How to find a business cofounder that doesn't suck

I got a really big response to this post:  Please, please, please stop asking how to find a technical cofounder.  There were three types of responses:

  1. MBA friends pinged me to apologize for being that guy.  Several of them proudly informed me of their attempts to learn to code.  (Hell yeah!)
  2. The Hacker News crowd applauded with approval.  Ranting on MBAs is pretty on theme in our world.
  3. And a bit surprisingly, a bunch of hackers pinged me asking for help on how to find a good business cofounder.

 

I have to admit that I had never really thought much about that third one.  Supply and demand are so off when it comes to technical talent that I thought that all good coders must be able to find business cofounders easily.  Of course, this is just plain wrong.  Finding a great business cofounder to complement your technical abilities is a big challenge.  There are few great ones out there and they're usually great because they're already proven...which then means they aren't looking for a new technical cofoudner.  And just as MBAs don't have a prayer at evaluating technical talent, coders really struggle to evaluate unproven business cofounders.

This stuff is hard no matter what.  Finding the right cofounder is harder than hiring and hiring is already super-tough, bordering on impossible.  But there is more to finding a business cofounder than just iteration and luck.  You need to approach the problem correctly.  Start with this:

 

Don't search for a business cofounder.

 

It's approaching the problem from the wrong angle.  When you search for a business cofounder, you're saying that you can't handle the business side of your startup. That's just dumb.  I know hundreds of technical founders that handle the business side of their startup just fine.  And if you're not yet good at the business side of startups, you need to get good.  That doesn't mean you need an MBA (Hah!).  You just need to understand the basic fundamentals of startup economics: cost of user acquisition, lifetime value of a user, market size, etc.  If you're not learning this stuff, you're doing your startup a disservice.

Now, it does usually follow that if and when you find a good non-technical cofounder, he will take over most of the business side of the task list.  But that is usually because in pre-product market startups, building the product is the biggest bottleneck for moving forward so the non-technical guy just picks up all the lower priority stuff that gets left over...like the business stuff.  So, don't judge your potential cofounder on his business ability.  You need to find a different heuristic.  I have one key insight to offer:

 

Find a business cofounder that truly rocks at something.  Anything.

 

Something. Anything.  Well, almost.  FInd someone that is good at one specific, concrete thing that is valuable to your startup right now.  If you're talking to a 100% generalist, it's just not going to work.  Not yet anyways.  He may turn into an impressive entrepreneur someday but that will be on a future startup after he's burned your's.  Good non-technical cofounders need to be able to contribute on day one or they become restless and start causing trouble like invading product development with feature creep or distracting everyone with premature fundraising talk.

Also, being really good at at least one thing means that he's demonstrated the ability to reach high levels of quality.  Your hope is that he can then replicate that in all the needs that your startup will have over time.

 

Here are three types of non-technical cofounders that rock:

 

The Camp Director (motivation)

A camp director has this magical way of getting talented people to provide help.    It's mostly just sales, but being a straight-up salesman is not enough.  Camp directors sell a vision.  All the freakin' time.    If you're not good asking for help or don't enjoy it, this is the skillset in a founder that you're looking for.    

My technical cofounders almost never ask for help.  They solve coding problems by figuring it out for themselves.  Great engineers love the challenge of working through a solution on their own. 

Whether it be employees, investors, advisors, media, users, whatever, camp director style cofounders get people on board and generally love doing it.   Want proof that you found a great Camp Directot cofounder?  You'll see it everywhere in the quality of people that he attracts to help with all sorts of random things.

The Steve Jobs Protoge (product)

The Steve Jobs protoge rocks as a cofounder.  Obviously.  If it's for real at any order of magnitude.  If he has 1% the talent of Jobs, you're golden!  This type of cofounder is just obsessed about product design stuff.  You know intuitively while working with him that feature creep will never be a problem.  Launching early may become difficult because he's such a perfectionist, but that's a problem you'll deal with.

The great part about this type of cofounder is that they exhibit early proof everywhere they go.  They keep impeccably awesome apartments.  They have blogs that are exquisitely well-designed. They're own personal branding is clean, articulate, and meaningful.  They take great delight in simple products.

The Hustler (sales)

The hustler gets meetings and closes deals.  He's generally more scrappy than polished.  He never gives up and is endlessly creative.  I have only anectdotal data on this, but I feel like the best hustlers I know look, at first, to be fairly unimpressive.  Maybe there's some kind of chip-on-the-shoulder thing going on there that motivates a guy to keep going after a hundred no's.

Testing the hustler may be difficult to at first because they may not have had a good reason to hustle ever before.  For these guys, a little real life test will do just fine.  Check out how Tristan Walker got his job at Foursquare.  That's hustle.

 

 

Obviously, these are generalizations.  Obviously.  What did I miss?  Speak up in the comments (not that you guys would ever hold back...)

With all that said.  I want to reiterate one point.  Think really hard about whether you actually need that business cofounder.  Consider investing the time you'll spend looking for someone with improving your own sales/marketing/product skills.  Join a community like Y Combinator and they'll help you learn all the mysterious business stuff that isn't actually that hard.  In the end, if you make something people want, everything else will fall into place.


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I'm Jason Freedman.  
I've got a sweet-ass new company: 42Floors.  
Previously, I did FlightCaster.
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