Startup Diaries: Your Co-Founder Is Not Your Friend

A startup is a mix of team, product and market. Obviously, it first starts with the team – the base on what everything else is built.

In the last years, I read many articles on how to choose your co-founders, what pitfalls to avoid and how to build a successful team. The most recent piece of reading I have stumbled upon was one article that opinioned you don’t need a co-founder or a team, that you can go out there and start something on your own. I do agree that building an MVP is doable without anyone’s help, but teams of one have a very high failure rate – a good enough reason why all accelerators require a team of two or more. A “lone wolf” will always have a question mark above his head – If you’re so great, why doesn’t anybody work with you?

In my case, finding the right co-founders was a combination of luck and hard work. It took me about 5 years of working together before I realized how incredibly lucky we all were. I wrote in another article about our team’s selection in the first batch at the Startupbootcamp business accelerator and about how we changed our project during the first week in the program. It is one of those cases when the only thing that can save you is a strong team – if we hadn’t been working together for a long time, we might have split up then and there. Even today, we are given as an example of a strong team, that can completely swap its project and yet survive the change.

So, in case you haven’t yet been lucky enough to find your perfect partners, how can you choose them?

Almost everybody will tell you that the best way to find a co-founder for your startup is among friends and family. I disagree: assuming that “friend” is more than just a connection on Facebook and it really depicts a close relationship with a person (by definition, not linked to a professional activity, but rather a personal one), you should think really well if you want to risk it. It’s the same for family – starting a business with a family member might be great because you can completely trust them, but it will also mix up work and personal issues. My father has his own small computer business and I could have easily joined him. Fortunately for me, he was wise enough to encourage me in finding my own path. Today I see plainly that we couldn’t have worked together.  Even though we have a great relationship, our personalities often clash and our fights are loud enough to scare the neighbors – not something that you would want in a working environment.

What brought me and my co-founders together was a previous working relationship that encouraged us to enter a more formal agreement. Even before that, we barely knew each other from college but just got together one night and started working on a website, as freelancers. We really clicked, without being friends, and discovered that we complemented each other in terms of skills and knowledge. It was enough to get the company rolling and we were fortunate enough to survive difficult moments. There were times in the beginning when the lack of projects and income almost tore us apart, but our common goals brought us back together.

In some ways, a co-founder has to be more trust-worthy and helpful than a friend. It is not enough to be friends, you need a common set of values, the same view on the world and the desire to succeed. I do not expect my friends to share my ideals (or passion for my project), but I really want (and need) to see them in my co-founders.

And this doesn’t apply only to co-founders. Yes, the co-founders are the core of the team that should have the ability to gather around them people that can add value to the startup. But being in a startup is not a job and there is no such thing as a simple employee. A small team has its perks and pitfall – you can create your own culture, but a “bad apple” will negatively influence the rest. Sometimes we deal with tension that everyone can sense and even though there are no loud complaints, I can see how the production drops, work gets sloppy and no one dares to crack a joke. More often than not, these difficult times are caused by someone who doesn’t want to be part of the team and is there for different reasons (like getting a paycheck at the end of the month).

No matter the field, attitude is at the core of everything. We have worked (and still work) with amazing people that managed to acquire an impressive set of skills just because they enjoy their work and being part of the team. On the other hand, we have seen some that are equally smart and capable, but never made significant progress because they were there for the wrong reason. This was a lesson for us as well, because we hired them ignoring our gut feeling that told us something was off. In the end, we had to manage a situation that was making everyone unhappy and I hope we learned a great deal in the process.

To finish on a positive note, I will tell you a small story that happened to us a few years back. We had just hired a junior PHP programmer that was not rising to the expectations. After his first week, we thought it wasn’t going to work out and decided to have a talk with him. He surprised us by asking for a second chance. He knew he wasn’t doing well and was studying a lot on his own in his spare time. We did give him a second chance – and he turned out to be not only an excellent programmer, but also a great guy to work with. Needless to say, he was part of the team for several years and we are still friends today. He will always remain a great example on how ambition, the desire to learn and the right attitude can fully compensate the lack of knowledge and skills.