Some thoughts on founding teams

Probably the second most frequently asked question I hear from aspiring entrepreneurs is “Should I have a co-founder, and how do I find them?” This seems especially common with folks who have a business idea, but don’t feel confident that they have the skills to build it themselves. As with other questions, most people have an intuitive hunch about what the answer is, but have a secret hope that there are other, easier options.

TL;DR: Yes you should have a co-founder, and you probably already know this person, so just reach out to them.

On having co-founders:

While it’s possible, with enough time & effort, for one person to become a top 5% salesperson, product manager and technical developer (and thus have the perspective of a common 3-person founding team), I actually think that in the long run the 3-person team would make the better decisions. There’s something to be said for having a civilized debate between equals, rather than all important decisions being made by a single person in their head, and I think it leads to more rational & robust decision-making. This is especially true in the earliest days of the business, when you’re moving fast, taking lots of shortcuts, and rarely have the time to stop & think about big decisions from multiple perspectives.

As the business grows, the founders will need to grow with it, learning huge amounts to both broaden their knowledge, and usually developing really deep knowledge in a few areas. This is also easier for multiple people to do, since you can each specialize in your particular area and branch out from there. It’s true that your early hires (and ideally everyone on the team) will need to learn on the fly & grow themselves to keep up, but typically your lead SW dev will not need to learn GAAP & EU trade policy, but as CTO or CEO you might.

Lastly, when we look at really successful tech companies both locally and on the international stage, there is a remarkably small number that actually started with a single founder and are still thriving today. The best local example would be Pebble, but very shortly after starting at Y Combinator, Eric brought on Andrew Witte, who would stay as CTO until Pebble was sold to Fitbit.

Now, how the heck do you find those people?

In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t need to be a long time, but my gut feeling is that most successful co-founders knew each other at least 6 months before calling themselves co-founders. Some of them took 1–2 classes together, some worked together (either full-time or on a co-op). The ExVivo founders met through a Velocity brainstorming event, when each was working on their own idea part-time. Many co-founding teams had been classmates for their entire undergrad, or even high school together.

There aren’t as many obvious trends here, but I’ll add one caveat that you need to have immense, earned trust in each of these people. There is a strong mental pull, after meeting someone who sounds incredibly smart, to believe that they will make all your technical (or sales, or legal) troubles go away. That is a sign of a very persuasive person, but until you have done some amount of work with that person, treat those claims the same way you’d treat a blurb on someone’s dating profile: maybe they can live up to the hype, but don’t get too emotionally invested until you learn what they’re really like.

Think of it like dating…

What skillsets should they have?

If those technical hires are treated as a gate, where you feel like you can’t talk to customers until you’ve hired them & they’ve started building something, this can lead to either rushing the hiring process (and increasing your chances of making a mis-hire or finding the wrong co-founder) or avoiding talking to customers (and increasing your risk of putting a lot of time & energy into something people won’t want). Both of these are not-so-great outcomes. Be patient in finding the right people, and talk to customers before you have a demo-ready product.

A final point on equity splits:

Hardware startup guy, aspiring Dungeon Master, ice cream sandwich enthusiast