Finding The Perfect Startup Co-Founder

Adam and Eve. Sonny and Cher. Jobs and Wozniak. Legendary partners all. Sometimes even the most dedicated, uber-competent entrepreneur doesn’t have everything it takes to ensure startup success. That’s when you need that “perfect partner.” But how do you find the right one?

Finding that ideal startup partner can be as elusive as finding a compatible mate. And just like millions of people have put their love lives in the hands of technology, you can now find your business soul mate online. 

Kaviani co-founded CoFoundersLab less than two years ago with the aim of bringing entrepreneurs together to launch startups. CoFoundersLab makes matches (for free) via its online platform or through in-person Meetups. The company is currently in six markets, but expects to at least double that number by year end. It has also teamed up with TechStars in Boulder, Colo., Harvard i-Labs in Boston, and with New York University’s Stern School of Business.

To find out more about how co-founders can help startups succeed,and how founders can find the right partners, I talked with Kaviani and Julie Edge, Ph.D., who is the founder of Inside Edge Solutions, on the faculty of Washington University in St. Louis, and has worked with Kaviani.

RIEVA LESONSKY: CoFoundersLab has been described as “eHarmony for entrepreneurs.” Is looking for a co-founder like looking for a mate?

DR. JULIE EDGE: Ironically it is a bit like looking for a marriage partner.You need to have great trust, be able to engage in healthy conflict, and hold the other person accountable. You need the right personality match to get through the dark days together. In business you need to know if this person has the right skill set for you.

But don’t look for someone who is “most closely aligned” with how you think. The Hogan Personality Inventory (a personality assessment tool) shows that the best teams are the ones that are the most different on all [measurement] scales.

SHAHAB KAVIANI: You also need an equal-level appreciation of the co-founder’s “art” and what they do. The level of complexity for tech roles is highly valued today; the subtle skills of sales and marketing not as highly. But there needs to be mutual appreciation.

LESONSKY: If tech skills are more highly valued, how do the co-founders strike the right balance?

EDGE: First, you need to make sure you need a co-founder, and not an employee. Co-founders = co-owners, both parties have skin in the game.

KAVIANI: Ask yourself, “Am I ready for a co-founder? Can I give up the sole decision making, or am I really just looking for [help]?”

LESONSKY: Then why not go it alone and hire the skills you need?

EDGE: Not everyone needs a co-founder. If the business doesn’t have to scale quickly, going it alone might be the way to go. Technology is a highly competitive industry with a race to market. To get up and running is often too much work for one person. You need a co-founder so you can divide and conquer and get a leap ahead.

KAVIANI: Industries with high partnership rates include clean energy, green businesses, biotech and health. They’re also growing the fastest.

EDGE: The biotech and health fields [are ideal for partners] since science and tech come together. Science doesn’t know business. Two to three skill sets are needed to make a company viable. Many accelerators are only looking at co-founder teams. There’s a 12-14 week period to build a company very quickly.

LESONSKY: Shahab, you’re a veteran of co-founding. What do you look for?

KAVIANI: Here at CoFoundersLab we meaure “teamability.” Are they ready for commitment, and compatible with the team? They need to be empathetic, level-headed, and have ability to look at issues from different points of view.

LESONSKY: So in this age of technology, can co-founders have a long-distance relationship? Or do they have to “live” together?

KAVIANI: Co-founders don’t need to necessarily spend all their time together, but partners should be within 150 miles of one another and get together at least two to three times a month. [Co-founders] need to build trust. That happens in person. The more distance, the higher the likelihood of failing.

LESONSKY: But why would someone need a “matchmaking” service? Isn’t it riskier to partner with a stranger?

KAVIANI: Almost half the people who team up now do it with family or old college roommates. But you have to think with your head and not your heart. The new aspect [of our business] is getting people who don’t know one another to team up.

EDGE: Trust is the primary reason people turn to people they already know. It’s more comfortable to team up with someone from college. There’s a tradeoff using a service like CoFoundersLab. You get a better fit, but you don’t have trust at the beginning.

LESONSKY: How do you establish trust with a stranger?

KAVIANI: You have to make sure the innate characteristics of the size of play is the same — that you share a common goal. Do you [each] want to build a lifestyle business or a VC-backed business? These have different tempos and you have to be on the same page. You both have to be willing to do whatever it takes.

EDGE: The hard part is people don’t know that at the beginning. And don’t divide the equity too early. One co-founder might not do as much as the other. Don’t worry about defining equity until you understand what each co-founder does.

LESONSKY: How does CoFoundersLab help?

KAVIANI:We look at a range of skills.  What does each person bring? It could be money, sweat equity, connections or industry experience. Very soon you’ll be able to filter by personality, values and goals.

EDGE: The science of personality has been around a long time, but there’s no magic formula. There’s a better chance of success if you’re paired using personality theory. We’re talking about fit, not just for a job, but with another person. Tools, if used properly, pull emotion out of the decision. They make co-founders see how they behave vs. how they think they do.

LESONSKY: You both feel strongly about the benefits of a co-founder?

EDGE: Yes. Entrepreneurship is a hard road. It’s easier to grow a business if you have someone to share the journey with.

KAVIANI: Emotional support is not talked about a lot. But that, and camaraderie are valuable contributors to a startup’s success.

Sonny & Cher image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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