul mates for life, or the start of melancholy, wet winters of recriminations, slammed doors and watching TV together in silence?

It’s really not an exaggeration to say that hooking up with a new partner launching a new business is just like getting married and gaining a spouse, you embark on a joined-up hope-fuelled journey towards a bright and optimistic future. So you should prepare for a co-founder relationship in much the same way you would for a marriage – even when two people are a perfect fit, there are going to be times when someone needs to speak up, and say something difficult.

Great co-founders can make even the worst times feel fun and bearable, they will sit with you at the bottom of the pit on your lowest day and tell you that it’s going to be okay. This relationship can determine the success or failure of your business. When you build a business with someone, your lives will inevitably intertwine, and as in marriage and business relationships, you have to have each other’s backs.

Many successful companies were built by productive co-founder relationships. How did these individuals find their business buddies, and what made their combined skill-sets a successful collaboration? Not surprisingly, many were long-time friends, classmates, or relatives, but there is a common trend: the most well-rounded co-founders recognised their individual limitations and respect what the other brings to a partnership. Let’s look at a few examples.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded Google (1998), meeting at Stanford’s PhD program in 1995, but they did not instantly become friends. During a campus tour, Brin was Page’s guide and they bickered. Despite their quarrel, they worked on a research project together, The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine, which became the basis for Google.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple (1976). They became friends at a summer job, Woz was busy building a computer, and Jobs saw the potential to sell it. Why did their partnership work? Woz admits that he never thought to sell his computer model, that was all Jobs. Woz’s technical skills paired with Jobs’ business foresight makes the two an ultimate business match.

Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard came together in 1939. Classmates at Stanford, following graduation, they went on a two-week camping trip, and became close friends. Shortly after they started HP. Why did their partnership work?  They were best friends that clicked because they had complimentary strengths and were driven by joint-achievement, not personal success.

Francis Jehl was Thomas Edison’s lab assistant at the Menlo Park research facility as an eighteen year old, straight from school. After the completion of Jehl’s first assignment, Edison noticed Jehl’s work ethic and was so impressed that he started to work collaboratively. Whilst Edison regarded Jehl as a co-founder, not all entrepreneurs need an ally.

Research shows start-ups with co-founders are four times likely to be successful than those going solo – a strong case for forming a double act. Going it alone it’s easier to make decisions quickly and go for it, and generally you can’t fall out with yourself, and you also learn more – by necessity.

Alternatively with a co-founder you have the benefits of ‘two heads are better than one’, improving decision making and being more likely to reach the right outcome faster. With a co-founder, you’re also not spreading yourself too thinly, taking responsibility for everything, and working with complimentary skills and doubled bandwidth, more gets done.

So, everything considered, what are the attributes you should consider when seeking a co-founder?

Aligned motives If one founder wants to build a cool product, another one wants to make money, and another wants to be famous, it won’t work. Pay close attention and unearth true motivations, which are revealed, not declared, it’s better to get that out in the open early and talk it through.

Personal compatibility Play a couple rounds of monopoly together, just to see how they react to opportunity and adversity – and if there is humour in the relationship. There are of course other such ways to gauge this but don’t co-habit without dancing together socially first, doing something outside of work with your potential future partner may be eye-opening.

Future skills matter more than present skills It’s impossible to judge the potential skills of a person on day one. So instead, while we don’t predict future skills, avoid giving too much importance to current skills too. Startups demand different sets of competencies at various stages in their journey – being a CEO of a startup means being the Chief Everything Officer initially – co-founders need to be fast learners in order to acquire new in-demand skills.

How will decisions get made?  This is a fundamental tenet of the relationship and BAU operating model. If it’s tied to voting the number of shares, you’re on dangerous grounds. Setup a management board and decide what kinds of decisions are made by the board, and which ones don’t. Common areas to address are decisions around hiring/firing, pricing and employee salaries.

Learn to trust each other The underlying question here is Can the founders work closely together for an extended period without killing each other? If one or more of the founders has some ‘tic’ the others don’t like or if there’s some odd feelings there, it might be overlooked in the rush to include people on the team who have a particular skill. Basically, can you spend 24/7 time together and have trust, tolerance, space and stretch when needed?

What it’s like to share the highs and lows, the successes and the failures, and the feeling of having someone alongside you, shoulder-to-shoulder all the while confident they think the same way? By merging their disparate talents and idiosyncrasies, effective co-founders sync when it comes to the course they co-charted. That kind of strategic cohesion is the secret sauce behind successful startups, so try to create that serendipity in your own startup enterprise.

Of course, besides the ‘strategic’ stuff, there’s also the everyday realities of working together. The face you see day in and day out, no matter what hour of the day, what day of the week, will be your co-founder. They know everything about you – while it may start with knowing about your business personality, their knowledge of your life will soon extend to everything personal. They will also know what your poker face, happy face, sulky face, and goofed-up-big-time face looks like.

Whether you’re married or not, your co-founder will always prove to be your alter spouse, so what about the real day to day issues you need to be aware of when selecting a co-founder. Here are a few:

Tantrums and bickering Each mind is different and there’s going to be noise. It will be fun for the honeymoon – and then reality sets in as you deal with everything under the sun. Hopefully your passion for the startup will always be enough adhesive to bring you together again.

You’ll learn about each other’s likes and dislikes Your co-founder will know what order to place for you at the coffee shop. The same goes for you, you’ll know if she prefers to work with music on in the office or in the quiet. More times than not, you’ll have learnt these things the hard way

Washing the pots In a startup, there will be loads of little, time consuming things to do and only the two of you. You’ll split the workload between yourselves, the good chores and dirty chores alike. Remember, the most important four words for a successful marriage: I’ll do the dishes.

Compromising to get along You’ll be scanning every small area of expenditure. There will always be disagreements over what you need and what you don’t need, and learning to compromise is key.

Keep it fresh Like spouses, business partners need their own ‘date night’, relationships won’t flourish without regular, open and honest communication.

The things that make startup co-founders work effectively together reflect spouses’ relationship in a successful marriage. Most important it that you make it a habit to set aside time for getting together to review priorities, discuss challenges, concerns, frustrations and generally check in with each other.

In the end, the best way to determine whether you should work with someone is to choose a co-founder like you would a spouse. The best type of relationship is the kind where you share a vision and purpose, see yourself building things together, where you know there is give-and-take.

Marriage is a wonderful invention, then again, so is the bicycle repair kit, but it offers us insights and parallels to a successful co-founder relationship. They say don’t marry the person you think you can live with, marry the individual you think you can’t live without. Apply the same to choosing a co-founder.

When you feel like you’ve finally found that with someone, take the leap; don’t bother with those luxuriously creamy envelope for invites, just get on with it.

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