One of the most important steps in taking a product from idea to reality is finding the right co-founder. This post will describe how the Geckoboard co-founders came together and share some insights about the importance of finding the right co-founder. The founding team makes or breaks any startup, but it’s easier said than done. I spoke to Paul and Rob, the co-founders here at Geckoboard, about how they found each other.
Keeping things in perspective
As well as sharing the physical and financial burdens that come with running a startup, a co-founder is vital in sharing the emotional highs and lows. They are the person to whom you can turn in moments of despair and with whom you can share a cheer when you’ve had a breakthrough day. A good co-founder should help keep things in perspective. Once you’ve got an idea that you are really excited about, it is tricky to wait for the perfect person to come along. It might take months or even years, and by then who knows where you will be? You worry that someone else will get onto doing what you wanted to do. But you don’t need to rush into it. It is worth setting time aside to really find someone that will tick all the boxes.
It took Geckoboard founder Paul Joyce 12 months to find his co-founder, Rob Hudson. Well, they met a little earlier but spent the rest of those months making sure it was the bread and butter match that it needed to be.
Paul: When I first had the idea for Geckoboard I knew I wanted to create it with someone else. I’d dabbled with various side projects in the past and I knew how much work would be involved to get this off the ground. I spoke to a couple of ex-colleagues about coming on board but neither were particularly interested. In the meantime as every day passed I became increasingly obsessed with getting the project off the ground - my attention was fully on the product; finding a co-founder would have to wait. I was still working at my day job when the very first public facing version of Geckoboard was released in July 2010 and we started seeing some early signs of traction. Even then it was clear that sharing the day to day experience with someone who was as immersed in it as I was would be highly beneficial but the success of Geckoboard meant I couldn’t just pick anyone off the street and expect things to work out.“
So began the 1 year search for a co-founder
Rob: I was coming at this from a different angle. I was getting bored of my previous startup (PlayNice.ly) which didn’t really get much traction. With PlayNice.ly I kind of fell into setting up the company. As such, I didn’t really ‘choose’ my co-founders (although they are both great). This meant that when it came to deciding whether to join Geckoboard, I took a long time thinking about whether Paul and I would be a good fit.
Paul: "I started attending tech meetups in London (like HNLondon) and got to know a few people. One of the first I met was another startup founder and early Geckoboard customer - Rob. Rob and I gradually got to know each other over the course of 12 months - I felt that that gave me enough of an idea of who he was, what was important to him, how we would communicate and, most importantly, whether we’d get on - I’m sure he would say the same. In that period I spoke to about 6 other people about coming on as a co-founder, some more seriously than others, but Rob was the only one I was confident would be a great fit.
Rob:When I met Paul, I was thoroughly impressed, not only with what Paul had done with Geckoboard but also with how he presented himself. I guess you could say our relationship built up over that 12 month period. By the time Paul offered me a job, there was little question in my mind that we would work well together. However, it was very important to me that we both made the right decision. What followed was a long period of discussion (and also negotiation) around what we both wanted. After this we were as certain as we could be that we had both made the right choice.
Paul: It’s an important decision and not something to rush into without knowing someone - you might hit it off but there’s a good chance you won’t. I did go solo for some considerable time, but it’s hard to overstate how tough it is. It’s not impossible but it’s my belief that it’s a serious impediment to startup success particularly for a first time founder.
The perfect match
Finding a co-founder is a lot like finding a life partner. You don’t marry someone you’ve only just met, similarly you don’t co-found a company with some you’ve spent a few weeks getting to know. It’s vital that you seriously know the person and how they’ll behave in all manor of different situations. He might seem like the perfect guy over a few drinks in the pub, but when their job, mortgage and pay-check are all on the line, it could be a very different story.
Remember, this is the person you could potentially be working alongside for the rest of your working life - think carefully. Become friends first - and not just acquaintances I mean friends, understand how the person reacts under extreme pressure and how he treats others when things aren’t going to plan. Do you have similar personalities? Are you going to find yourself disagreeing regularly while making important decisions?
Balance the workload.
Often startups try to form without an expert in all areas of the business. Complementary skills make it easier in the early days and helps to evenly spread the workload across the board. As your company grows you can increase the workforce to eventually cover everything, in the early days - divide the workload evenly between the founders depending on their skill set.
