If you happen to be building a startup, you’ll most likely be faced with the daunting task of choosing a co-founder. It’s one of the biggest challenges entrepreneurs face, because finding someone to share your dream, your vision, your finances, and your business’ future is like finding a spouse. Only harder.
About four and a half years ago, I had a great idea, but I knew I required a developer’s skill set to make that idea come to life. I was determined to build a company without relying on venture capital, so I needed to find someone who would understand my idea and believe in it enough to take a stake in it in lieu of a huge paycheck.
I was also starting the business in Reno, Nevada. At the time, there wasn’t much of a tech network—though that has changed in the last couple of years—so I turned to Craigslist. And I got lucky. Doug Churchill and I have been working together successfully for four years.
When people ask how I successfully vetted a co-founder from Craigslist, here’s what I tell them I looked for—and how you can look for it when considering potential partners, too.
1. Someone With an Opposite Field of Expertise
Working together requires compromising and making decisions about all aspects of the business that will ultimately help it grow. For that reason, I suggest seeking a co-founder who has a different skill set than yours.
Before you even start looking for your better half, make a realistic list of your strengths and weaknesses. For example, I understand coding in broad strokes, and I’ve even done a little bit of it. But I didn’t know nearly enough to build the software platform I envisioned all those years ago (I still don’t!). I am terrible at accounting—around the office, we call it “Jim math”—so I knew I needed a co-founder who was good with numbers. And I am quick to take risks (more on that later) so I needed someone who was a little more level-headed. Doug brings all of those strengths to the office every day.
When we’re working on new features for our product, Doug and I consider our unique perspectives, but ultimately I rely on him for the technical know-how and he relies on me for the marketing. We’re still able to discuss the overall direction of the company, but we respect each other’s strengths enough to defer when necessary.
2. Someone Who is as Hungry as You Are
If you’re the person with the idea and you’ve already been pursuing it, there’s a chance you’ve got a lot at stake, financially speaking. When searching for a co-founder, you will be better off if you find someone who is as hungry as you are. Not desperate, but very, very motivated. Why does this matter? If one person is going into the business with a hefty savings account and not much to lose, it most likely won’t mean as much to him or her to succeed as it does to you.
When I found Doug, he was coming off of an e-commerce business (and business partnership) gone sour. He was financially motivated to work really hard, and he had experience in startups. Once I shared my idea and vision with him, he was ready to jump in with both feet.
Before we signed any legal documents, however, I gave him a test run. I hired him to do a small trial project for me and from that was able to learn a lot about his work style. It was immediately obvious he had the skills I didn’t, was able to be his own boss, and didn’t need me to remind him of deadlines.
Since we’ve both owned other businesses and have lived through the ups and downs, it keeps us equally motivated to continue to enhance our product for ongoing success.
3. Someone Whose Personality Complements Yours
Earlier, I mentioned that finding a co-founder and starting a business with someone is like finding a spouse and getting married. In fact, Adam Callinan from PiCK Ventures, Inc said it best: “You’ll likely be spending more time with your business partner than with your life partner (if you have one). Spend the necessary time to really get to know each other to make sure that it’s a good fit for both parties. If it’s not, you could end up married to your new arch nemesis.”
The early co-founder vetting process is sort of like dating. At first, you’re on your best behavior because you want to make a good impression. Then, when things start to get serious, you’re not quite as self-conscious, you see a little more of each other’s faults, and you have to decide if the flaws are ones you can live with. Ideally, you will work on a project with a potential co-founder the way Doug and I did, and you’ll get a good idea of how the person will be to work with for the next several years.
In fact, the more time you take to find the right person to join you on your startup adventure, the more likely the business will succeed.
Oh, and one final tip: Don’t be afraid to be creative with where you look. Friends, former colleagues, second or third degree connections, and—hey, you never know—maybe you’ll find your next partner on Craigslist!