One of the most important decisions you’ll make as a founder is: Should you go it alone or find a co-founder? If you decide you want a co-founder, whom you pick is crucial. It will impact everything—what you decide to build, day-to-day operations, how you handle the ups and downs of entrepreneurship, and more.
So, how are you supposed to find the right person for the job? Finding the right co-founder is a lot like dating to find your long-term partner. This is someone you’ll be spending almost every day with for potentially the next decade as you build a company, so they need to be someone you genuinely like, trust, respect, and with whom you can navigate difficult conversations.
Things you’ll want to consider before choosing a co-founder:
Do you need a co-founder?
Being an entrepreneur can be lonely and stressful. A co-founder can provide crucial complementary skills —such as technical expertise to help build a product— or can help shoulder the stress and workload of a growing startup. The right co-founder might even make your entrepreneurial journey more fun.
Benefits of having a co-founder
Productivity: You can get a lot more done when you can divide up the work with someone else. It also helps to have someone by your side who’s equally invested in the company’s success. A co-founder can help hold you accountable and prioritize work that truly moves the needle.
Better quality work: If you find a co-founder whose skills complement yours, you’ll be able to focus on work that aligns with your skillset and your co-founder can take on the work that might take you twice as long to complete. Having someone to act as a sounding board will also help you refine good ideas and avoid working on distracting side projects.
Moral support: Starting a startup is a huge, often stressful undertaking, and it can be demoralizing trying to build one alone. A great co-founding relationship brings balance to the emotional highs and lows of entrepreneurship.
Solo-founder vs. co-founder
Like most decisions, there are pros and cons to having a co-founder. As a solo founder, you’ll have complete control over business decisions, ensuring a unified vision and direction. But it also means shouldering all the responsibilities, facing skill gaps, and having a limited perspective on challenges and opportunities.
A co-founder allows you to share the workload, stay motivated during tough times, and broaden your network. But, it can also mean butting heads since you’ll need to share decision-making and compromise at times. To make the right decision, it’s important to think about your personal working style, the nature of the business, and the long-term vision for your startup.
What is a technical co-founder?
For many startups, a technical co-founder is important if you don’t have an engineering or technical background. They’re responsible for tech infrastructure and product development. They’ll not only help develop and bring your product to market faster, but their expertise will ensure you hire the right engineers and developers as you grow. Often, having a technical co-founder is essential for attracting investors as well.
What to look for in a co-founder
Here are some important factors to consider when choosing a co-founder:
Shared vision and values: You want to be aligned on your business vision, work ethic, and expectations. If one of you is looking to create a high-growth company that reaches a billion dollar valuation and goes public via an IPO, while the other wants to get acquired as quickly as possible, it will lead to conflict.
Reaction to stressful situations: The startup journey is filled with highs and lows. Your co-founder should be someone who can handle intense stress and can weather storms with you. There will be times where you disagree on big decisions, so you need to make sure you can argue well and support each other once the decision is made.
Complementary skills: If your strength lies in engineering, a co-founder with a knack for business development or marketing could be ideal. Or if your strengths lie in marketing or finance, a co-founder who excels at product could be a great fit. Assess your skill gaps and find someone who fills them.
Personality and trustworthiness: Trust forms the bedrock of any partnership. You need to know you can rely on your co-founder and trust them to be honest with you no matter what. And, you need to like spending time with them, since you’ll be spending more time with them than almost anyone else in your life.
How to find a co-founder
Okay, now you know what to look for in a co-founder. But, where are you supposed to find one? Start by looking at people you already know and have either enjoyed working with or would want to work with.
Where to find a co-founder:
If you’re not finding luck with your current network, don’t worry. Here are some of the places where you can find a co-founder:
Networking events: Attend industry-specific events, hackathons, and workshops. These are excellent ways to meet like-minded individuals and to start cultivating relationships.
Entrepreneurial communities: Participate in online forums, social media groups, and platforms like LinkedIn, where entrepreneurs often connect.
Recommendations: Use your professional network. Often the best connections come through referrals from trusted colleagues or mentors.
Co-founder matching platforms: Websites and platforms like Y Combinator’s co-founder matching platform can be invaluable resources, offering a pool of potential candidates already interested in a partnership.
How to vet potential co-founders
Understanding whether someone would be a good co-founder match takes more than just a coffee chat. You’ll want to have deep conversations about their past experiences, motivations for joining a startup, and how they envision the future of the business.
We recommend working on a trial project together for a set period of time. Building something like an app for a few weeks or months will give you insight into their working style, compatibility, and problem-solving approach.
You’ll want to understand what happens when you run into a challenge. Do you end up spiraling and frustrated, or can you collaborate and work through it? Does one of you need to talk through problems, while the other likes to go off on their own?
Check a potential co-founder’s references and talk to their former colleagues or partners to gauge their reliability, work ethic, and interpersonal skills. You’ll also want to understand how they handle ambiguity and stress.
Some questions you can ask:
What’s the most stressful situation you’ve been in together? How did they react?
How do they handle disagreements?
Would you start a company with them? Why or why not?
Can you describe their leadership?
How do they approach decision-making and risk-taking?
Determining leadership roles at an early-stage company
In the early days of a startup, it’s all hands on deck and titles might seem unnecessary. But it’s good to understand each person’s roles and responsibilities and who the ultimate decision-maker is in each area of your company. It can also be helpful to have defined titles for interacting with investors, customers, and employees.
Generally, the CEO role is best for someone who will be the face of the company, for example leading sales conversations and investor pitches, since this title often commands more respect and authority in these scenarios. The CEO is primarily responsible for setting the startup's strategic direction and vision. They define long-term goals and ensure the company’s activities align with its vision.
The CTO role is best for someone with a technical background. They’ll lead product and tech development and strategy, which includes managing the development team, setting timelines, and ensuring product-market fit, as well as identifying opportunities for innovation and improvement.
The COO role involves the management and oversight of day-to-day operations and can span a variety of departments, such as human resources, finance, and general operations. The COO is instrumental in developing and implementing efficient business processes and policies to enhance operational efficiency. Working in tandem with the CEO, the COO plays a critical role in translating strategic goals into actionable operational plans.
It's crucial to approach the conversation about who will take on specific titles with openness and honesty. If both co-founders are equally intent on being CEO, it can lead to friction and may indicate a fundamental incompatibility as partners. The ideal scenario is finding a balance where either one is content with not holding the title or both are indifferent, focusing instead on who is best suited for the role. Remember, flexibility and a focus on what's best for the startup are key—roles and titles can evolve as the company grows.
How to split equity with your co-founder
Once you’ve found your co-founder, you’ll need to decide how to split your equity. Depending on where you’re at in your startup journey, it could make sense to split the equity 50/50 to make sure you’re both equally incentivized. But, you should consider each founder’s contribution, role, and risk undertaken. According to Carta data, only about one-third of co-founders actually split equity equally.
If you’re unsure of how to split your equity or want data-backed help, join Carta’s Founder Studio for free access to best practices, knowledge, and tools to help you build your startup. It has resources and tools like the co-founder equity split tool, which will ask you questions about the company and each founder’s roles, responsibilities, and skill sets to model a recommended founder equity breakdown.