(Editor’s note: Zephrin Lasker is CEO of Pontiflex, a New York-based email and social acquisition technology company. He submitted this story to VentureBeat.)
When you think about starting a company, you’ll have plenty of sleepless nights.
On some evenings, you’ll be thinking about the problem you want to solve. On others it’s whether you’ll need funding. How you’ll generate revenue and how you’ll eventually turn a profit are more good fuel for insomnia. But before you can address any of these concerns, you need to make another critical decision: Just who’s going to address them with you.
Picking the right co-founders is arguably the most important step you can take in starting your business. It’s even more important than picking the right VCs, because it ultimately sets the DNA for your company. Here are a few things that I’ve learned about picking the right co-founders and working with them.
Pick your friends, but not because they’re your friends. – There’s an oft-cited theory that, more often than not, you already know the person you’re going to marry. The same is true with co-founders. You probably already know them from school or past jobs. This is a good thing, since trust is paramount. You need to be able to wholeheartedly believe in the people you’re embarking on this adventure with. It’s much harder to build that kind of confidence with someone you don’t know.
This can, however, lead many founders to the critical mistake of choosing their co-founders simply because they’re friends – which can potentially lead to startup disaster. Just because your college roommate is good at programming doesn’t mean s/he should be your CTO. And conversely, just because someone would make a great CTO doesn’t necessarily make them the best candidate to help found your company.
What you need is a combination of the right skills and steadfast loyalty. If, for instance, you find yourself in a South American jail (how you got there is unimportant), will your co-founder bail you out? If the answer is yes, can they also help you lead a company and take it to great places? If you have to think twice about the answers to these questions, your potential co-founder may not be the right fit for your company.
Choose your mirror, not your clone. – Don’t decide to work with someone who brings the same skills and ideas to the table as you do. On the surface, it may seem like you both share the same vision, but you want to make sure that your co-founders are bringing different perspectives and that you have a variety of expertise to draw from. This helps ensure that your ideas are actually considered – and, if need be, criticized – rather than just “yes’d” to death.
That said, you don’t want to be in a situation where things become unruly and you become a dictator. Share decision-building consensus. Work out a system where everyone has a say. Co-founders are your partners, not your employees. Treat them like the latter and you’ll find yourself running a company of one.
Live in the same city. – Telecommuting is great for employees in remote offices and offering it as an opportunity can help you attract great talent and increase morale, but this doesn’t apply to co-founders. Simply put, you need to live in the same city, and if the person you think would be an ideal fit to help you start your business doesn’t, then one of you needs to move.
Working together in the same office breaks down barriers and ensures open communication, while trying to run a business from across the country does exactly the opposite. Also, don’t relegate your interactions to the workplace. Meet regularly for drinks/dinner. There’s a lot more to the co-founder relationship than what can be covered in a meeting. Assuming the skills are complementary, the closer the bond between the founders, the healthier the company will be. Nothing poisons the well faster than discord at the top.
When you pick the people who are going to embark on the startup journey with you, many will anticipate smooth sailing. More likely, your boat will be rocked by the Scylla and Charybdis of market realities and Murphy’s Law – and things will get rough. There’s nothing more important than having the right people at the oars.
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