👯♀️ Do I need a cofounder?
Always better with the buddy system, but it's worse to force it than to forge it alone.
As a solo, non-technical, female founder building a tech company, this is probably my single most frequently asked question. Like anything, there are no absolute right answers, just the one that gives your company the best shot of success. The one that increases the probability that it will buck the odds and make it. The question of cofounders or co-builders is undoubtedly one of those things that increases that probability many fold, or can drive a demise. I’ll say, whatever it ends up looking like, think crazy critically about who your first 5 team members are. Cofounders or not, they will irrevocably define your company’s DNA and trajectory (and why, btw, you want to be careful about how much you outsource to dev shops or contractors, but that’s a post for another day).
For now, let’s talk cofounders.
🧐 The Question.
Do I need a cofounder?
🤓 My Thoughts.
Short answer: If you have the chance to go on this journey with the right person or people, the kind that you want to be in the trenches with for years, then yes, always go with cofounders. Don’t let ego or vanity or greed in the founding minutes rob you of the benefit having true parters will bring you relief and substance and joy in the long middle grind stretches.
Yes, it’s about divide and conquer (ideally you all have complementary skillsets), yes it’s about being frugal on cash in the early days (presumably because you’ll be able to pay in equity more than cash), but more than any of that, it’s because the tasks of building a lasting company, building something that actually works and that people want (and will pay for), is fucking hard. You will wake up countless days and want to quit. You will feel the pressure of your team, your users, your investors, of the world, on your shoulders and you’ll want to burrow back into your covers and just say fuck it.
On those days, your cofounder(s) will carry you . As you will them on their days. It will be you as a team against the world. But because you both believe, it will be okay.
And so this is the truth of it: cofounders give you a bigger bubble of belief to live in and for many months and years, that bubble will be the difference between persisting and figuring it out and … not.
So yeah. If you have the chance to build with cofounders. Take it.
Acknowlege whoever had the idea but understand that ideas don’t make companies. They don’t even make products. They create sparks. The people who dedicate themselves to the grinding everyday are the ones that make the things happen. Understand that equity is compensation for the risk and the work ahead of you. And in the overall marathon of this endeavour, the idea is maybe the first step. Who will you choose to run beside you? To be there for the glory but also for Heartbreak Hill.
Complete sidenote: there are countless early fights about who will be CEO. Often, in cases where multiple people want to be this role, the call is to “just wait and see”. That’s the wrong call, because it’s not actually a call. It’s decision limbo. Like anything hard and uncomfortable, you’re going to need to (not want to) need to, face it head on. Not only to create clarity for this critical issue, but to model the culture for the evermore. (Btw, everyone wants to talk about how you build a “good” culture. This is how. It’s in the choices you make or don’t make. It’s in the everyday decisions, what you allow, what you enable, what you shut down).
And for those that say - there are lots of cases of successful co-CEOS I call bullshit. I can count on one hand the ones that actually work and heaps and heaps that fooled themselves.
I can say this with this level of conviction because I went through the limbo of a non-call because I was too chicken to have a hard conversation with my cofounder and good friend. I don’t fault anyone for wanting this. And listen, I’m still CEO today. It’s something I figured out is really important to me and a key motivator and btw, something I’m willing to do the hard and fun bits for.
And like everything else, nothing is permanent - I know many situations where the CEO role passed hands to another cofounder at a new stage of the company. The point is, get into the habit of having hard conversations and this is often one of the first.
Okay. Now. What if you don’t have this magical person or people. Should you still go out and find them?
That’s much more complicated. I’m inclined to say: it depends on what will best set your company up for success.
Ideally, they’re ones that complement your skillset in a significant way. If I’m the non-technical, business founder, then for me, building a software company, that other person would likely be a technical cofounder. Someone who is formidable and passionate about solving the same problem, but their superpower is in things complementary to me.
They can also be other talented people also early in their journey of solving for a similar problem and you can combine forces. Just be sure you’re not bringing on too many overlapping skillsets otherwise that’s where decision bloat and friction festers.
But assuming that you are someone that has an idea, or some traction and are now looking for a cofounder to take it to the next level, here are some things to consider.
Things to think about:
Where to find them? It’s not easy. This is akin to dating with the intent of marriage - trying to assess values and compatibility and have some fun along the way. Start with your network of people from school or work - who are the people that you’ve always loved working with, who are intimidatingly talented and who are people of action and integrity. Start with them. (If you’re not immediately looking, start a mental list now of these people so that if/when you’re ready to noodle ideas, they’re your first calls).
If you’re more actively looking and don’t have obvious names, activate the network. Start with the people you do know and ask them to suggest 2 people to talk to (not necessarily to be a cofounder, but to help you learn more about what you’re looking for). At the start of my cofounder search for Poppy, my search request was: technical co-founder. As I started to talk to actual engineers I started to understand front-end/back-end/ full-stack, the different languages, the expertise and interests. Each conversation should lead you closer to a potential partner - either directly or in learning. Lastly, get creative and use your superpowers. If you write or tweet or are comfortable “building publicly” that can be a great way for people to find you.
Don’t half-ass it. Finding a cofounder has to be a top 3 priority - meaning it could/should take up 20-30% of your time in any given week - whether it’s meeting people, reaching out to people, researching. Like fundraising, the worst thing is to half-heartedly do it over a long period of time. You’ll never get the momentum you need to actually get over the line and others will feel that lack of intensity/urgency.
Take your time and don’t force it . Many a company and cap table have been blown up by jumping into a co-founder relationship with significant equity but without the guardrails of a trial period. There’s a lot of distance between wanting a cofounder and finding one that can partner successfully. Don’t force or rush it. It’s infinitely better to go it on your own and build a great early founding team than it is to do it just for the optics or because you think you “should”. Use time to your advantage. Just like you’d date before getting married, build in a trial period where the a potential co-founder has a great role but the co-founder part can get decided over 6-9 months, with regular checkins. You can also think about aligning vesting to fit needs. The standard is a 4 year vest with a 1 year cliff - with 25% each year, but you can always modify that - 20/20 in the first two years and then 30/30, to incent longer term commitment and lower the risk/amount of “dead equity” if it doesn’t work out in the first couple years.
Invest in your relationship. There are wonderful resources and coaches that make sure you’re nurturing a (likely) nascent relationship, or a new role for an existing one. In the daily frenzy and demands, it’s easy to say, phew that’s over, now to the building. But the early months will determine a good chunk of future success. You don’t have the benefit of having worked or gone to school together. Commit to building up that experience consistently over the early months.
Don’t get over enamoured or sidetracked with the idea of cofounders. As time consuming as it is (and should be), it can’t be at the expense of the company. You still have to keep growing and building. Both because otherwise the company is dead in the water and because it will actually increase the chances of a cofounder wanting to come on and help build it with you. In my experience, the best engineers I’ve worked with wanted to come on and build with me because, in their words, “I was hell bent on doing it with or without them, and it would be fun to be with.”
(Bonus: Know when to call it. Likely fodder for a post unto its own. But if at some point down the line the cofoundership isn’t working and you’ve tried everything, know how to break up well. I learned from my experience with Poppy that perfect for a certain stage of the company doesn’t mean someone is great at (or wants to be) doing the next one. If you’re having regular checkins, this won’t come as a total surprise - the key will be to be honest and act on it as soon as possible (which I can say I didn’t)).
Other Badass founder POVs:
Yin Wu, Founder of Pulley (manage your cap table and equity) - solo female founder:
“Investors want to see a cofounder to de-risk the chance your startup will die. If you can convince other people to join you and you can sell or build the product on your own, you may not need a cofounder.”