Finding Your Co-Founders

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This is the second in a series of posts by by Meebo CEO Seth Sternberg giving advice to entrepreneurs on building their young businesses. The first post, From Nothing To Something. How To Get There, is here. And make sure to read our recent posts with advice from Mint CEO Aaron Patzer on his advice to entrepreneurs as well (here and here).

The number one question you all asked after reading my last blog post about starting a business from scratch was “how do I find my co-founders?”

Great question – let’s start with a bit of self reflection:

Close your eyes and visualize your group of closest friends.

Now, think specifically about how tall (or short) they all are.

Great, now ask yourself “are all of them roughly the same height?” I’ll bet most of them are – you included.

And therein lies the problem in finding co-founders for that startup you’re dying to launch. It’s most comfortable to hang out with people like ourselves, but those are exactly the folks you probably don’t want to co-found a startup with. Seems a bit unintuitive, right? I’ll explain.

The best founding team for a startup is a group of two or three people who have synergistic – not overlapping – skills. Note that it’s also important your goals and passions be similar. If one of you wants to sell fast and the other wants to build a billion dollar business, that’ll make for pretty serious friction down the road. So too would a team where one person’s more interested in enterprise startups while the other person’s passion lies in consumer experiences. With that out of the way, however, it’s critical that you look for people with complementary skills to your own. In consumer internet, that usually means one front-end user-facing developer, one back-end server-side developer, and ultimately a business person (details will come in a later post).

The reality though, is that we tend to hang out with people who are just like us. Remember that story I told about the three business school students telling me about their tech startup, leaving me to wonder who’d actually build the product? I see that all too frequently – from business folks and techies alike. It’s just easier to hang out with people in your same classes at school, or your same group at work.

If you happen to be in school now, you’re in the most fertile place possible to meet your co-founders. Take advantage of it! How’d I meet Elaine and Sandy? Mutual friends from school. How about some other teams? Larry and Sergey from Google met at Stanford. So did Jerry and David from Yahoo!. The Plaxo founders also met in school, which is also where Mark from Facebook met his co-founders. Having trouble meeting folks you think would be good co-founders? Here are a couple ideas:

1. Join student groups relevant to your interests. If you’re a business major – go check out the Engineering Society’s monthly meeting. If you’re in the CS department, I’ll bet the business school students would kill to meet you at the next Entrepreneurship Club meeting.

2. If your school doesn’t already have a student group designed to foster collaboration between groups of students with the skills necessary to get a startup rolling, start one! BASES at Stanford is a great model to follow. It brings together students from both the undergraduate and graduate levels, across disciplines such as design, computer science and business.

Ok, so most folks reading this are probably out of school. Fortunately, there are a number of examples of successful founding teams that met outside of school. Chad and Steve from YouTube met while working at PayPal. Sean and Shawn from Napster met in an IRC channel. Cisco was a husband and wife team. It helps to be in school, but it’s not an absolute requirement. A few practical ideas applicable to everyone, in school or not:

1. Get out there and find activities that attract diverse groups of people. In Silicon Valley, rock climbing’s a current hot spot for startup folks. So is ultimate frisbee. There’s at least one weekly ultimate frisbee game I’m aware of that’s chock-full of people from the startup industry, on both the business and tech sides.

2. Ask your friends for intros to people in an area you’re trying to learn about. Chances are someone in your group of techies knows someone business oriented. The first folks you meet may not be a fit, but keep asking for referrals and you’ll get there.

3. Join / attend local organizations designed to foster introductions between folks interested in startups. SVASE or Founder Dating in Silicon Valley, First Tuesday in London and Hackers and Founders in New York all come to mind.

4. Team with co-workers at your current job or that internship you did last summer. Just make sure to not violate any non-competes, etc, in the process! Generally speaking, as long as you’re not working on a project your employer would reasonably want to own, you’re probably ok. Of course, do not use any of your employer’s resources. A great friend of mine is scheming, right now, with a co-worker on their next great startup. One’s a PM and the other’s an engineer.

I’m sure some of you are thinking “that’s all great – but I live in the middle of nowhere and none of those resources are available to me.” To be blunt, find a way to move to Silicon Valley. Other cities like New York, Boston, Seattle, LA and Austin TX also have pretty strong startup communities. However, nowhere has as many real estate agents, lawyers, accountants, landlords, employees, co-founders, mentors, and VCs all steeped in startup culture as does Silicon Valley. The ecosystem is just hard to beat. The result is that you’ll be exposed to many more people who can help you get started. In my case, I grew up in Connecticut and spent a fair amount of time in New York – all the while trying to start companies, relatively unsuccessfully. Friends in Silicon Valley kept telling me to move out there for all the reasons I mentioned above. I finally found my ticket in the form of admission to business school in the valley. Find your ticket.

The hardest part of starting from scratch is finding the right co-founders. Ideas, comparatively, are easy. You may spend three years finding your co-founders while you’ll come up with a solid idea every 3 months or so. Luckily, once you settle into a great founding team you’ll be able to execute much faster on that killer idea you all come up with – beating those ten other folks who came up with the same idea at the same time.

Remember, the ultimate goal is to create a founding team that can, within its own skill set, get a working prototype out the door. This means you need to find folks with skills that compensate for your weaknesses. Co-founding a startup is like getting into a marriage – picking the right people is critical. In later posts I’ll get more specific on how to figure out if the folks you’re meeting are the right people to work with, and also how to deal with issues like splitting equity and paying yourselves before raising funding. Feel free to follow me on Twitter to get notifications of later posts on this topic, both here and on the Meebo Blog.

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