The Perfect Match: Finding the Right Co-Founder
Alex and I became friends in the fall of 2008, when we were classmates at Harvard Business School. She was rocking some fantastic skinny jeans that were somehow long enough for her 36-inch inseam, and I rushed over to find out where she’d gotten them. We bonded that day over our shared struggle as “misfits” in the fashion industry’s approach to sizing, and that set in motion a relationship that progressed from classmate to friend to business partner, all in the course of three years.
But, of course, it takes more than the elusive perfect pair of tall-girl jeans to pick the right partner in crime for your business. Now, as co-founders of fashion company Quincy, here’s what we figured out along the way about finding a match made in heaven.
1. Become Friends First
You wouldn’t marry someone you’ve only known a few weeks, right? So why would you dive into a business relationship with someone you only met at a “co-founder speed-dating” event last month? Before you can take your relationship to the next level, you should get to know each other as friends.
And I’m not just talking going to dinner a few times. Learn what makes her happiest and what stresses her out. See how she responds to difficult situations or murky ethical quandaries. Find out how she treats others (and herself) when things aren’t going well. These things are easy to overlook when you’re deep in the throes of co-founder infatuation—but they’re almost certainly things you’ll encounter once you start your company.
2. Test the Relationship (a.k.a. “Date”)
In our second year at school, Alex approached me about working together—consulting for another fashion start-up that had recently come out of HBS. This project would be the first time we had to agree on a strategy, work through differences of opinion, and be accountable to each other. And taking this on was a fantastic opportunity to “date” as co-founders and see just how compatible and complementary we really were as partners, not just as friends.
Look for ways that you, too can “date” someone before signing on to a company together. Even if it’s someone you’ve worked with before, simulating the start-up environment—where you’ll both have something major on the line—can open your eyes to a lot about a person.
3. Pick a Good Match
When you first look at us, Alex and I are an odd pair. She studied mechanical engineering and worked as an engineer at General Motors before shifting to retail operations and supply chain consulting. I trained as a classical musician and theater director, and freelanced with small theaters and music ensembles before working in arts management at the Metropolitan Opera.
But this also makes us a great combination. When we set out to structure our working relationship, it was made easier because our skill sets are complementary, not redundant. Alex loves creating systems and processes, refining workflows, and optimizing just about anything she can get her hands on, while I love telling stories and communicating with audiences. She’s focused on “building,” and I am “selling.”
It’s a bit like dating (funny how that analogy keeps surfacing, right?). You want to look for someone who shares your values but has a complementary personality. Honestly, advice about how to “find a co-founder” is sort of like telling you how to “find a husband.” You can't put your finger on it. But if it’s something on your radar, you’ll be drawn to people who are looking for the same thing, and you’ll be prepared when the right person turns out to be standing in front of you.
4. Talk Through Where You’re Coming From
When we graduated, Alex and I agreed that someday we would start a business together—someday in about five years. So when Alex came up with the idea for Quincy less than a year after graduation, we had a lot to talk through before we could go ahead with the partnership. Alex and her husband had just moved to London, and she had his career to think about. I was single and didn’t have the means to support myself if I were to go without a salary for any serious length of time. We both had student debt to consider.
The point is, everyone’s coming to the table from different places, so you need to have conversations from the get-go about your goals, pressure points, and potential exits. We mapped out what it would take to build Quincy, then had a frank conversation about how much money we could afford to put in (note: it was a substantially different amount for each of us), what the timeline was to leave our jobs and work full-time (also a point of differentiation), and what our walk-away points would be. We spent a long time working through the equity split and what kind of outcomes we wanted to strive for.
These conversations aren’t easy—but they’re arguably one of the most crucial parts of co-founder success. Before you invest your time, money, and soul into a company, you need to know (and get on paper) where the other person stands—on everything—and make sure that your goals and levels of commitment are compatible. Much of your relationship as co-founders will be spent making tough decisions, and the more big surprises you can prevent from the get-go, the better off you’ll be.
In the end, your co-founder is pretty much like your spouse, and choosing who to build a business with is as important as choosing who to marry. I may not have figured out the dating thing yet, but I know I hit the jackpot with my co-founder.
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Photo courtesy of Bruno Cordioli.
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