How to start a social startup: co-founders

Choosing who to work with is the most important decision in startup life. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s almost impossible to start something up on your own and so it really is worth spending time finding great people to work with very early on.

There will be no formal interviews, CV’s won’t be much use and head hunters are a no go. So if you don’t know who you want to work with straight away you should be asking friends to put you in touch with people who they think it’s worth you meeting to talk through the idea. You’ll know when somebody is keen from the first or second meeting but then you need to work with them for a while before you make a decision. ‘Hire slowly’ applies to finding co-founders too.

Things to look for in a co-founder

The shorthand for what you’re looking for in a co-founder is a startup mindset. It doesn’t mean that the person has worked in a startup before necessarily — it’s a state of mind that I’d say includes the following:

  • They have to be smart and get things done. One or the other won’t work — you need both.
  • They should have a cutthroat collaborative attitude — You’re looking for people who are brilliant at working with others, collaboration and communication should be their natural working state.
  • They should have a habit of bloody-mindedness — this might sound like the opposite of the above but what I really mean is tenacity in the face of adversity. At some stage things will go wrong and you don’t want them to lose interest.

Two other things I think you should look for in choosing a founding team:

  • People who are different to you — given the choice between two people to work with, often your instinct is to work with the person who is most like you. Over time that can make things difficult, especially as you all have to spread into learning new skills that are needed at different stages of startup.
  • Having said that, I would look for people who have a similar outlook on how other people (whether they’re investors, employees or office cleaners) should be treated. Sometimes this is known as the No Asshole Rule.

Some things you need to talk about

Once you have a co-founding team there are a series of things you need to talk about. Often it is just a case of knowing what people think. It’s not a question of making decisions there and then, just understanding where you’re all coming from and what you are trying to get out of the experience of starting a new venture.

  • Shares and ownership — people have very different views about shares and what they’re worth. You need to know how people think about the value of their founding stake.
  • Salaries — I’ve always tried to be open about what people get paid and keep it very even. You need to be honest with each other about your overall financial position and even your personal finances. Unless you’re a runaway overnight success there are going to be moments where money is very tricky and it’s much easier to prevent problems if you know where people stand.
  • Job titles and who does what — I hate job titles and avoided us deciding on them for a long time. There is a real problem with taking job titles and descriptions from bigger organisations as Steve Blank puts it here. I think my advice would be to avoid individual areas of responsibility for things that haven’t happened yet and develop a much more project and task orientated system of managing your time. There is probably one area where this isn’t true because you really need to have your head into it: investor relations. So you need a CEO.
  • Credit and profile — If you’re doing something interesting, you will get opportunities to get media coverage and profile and you need to decide how to deal with that because it can build up as a source of resentment. I guess this really comes down to being honest with each other about why you’re involved. It varies a lot more than I thought.
  • Timekeeping — there’s a line about the early days of Amazon in The Nudist on the Late Shift (which is a superb book about startup life) that says people came in about midday and left in the small hours and things were good. But when it comes to working in a tiny team which is what happens in the really early stages, I think you do need to keep regular hours — or at least predictable hours — because the best way of moving forward is to talk to one another and if you’re out of sync, you can lose valuable time.

All of those can be difficult conversations, but they’re definitely easier early on.

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