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.


Find discussion of this post on Hacker News

***
 
 

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******************
I'm Jason Freedman.  
I've got a sweet-ass new company: 42Floors.  
Previously, I did FlightCaster.
I welcome connections on Linkedin,  FacebookAngelList and Twitter.

 

 

 

9 responses
You missed the part where the best co-founder could be a woman. Lots of "he" and "guy" in here. I am tired of the bias.
Really enjoyed that post. Would like hear it from the other side (Business co-founders angle) too.
I would advise anyone who feels that they're lacking business/non-technical knowledge and maybe need a business cofounder to simply ask people for advice on the areas they feel they're deficient in.

Two reasons:

1. It's always good to get advice. It's free and you don't have to take it. You'll get to hear different points of view, you'll probably learn lots and there's a chance you'll realise that you don't need a business cofounder after all.

2. You get to stealth-interview potential cofounder candidates. Assuming they don't know that you're looking for a cofounder, you get to effectively ask them what they would do if they were part of your team. Afterwards, when you've had time to think about it, you can decide whether or not you want them to join the team.

It's always flattering to be asked for advice so, unless people are crazy busy, there's a good chance they'll be prepared to spare half an hour for a chat over coffee or a drink.

If a technical founder doesn't have the inclination to sell (and learn to sell). then finding a sales-oriented co-founder is critical. It is very hard for unproven startups to hire good salespeople.

Of course, many startups don't require traditional sales at all, for instance, almost all consumer-oriented websites and most subscription-based B2B sites.

Any other business skills can be mastered by a technical founder or easily outsourced (accounting, for instance).

Cheers,
--Kevin

I've helped organize events this last year and we are seeing business partners get connected. Free events can be found at http://cofounderslab.meetup.com
also launched an online co-founder matching site - just a month old, but expect to see many more come online in the new year to grow the pool http://www.cofounderslab.com
Great post! To your "motivation, product, sales" I would add "go-to-market insight" which is slightly different than hustling and cold calling. In fact, just last week after attending a productive Founder Dating session in Seattle I got fired up and wrote "If you’re a business person with an idea you better have a go-to-market strategy": http://stefann.com/2012/03/business-person-with-idea-better-have-go-to-market...
Nice post mate!

Great motivation to get with.. along with some humour!
SchoolAndUniversity.com

Great if your a tech guy but, why if your the vision guy needing a tech guy. Techies aren't the only ones with a great idea. What if your the "non-coding sales/business" guy with the vision? How do you find the techie co-founder who can mind mesh with you and put on the screen what is in your head? How do you go about finding that guy?
Well, I do agree about being a hustler especially when you have to make quick moves right away. Someone who is very social and can open up to other companies without giving too much away is key. Nice article!