Choose Wisely: Your Co-Founder Can Make or Break Your Startup
For better, for worse; for richer, for poorer…
While these words are traditionally known as wedding vows, they apply to startup co-founders just as much as they do to couples tying the knot.
In case of the former, it’s a relationship and partnership that can make or break a business.
If you think about it, many of these companies might not be what they are today without these fortuitous partnerships.
Just like for Airbnb founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia. Back in 2007, the two friends started renting out air mattresses in their apartment to complete strangers because they didn’t have enough money to pay their own rent.
Little did they know their need-based scheme would go on to become a company that’s now worth some $31 billion and is disrupting the hotel sector across the globe.
When asked about how to select co-founders, Chesky said in a lecture-interview by Greylock in 2017 that he just “got really lucky” because he’d already been friends with Gebbia for seven years. However, he advised always looking for people that “you admire that are better than you, that challenge you”.
The mentality is, he said, is that if they’re better than you, they will motivate you to become better.
But what if they’re not?
Garry Tan, who was a co-founder at blogging platform Posterous, said in a column he wrote for TechCrunch that co-founder disputes have historically been one of the top reasons startups fail at the earliest possible stage.
Sharing his own experience, he said the mistake him and his co-founder made was “avoiding the dynamics” of their co-founder marriage.
“We rarely spoke directly and honestly with one another,” he wrote. “We didn’t stop to reflect on what he needed or I needed. We never sought professional support to ensure the health of our partnership. When the honeymoon ended, there was no healthy foundation to support the company.”
He added that while most people think of good co-founding pairs in functional terms – a business person coupled with a technical one, for example – the dynamic is deeper than that.
“If you have nothing in common other than the startup, you’ll struggle to find common ground at the worst of times,” he said.
“In my case, I had known my co-founder for more than eight years, and we had been friends since college. We had history, but we learned history is not enough — you’ve got to maintain it like any relationship.”
There’s no denying that it helps to have a co-founder to ride the startup roller coaster with. As many founders admit, entrepreneurship can be a lonely and grueling journey of imposing tasks and constraints, that come with tremendous risk. So having someone to complement your skillsets and experiences helps raise the likelihood of success. But who you’re matched with can change the fate of your idea.