How to start a technology company – Startup advice, Part 1 “Choosing co-founders”

Lately, I’ve been meeting with entrepreneurs in the Austin area and giving them some advice on their startups. I realized that regardless of the company, there is some common advice I tend to give to everyone. This reminded me of when I was interviewed by Steve Spalding of How To Split An Atom, a couple of years ago and was asked the question, “How do you start your own business?” In this post, I’m going to focus on what I believe is the most important issue – choosing your co-founders.

Here was part of my response to Steve’s question:

Found your company with people you really trust, respect, and admire. Your company may outlast the average marriage in the US, so you better be sure these are people you are willing to work with for the long term.

I believe the five most important attributes can be summed up with the acronym: T.A.P.E.D.

  • Trust – Trust is the most important criteria for choosing a co-founder. You’re going to be too busy to watch over each other with every move. You need to be able to trust that the person has the right capabilities and the right motivation.
  • Adaptability – I like to use the “MacGyver test”. Imagine you guys are stuck on some island where there are some bad guys trying to kill you. Is this the person that can help you defeat the bad guys with nothing more than a Swiss army knife, some scrap wire, and a stick of gum? Startups are challenging in that you’re always resource limited. You need people that can embrace these limitations instead of complain about them. We’ve all worked with people that romanticize the days when they had two executive assistants. Don’t found your company with those people. Work with people that can adapt to any situation and excel.
  • Passion – Your co-founders need to be passionate about the space you’re in. It’s not enough that they “just like startups” or see “some upside potential.” There are going to be a lot of bumps in the road. If they don’t love what they are doing and have great passion for solving the business problem, they are likely going to quit when the going gets tough.
  • Energy – If you worked with your co-founder in the past, were they the person you’d most likely see at the office at 3AM? Work/life balance is important, but in a startup, you’re going to have to work crazy hours. You just have to. If you went to school with your co-founder, were they enthusiastic about getting stuff done? You can even see a person’s energy in sports and in the gym. Driven people tend to work hard in all aspect of their life. Choose people you know can go the distance with you.
  • Differences – While it’s important to share the high-level vision, it’s good to have some differences. Do some research on group think and you’ll see why. Ever wonder why the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster happened? Or how anyone could think the Bay of Pigs was a good idea? Smart people do dumb things, especially when not challenged. Differences lead to creative solutions and help you avoid the pitfalls of group think. It’s good to have these differences. But, it’s important that you don’t spend all your time debating things. Just like a functional family, you need to be able to compromise and move on, once you’ve decided on the correct path.

While I’ve had my fair share of ups and downs in startups, I’ve had great luck with my co-founder. Back when I chose to work with him, I didn’t have all these criteria. I simply trusted and admired him and went with my gut. But I was fortunate enough to have worked with him at a startup for a couple of years, so I really knew him well. If you’re looking to found your startup with someone and don’t have as long of a history with them, do spend the time to analyze if they are the right fit.

Stay tuned for: How to start a technology company – Startup advice, Part 2 “Put your money where your mouth is”

Leave a Comment

  • Joel Apr 8, 2009, 2:24 pm

    Thank you Eric for writing this up. Talking about partnering when we met a few weeks back was some of the most insightful parts of the conversation.