Although it’s great if Co-founders have very different personalities and skill sets, its very important that their vision is the same as yours. You must agree on things such as business location, recruitment decisions, direction and other core business decisions.
While it’s important to trust your Co-Founder it’s essential that your agreements are on paper. Hire a lawyer an draw up contracts, it’s not fun and nobody likes it but it has to be done. It could save a lawsuit down the line.
A Co-Founder’s for life, not just for christmas.
One thing to bare in mind when looking for a Co-Founder is, that whether or not they’re working for your company forever, their actions will always have an effect on the company (example).
Similarly, if you do end up working together for a lifetime it’s important that you have a solid relationship to support it. One of the biggest mistakes founders make is to assume that an existing friend will behave similarly in a business as they do in a friendship - they will not. Which is why Co-Founding with an existing friend is sometimes ill-advised and can be risky, however Co-Founding with an existing friend does also have it’s benifits. Naturally you would have built a stronger trust with the person and will encounter fewer disturbing surprises along the way.
Sharon Lewis-Bultsma, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist says the following are things to look out for when Co-Founding with an existing friend:
”- A power differential in the business. If the friends have unequal roles in the business, this frequently leads to conflict.
- A significant difference in initial investment in the business. If one partner has more money at stake, that partner is likely to want a greater say in the business, no matter what his or her official role actually is.
- One or both friends have trouble communicating or dealing with conflict. You’ll need to be completely open about conflicts and problems, both before launching the business and after. “If you let problems or anger fester, it can easily turn into resentment.”
When founding you’re startup it’s importnat you think carefully about whether you want to found it solo or find a Co-Founder. In summary, as with everything, there are pros and cons:
Pros & Cons.
- Double the brain, double the brain power. A Co-founder brings a whole new brain to the table a long with new ideas, skills, experience and knowledge that you would not have if you were a “solo”. This will help to solve any issues the business faces.
- Keep you on the straight and narrow. A Co-Founder will tell you it how it is. They will not decorate it or play problems down like others may, sometimes you need to be told when you’re heading down a dead end path to enable you to stop wasting time doing one thing. Time which could be better spent elsewhere.
- Results, faster. Co-Founders bring twice the man power, meaning double the work gets done in half the time. This will speed along important stages in the business such as launch. Most work can be sped up by having more hands working in it.
- Two places at once. Co-Founders can enable a representative to be at an event (be it a meeting, interview, conference or any other event that will help your business) while you are busy doing something else. This could enable your business to get more visibility, gaining more traction to help fire the business forward.
- Complementary skills. Ideally Co-Founders will have a whole different skill set to yours. Lets take a software startup for example. This could mean that the Co-Founder builds the software which you would otherwise have to outsource leaving you to focus on the business. Similarly if you’re a great engineer but lack on the business side, having someone take that pressure off can work wonders for your product.
- Share this Pit-Falls. Having someone to go through the emotional and physical strain of founding a startup can be a reason alone to make them worthwhile. Sharing any set-backs, costs, losses, bad days, missed family holidays makes them easier to deal with. While sharing the successes is also great, and can make them mean more.
- Can be a liability. Co-Founders can turn out to be a liability and not on the same page as you regarding the law and values. You don’t want to turn up to work one day to discover your Co-Founder won’t be in because he’s been arrested in New York, or because he’s in bed with a hangover following a pub crawl. Things like this may not be apparent at initial meetings but could spring up later down the line when they decide they fancies their chances on the roulette wheel with the company credit card.
- Complications: Having a Co-Founder will undoubtedly make the running of the business more complicated. It’s up to you to make the decision whether the added complications outweigh the benefits. Key business decisions are no longer your sole decision - you’ll need to agree on everything.
- Equity splitting. A business that turns over 100k a year, minus the 45k running costs leaves you 55k to live off. Not bad eh? Having a Co-Founder suddenly halves that, 22.5k doesn’t seem so attractive does it. Will the Co-Founder double the turnover? If you think the problem only exists when the business is making relatively small amounts of money you’re mistaken. With millions or more to be split people tend to over estimate their contribution to the company which can get very messy very quickly.
Deciding whether to have a Co-Founder or not is not a decision that should be taken lightly, think long and hard about the pros and cons. After all there’s no hard and fast rule as to which is wrong and which is right, it all depends on what works for you and your company.