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Finding the Right Cofounder for your Startup

With our latest classes with founders underway, we’re hovering around the time in our curriculum when we’re teaching people what it means to have cofounder and a team in place.

The past decade of research into entrepreneurship and startups has proven rather conclusively that success is all but determined by the team in place, and that there are certain personalities, skills, and experiences that contribute to success, or assure failure. This has my head spinning as it should of founders, that when the market validates that there is a problem and path to solutions, there is an opportunity to innovate, teach, or improve the world. Which is to say, we can (arguably) help would-be founders better understand what CO-founder would best complement their abilities and the work that needs to be done.

Gino Wickman and Mark C. Winters, the authors of Rocket Fuel, one of the must-read books I advise to all entrepreneurs, helped me first see that success is a result of complementary skillsets which help us overcome our own shortcomings. The transformative book highlights the near proven fact, that a person visionary will fail without an integrator while an integrator will fall short without a visionary.

“Without an Integrator, a Visionary is far less likely to succeed long-term, and realize the company’s ultimate goals; likewise, with no Visionary, an Integrator can’t rise to his or her full potential. When these two people come together to share their natural talents and innate skill sets, it’s like rocket fuel; they have the power to reach new heights for virtually any company or organization.”

The duo evident in Wickman and Winters’ work incessantly tugged at my mind until a solution to the question of finding the “right” cofounder clicked; a solution derived from the long celebrated Peter Drucker observation of the economy:

The ideal cofounders? Marketing (which is a role) and Innovation (wait… which isn’t a distinct thing, is it?)

Frankly, neither is “marketing” clearly defined to most, and though I’m strict about the definition of marketing, I’ll concede that the impact of someone exceptional at Sales, Content, Promotion, Influence, or who knows a Market intimately, could all qualify as a capable founder in that capacity. So, what we’re seeking in trying to help a founder identify their distinct strength (and role) is what best complements that by filling the gaps and requirements necessary for that person to be successful, yes? That IF Sales… then who? IF an Engineer, what do they need? When a Visionary and an Integrator get together, we launch rockets, but what skills and experience do each of those people have? What do YOU need?

Looking at the distinct roles of a company, we can plot the strengths of a person by way of that role, and complement it, across, with the skill likely most pertinent to their respective success. Here is what we put together, let’s start clockwise from the top:

  • FINANCE (you have a background in accounting, banking, investing, or other financial services): The complement to that strength as a founder would be having a product with which to work – either you’re funding or managing the product established in the market.
  • PLATFORM (you developed or managed a suite of solutions that together result in a solution for a use case needing many experiences as one): To be successful, that means your complement has to develop the market and experiences for that – this could be Business Development OR Product/Software Development but in either case, what you’re bringing to your founding team is the person who can enhance the demand for your platform strength.
  • ENGINEERING (wherein you create solutions to problems, whether a software, hardware, or soft goods engineer): This might be closest to Drucker’s observations in that engineering something is futile (in fact wasteful) without the marketing work to determine what, how, and why to build.
  • SUPPLY CHAIN (as in fulfillment, delivery, process, and distribution optimization): Driving demand for a better supply chain stems from Sales and someone with an exceptional background in Sales benefits from someone who can optimize the process of fulfillment and distribution.
  • OPERATIONS (wherein you excel at handling the breadth and depth of an organization or process): What enables you to thrive is the Producer, be that a producer of content, products, or other solutions, your expertise struggles without that which needs what you do best.

We can continue around the circle but hopefully that’s enough to help you discern the rest; that is, for example, if you’re a marketer, what you need is the person who can develop the solutions, the engineer.

  • Product people need Finance
  • Development people need Platforms
  • Marketing people need Engineers
  • Sales needs Supply Chains
  • Production people need Operations

Hopefully you’ve noticed that we designed the circle in the fashion that we have because the skillsets NEXT to one another, are similar.

