How do you identify and select the right person as your co-founder? Sunil Nagaraj, founding partner of Ubiquity Ventures and co-founder of Triangulate, shares his insights on the importance of co-founder compatibility. Like a romantic relationship, your co-founder partnership needs some chemistry. But once the initial spark fades, you need to have built an underlying foundation. Long-term compatibility enables your co-founder relationship to survive the ups and downs of building a venture.
3 Quick Tips on Co-Founder Compatibility
- Friendship Doesn’t Ensure Co-Founder Compatibility
- Work with People on a Trial Basis before Formalizing a Co-Founder Relationship
- Aligned Values and Long-Term Compatibility Matters More than an Initial Spark
Want tips for assessing potential co-founders? Our posts, Choosing a Co-Founder? How to Find the Right Person and 3 Topics to Discuss before Writing a Founders’ Agreement, provides lists of questions to ask potential co-founders before formalizing your partnership. Our Founding Team section provides frameworks for creating a founders’ agreement and allocating co-founder equity. It describes the pros and cons of adding a co-founder vs. becoming a solo-founder.
Friendship Doesn't Ensure Long-Term Co-Founder Compatibility
Nagaraj co-founded Triangulate—a startup that developed profile matching platforms for social networks—with a close friend in 2009. Initially, “having someone join me who was comfortable, who I knew, was a huge relief.” The pair enjoyed conceptual brainstorming about ideas. But as things shifted and they needed to become more tactical and divide work, both realized “there were major holes in the business plan.” The two had very similar backgrounds and overlapping skill sets. They neglected “to establish their expectations about who would do what, specifically.”
In retrospect, Nagaraj realized, they knew one another so well, that they “never truly wrestled with some of the deeper challenges.” For example, neither wanted to spend time building. Both wanted to be CEO or Head of Business Development, which couldn’t work. Nagaraj’s first co-founder relationship failed. But that didn’t deter him. As a result of the failure, he prioritized finding a partner whose attitude and core values aligned with his. It began organically.
There were major holes our business plan—a symptom of the underlying issue. We had very similar backgrounds and we started to see how much we overlapped. Both of us wanted to be CEO or Head of BD, and that wasn’t compatible.
Work with People on a Trial Basis before Formalizing a Co-Founder Relationship
On a trip, Nagaraj became reacquainted with a colleague he had met during business school. In his first partnership, he formalized the relationship quickly with a friend before realizing they had similar skill sets and aspirations. During his second founding experience, after talking with a former colleague during lunch, “he came back to my apartment in Palo Alto and we started coding together. From the get-go, we dove into the real work.”
In his first co-founder relationship, Nagaraj focused on the process of creating a founders’ agreement rather than assessing co-founder compatibility. This time, he followed the advice of another CEO who recommended creating a temporary consulting agreement. In this manner, you can work together during a trial period to see if you’re truly compatible before formalizing a co-founder relationship.
During the trial period, Nagaraj explains, “I don’t have cash to pay them. But if they become a co-founder, I rip up the agreement.” The process worked. He recalls, “I was able to eventually have four people through different versions of this arrangement, in my living room, working for free before they became co-founders.”
Another CEO had recommended this idea of creating a temporary consulting agreement. Establish a trial period to have someone come and work. I was able to eventually have four people through different versions of this arrangement, working before they became co-founders.
Aligned Values and Long-Term Compatibility Matters More than an Initial Spark
Even if you know your potential co-founder well, don’t make assumptions that they feel the same way you do about core values. Nagaraj compares finding a compatible co-founder to the process of finding the right romantic partner. “In a romantic context, the underlying foundation is ‘how do you feel about money?’ ‘How do you feel about kids?’ ‘What are your key values in your life?’ Those actually apply almost identically to a co-founder.”
Nagaraj recommends asking your co-founder about their primary motivations for starting a business. Do they aspire to make a lot of money? Or make a big impact in the world? Get specific with your questions, he encourages. Find out, “Do they like to sit on $5 steel folding chairs? Or do they want a beautiful office with a view?” He stresses, “finding that alignment on core values is much more important than the initial spark.”
“In a romantic context, the underlying foundation is ‘how do you feel about money?’ ‘How do you feel about kids?’ ‘What are your key values in your life?’ Those actually apply almost identically to a co-founder.”
In the “3 Biggest Mistakes When Choosing a Cofounder,” Jessica Alter, co-founder of FounderDating, discusses 3 aspects to choosing a co-founder: need, approach, and timing. She advises co-founders not to pitch a polished idea to potential partners but instead invite them to contribute. Most people “don’t just want to work on an idea, they want to be a part of something bigger.” In terms of timing, she recommends finding a cofounder as soon as possible—“Finding your partner should not be the last thing you do, it should be the first thing you do.”
In “Looking for Love in All The Wrong Places – How to Find a Co-founder,” serial entrepreneur Steve Blank suggests simulating an environment to test potential co-founders. Host a hackathon and use the time to assess the person’s soft skills, like conflict resolution. “You want someone who exhibits intense focus in chaotic situations, keen decision-making skills when faced with little data, relentlessness, agility, and curiosity.”
In “How I Found a Great CTO,” Miriam Naficy, founder of Minted.com, offers strategies on finding a technical co-founder: 1) find a well-networked, experienced engineer to make introductions. 2) “Embed yourself in the world of engineers to understand what person you’re looking for and how to talk to the person once you find her. Do it yourself and don’t delegate it.” 3) As you interview, your idea of the perfect type of person may change. Naficy shares that “chemistry with our team and have a deep passion” became increasingly important as she searched for a CTO.