Startup Advice

What qualities should you be looking for in a startup co-founder?

Martin Kovacs /

To go it alone or partner-up is a quandary that startup founders may find themselves faced with, and it is worthwhile carefully considering the issue before making a decision one way or another.

Of course, there need to be good reasons to bring a co-founder in and flawed rationale can lead to negative consequences.

Writing at INSEAD business school portal INSEAD Knowledge, Venugopal Gupta, founder and chief executive of Venture Works, explains how bringing a co-founder in for the wrong reasons is a recipe for failure.

“In my experience running a venture acceleration programme, founders often add co-founders for cosmetic effect — how they would appear in a pitch — or as zero-salary employees,” Gupta writes.

“Both approaches soon fail.

“While it is clear how the cosmetic approach could fail, the free-pair-of-hands approach isn’t set up for an enduring partnership either. In fact, founders who adopt this opportunistic concept, ironically, often lament the co-founder’s lack of commitment to the cause.

“The reason is simple: when founders are looking for a zero-salary employee, they end up attracting people who want a stop-gap internship.”

Consider the “now, next and later”

Given the importance of maintaining perspective in plotting the direction of a startup, Gupta says to increase the odds of a successful first talk with a co-founder, he often asks founders to consider the “now, next and later”.

“While many startups have a clear idea of ‘later’, fewer have a sure grasp on ‘now’ and even fewer can articulate ‘next’,” he writes.

“I feel that clarity about ‘now’ and ‘next’ is how a co-founder can find initial alignment.”

Character and capability should also be key considerations in determining whether a co-founder candidate is the right fit for your startup.

“While capability can perhaps solve problems and win battles, it is character that provides the required endurance and grit to win a war,” Gupta writes.

No strings attached may be the best way forward

First meetings are a way of sounding out expectations and there should be no pressure placed on making long-term commitments.

Gupta says such an approach could not only scare away the right person, it may also attract the wrong person.

“I am suspicious of co-founders committing important years of their lives after a 30-minute conversation and a cup of coffee,” he writes.

“It is juvenile to expect commitment right after the first meeting. No matter the verbal euphoria, the most you can realistically get after the initial meeting is a fragile nod.”

Taking it slowly is a sensible approach, allowing for the potential development of relationships.

Gupta says he often recommends startup founders invite prospective co-founders to work with them on a no-strings-attached basis.

“If the relationship is meant to be, it develops rapidly; if not, it dies its own death,” he writes.

“Fortunately, the startup environment doesn’t allow fence-sitting for long.”

Give it time to grow

Paying attention to the process and not getting carried away by expectations will stand startups in good stead.

Gupta stresses the importance of startups focusing on their next steps in the context of greater goals.

“Founders are the new-age explorers who are leading expeditions to push the boundaries of the world,” he says.

“They must attract the right kind of people to share the journey, as well as give them time and space to develop their own conviction and commitment. Awareness of the final destination is good, but clearly knowing the next steps is most important.”

Read more: Finding a co-founder can be as daunting as dating. Here’s three tips to help

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Martin Kovacs

Martin Kovacs is a journalist with experience covering the IT, consumer electronics, retail, finance and energy sectors.

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