This is important to understand because too many founders seek (or attract) similar skillsets: Marketers attract Salespeople – and yet a marketer and a sales-oriented founding team will fail because they alone are marketing and selling what?? They support one another but those ancillary skills fail to fill gaps that hold back either skill from success. You know this to be true… two Engineer founders tend to struggle with adoption. Even an Engineer and a Product person, you *know* seem to struggle because they lack market demand, customers, or capital. The skills closer to one another need to be offset by the skills across.

Before I let you go, there is an elephant in the room to point out. This circle isn’t comprehensive.

What if your skill is that of a Doctor, Architect, or Chef? Maybe you’re an Athlete.

These are Professions, which is why these roles in society are referred to as “Professionals.”

Professionals aren’t key roles in a team. And more notably missing, I trust you’ve caught, is Legal and HR. These too are professions.

You can’t complement the skill set of lawyering with marketing or engineering, unless you’re just starting a law firm (rather than a startup doing something distinct and innovative). HR is a critical role in companies but managing people and the risks/rewards of employees is first dependent on having a valuable venture that can have employees. Someone with a career in HR can absolutely have a business related (such as recruiting, benefits, or an executive search firm) but to build a new, innovative venture, we need the skillsets that could be applied to the Human Resources as a sector of the economy.

A chef launches a business, an athlete is paid to perform, and a doctor heals… all of these are businesses but to create a *startup* in food, sports, or healthcare, we need the skills capable and complementary in launching a successful, new ventures.

If you are that Profession, as yourself what skill is your strength and focus. Find the opposite on our wheel.

Paul O'Brien

Silicon Valley technology and startup veteran, Paul O'Brien is affectionately known as SEO'Brien for an extensive past in the search industry. Today as CEO and Founder of MediaTech Ventures, O'Brien works in Venture Capital Economic Development, serving the investment and venture capital economies directly, through thought leadership, consulting, and startup development. More, a regional Director of the Founder Institute incubator and mentor in DivInc, Galvanize, and various startup Accelerators.

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  1. I think’s what’s missing is something l can borrow / paraphrase from a friend:

    “Real compatibility isn’t just about, oh, do we [have different, compatible skills essential to the execution of the business, etc.?] It’s more about how do we handle and support each other in times of conflict, adversity, etc.?“

    FYI Rachel Peterson

  2. In a sense – I get it’s often good to have a co-founder with complimentary skills. But at the same time, a co-founder with very similar skills could make for great reinforcements in existing areas of strength. Put another way – is there data to show that a Marketing + Marketing cofounder team, or an Engineering + Engineering cofounder team, will actually do worse than a Marketing + Engineering co-founder team?

    1. Mark Biw I don’t know that there is data in that regard, but common sense tells me it’s b.s.

      Drucker noted that very thing, 40 years ago.

      Two engineers together will build the wrong things, or fail to effectively promote it, and so even if they are exceptional, competition will end them.

      Two marketers can start an agency (a business) but without the ability to develop something innovative, it’s not a startup.

      You must have both, though perhaps that isn’t 2 distinct people… some engineers are capable marketers and many marketers can develop solutions.

  3. Also, as a lawyer, I completely agree with you about lawyers. Just hire them when you need them. NO need to promise equity for legal services or whatever else. Just pay cash for what you need and call it good. Everyone is much better off that way.

  4. I would say there are two types of founder breakups I see:

    1. “Entourage Effect” – People mutually perceive they are collectively creating a thing but at a certain point only 1 person has the commitment, grit, etc. to persevere and make it great – the others eventually produce more drag than lift, acceleration …
    (eg: classmates from business school, best friends, a talented young founder and their “more experienced” advisor)

    2. Ethics / Grit / Extreme Ownership
    When times get tough, the tough get going, but fair-weather founders either (a) do the wrong thing out of desperation, (b) bounce / ghost, or (c) put all the pressure on the resilient founder and turn cynical (net liability)
    When a member of my team would make a big blunder early on and start to displace the accountability (blame)

    I would just send this video on “Extreme Ownership” by Jocko Willink:

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