One of the most common pieces of advice given to young entrepreneurs is to have a cofounder when starting a business. Aside from the obvious reason of having someone to share the workload, having the right cofounder makes investors more confident in your leadership abilities, makes investors more likely to invest in your company, and can really speed up your company’s growth. Of course there will be personal factors that go into the decision, but there are some general guidelines you can follow to make it a little easier.
The most convenient place to search for a cofounder is within your own personal network. For young entrepreneurs in college or MBA programs, that might mean looking to your friends or to your entrepreneurial organization. Although some people advise against choosing your friends as business partners, Quinntin Ruiz, who founded his own Claremont, Calif., delivery service startup, Cartpool, with his friend Patrick Shao, has found reasonable success with this method. “The people that you trust the most, the people that are your best friends,” Ruiz believes, “are the ones you … don’t have to worry about mistrust or any kind of superficiality amongst each other … and you guys already know you work well together because you’ve been friends for so long.” If you don’t have close friends with the right background and experience, entrepreneurial programs and organizations such as Pomona Ventures at Pomona College, also in Claremont, and USC Incubator at The University of Southern California in Los Angeles are great places to start, since they tend to attract like-minded individuals and also have a wide network of members.
The first thing to evaluate is whether or not the candidate fills a relevant hole in your company. Depending on what stage your company is at and what you yourself can do, you can be looking for anything from a top-notch coder or a marketing specialist – that person just needs to fulfill a current, pressing need. Generally, you want someone who complements your skill set so you can increase the amount of work you are able to accomplish. Part of the reason Ruiz believes he’s worked so well with Shao is because they have different areas of expertise: Ruiz, an economics major, is business-oriented and focused on the bigger picture, while Shao is “very nitpicky” and “very, very good with technology.” As Cartpool expanded and new needs arose, Ruiz found it prudent to add two more members to the founding team – Sterling Schwartz as chief financial officer and Asher Abrahms as head of marketing – to supply expertise in those areas.
In a broader sense, you want someone who possesses an entrepreneurial mind-set, says Simon Yu, founder of staffing company Hired On. Yu believes that true entrepreneurs are people who will come up with solutions to problems and do whatever it takes to get things done. “They don’t just stop and wait for someone to give them the answer,” Yu says. “They go out and figure out a creative solution to get the job done.” People who take the initiative are most likely to be the best leaders – and strong leadership is definitely something you want in a startup.
Even if someone is a hard worker and possesses all the qualities you are looking for, that doesn’t always mean that person is the right fit for you and your company. Especially in today’s startup world, fitting the “company culture” is just as important as doing the job well – and that’s important to keep in mind when searching for a cofounder. Basically, it boils down to whether you could see yourself in a long-term relationship with that person. Do you trust this person to put an equal effort into the business? Would you be able casually grab drinks together after work? Can you be totally honest with each other about work issues? You don’t need to be best friends with your cofounder, but there needs to be enough understanding and openness where you wouldn’t be afraid to discuss even the most difficult topics. Otherwise, your company will be dead before it even gets off the ground.
Things will shift around quite a bit as your company grows, and a cofounder who was great in the beginning might not be so great later. A cofounder has to be someone who not only is effective in the early stages of a startup, but who can also adapt accordingly and efficiently as your company progresses. Jason Xu, cofounder of ACE Abroad, a Pomona-based company that helps international students adjust to American culture, boils it down to one simple question: “Do you feel this person is adding value to your company?” A good cofounder simply gets the job done; a great cofounder grows with the company and is someone you can continuously learn from and with. You don’t want someone who can only bring one thing to the table; the chaotic nature of startups requires a cofounder who can adjust with the changing tides. That being said, a successful founder-cofounder relationship requires give and take; as the visionary behind the company, a founder and CEO must be able to offer just as much in return.
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