Everywhere I go, I hear the same refrain from fledgling entrepreneurs I meet: “I’m looking for a co-founder.” I hear it from many of my students, from folks at various entrepreneurship events and meetups, and from people suffering in jobs at large companies who would love to pull the trigger on their startup—if they only had that critical co-founder.
And here’s why they’re on a fool’s errand.
The most common type of co-founder that’s usually sought is, of course, the technical co-founder, someone who can make your latest Internet-enabled business idea come to life by coding it for you because you don’t have the skills to do so. But some people also tell me they just need a co-conspirator because there’s too much work to do and they’d get lonely without a co-founder. It’s a fair point—and one that Y Combinator’s Paul Graham discusses in this incredible post.
But I’m actually here today to tell you: stop looking for a co-founder. Stop asking people to help you find one, and stop talking and thinking this way. I say this not because it’s massively annoying and clichéd by now (which it is), but mainly because the very act of looking for a co-founder is already a sign that you are hopelessly unprepared for the coming venture—and going about things in a completely backwards way.
Think about it this way. Let’s say you had this dream about sailing around the world for a few years. How would you go about realizing this dream?
Would you immediately start looking for an experienced sea captain with whom you could team up? It certainly seems a logical choice on its face, right? And let’s say you miraculously found one such old sea-dog, replete with forearm anchor tattoo and corncob pipe, in your first few weeks of searching—how would that play out?
Well, he’d probably do all the sailing, right? (Mainly because you don’t know how to sail and have zero experience.) He’d probably have to plot the various legs of the journey, too, right? (Because on day one, he would tell you that your plan to take a 36-foot wooden sailboat across the Bay of Fundy in winter isn’t the best course of action.) He’d probably be the one standing at the wheel whenever you hit rough weather, right?
Hmm. I also bet you’d have to pay him something to actually participate in this venture as well, no?
Let’s say after six months he tells you he’s run out of his favorite pipe tobacco and bails on you while you’re docked at some far off port. What do you do now? You probably should have stayed home and read some Melville or Joseph Conrad. Let’s face it—real sailing was never for you.
But hang on. Let’s say you had said this dream of yours was all-consuming and you were dead set on making it happen. Let’s say you just disappeared for a while and learned how to sail, became intimate with the latest technologies and the best routes, and became a fixture at your local sailing clubs and docks?
What likely would have happened with this approach? My guess is that you would have made great friends in the sailing community, over time. The relationships would have been genuine and based on mutual fascination and love of sailing, adventure, and the sea. You would have learned a ton about this new world and, slowly but surely, you would have become a part of it. When you finally decide to make that journey to Timbuktu, one of these friends—maybe someone with a lot more sailing experience than you, but who respected you a lot and knew your character and talents—might just suggest that you embark on that journey together.
Business is the same. Even though it’s just little old you steering your company, take comfort in the fact that we’re living in an era in which the individual entrepreneur is empowered with tools and access in a way that people could barely have imagined as recently as a decade ago. You want to open a store? In 10 minutes you can be up and running on Shopify. You want to amplify your voice with a marketing campaign? Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are massive communities you can tap into for free. Don’t know how to build a website? Hop on Codecademy or take a Skillshare class and you’re on your way.
Even without a co-founder, you can acquire skills and employ powerful tools to get to a minimum viable product all by your lonesome. In fact, it’s so easy and accessible, there really is no excuse not to. Imagine how powerful this is. You can generate a massive amount of value before even thinking about having to dilute your equity. Ironically, this is actually the best way to find co-founders, early employees and investors—just get a real business up and running by yourself!
If and when the time comes to partner up, just know that great partners come in all shapes and sizes. You can’t predict and plan for their arrival, just like you could never decide to meet a potential spouse next Saturday night. So how will you know they’ll make a good co-founder once you meet? You won’t.
The key is not to rush into business with someone. Spend plenty of time with them, bring up difficult issues directly when appropriate, and see how they handle themselves in a variety of situations and circumstances. Are they thoughtful and considerate of your point of view? Do you share values with them? What are their other life relationships like? Like any journey, the key is slow and steady.
Dave Lerner is a serial entrepreneur, angel investor and host of Venture Studio. He's also a professor at Columbia University Business School where he teaches entrepreneurship.