“Aint nothin’ like the real thing, baby” ~ Marvin Gaye
Back in the Spring, my startup went through double bypass surgery. We had made the decision to completely scrap our first product, which we had devoted nine months of our lives to. It was an absolute restart. Simultaneously, my co-founder and I had decided that basically all of our startup’s problems were due to our less than stellar relationship. We decided to part ways: I would go it alone. A prominent angel investor advised me to quit: “It’s very hard to pivot a product. It’s even harder to pivot a team. Doing both at the same time? Next to impossible.”
It’s still too painful for me to talk in much detail about how hard those months were, so for now I’ll just say “I didn’t quit.*”
At the time, I wrote a controversial post on co-founders for Business Insider. In it, I argued that if you cannot find the ideal co-founder(s), it is significantly easier to go it alone as a solo startup founder today than it was 10 years ago.
I missed the point completely.
After all, I didn’t chose to go it alone. I relentlessly searched for the ideal co-founders, learning from my past mistakes, and hit the jackpot. Ozan, Ash, and I are Real Co-Founders at Topguest. So here’s the point: It is a priori better to have a real co-founder than to go it alone. I know now from experience. The problem is that most prospective co-founders are not real, hence co-founder conflict is the leading cause of startup death, as it nearly was for mine.
What are Real Co-Founders?
In my mind, there are just five universal criteria:
- You genuinely feel that each person is an irreplaceable, non-substitutable requirement for success
- You each believe that building this startup together is the absolute best thing you can do with your lives now and for the next number of years.
- You have aligned expectations on what success means, and what it will take from each of you to achieve it. You speak up when the other is messing up.
- You are each not only willing — but eager — to put the startup ahead of your personal life and all other priorities until success is achieved. This is not to say that real co-founders should not have a life outside the Company – some balance is absolutely critical. But the startup must clearly be the top priority by a longshot.
- You like each other as people.
If even one of these criteria is not met, you are Faux Co-Founders. And Houston, you have a problem: Entering into a Faux Co-Founder relationship is categorically worse than going it alone.
Three Faux Co-Founder signals:
- You talk about how this will be an “easy win.” Startups are almost never quick and easy wins. And if you plan for an easy win, you will almost certainly end up with a hard failure. Early traction can actually be really dangerous in this regard.
- You agree to different levels of commitment. Commitment is highly mimetic. It is hard to stay equally committed at all times, but it’s actually pretty essential. Real co-founders work roughly the same number of hours over time. Conversely, the visible contributions at any given time will vary between founders, and you each need to be comfortable with this.
- One of you would rather have higher salary and lower equity than the inverse. Real co-founders forgo short term compensation in favour of long term value creation. Mercenaries do not make for good co-founders.
This is not an indictment of the individuals who are part of Faux Co-Founder relationships. Indeed, they may be awesome human beings and could make superb early startup employees. But they are not Real Co-Founders.
So entrepreneurs, my advice is this: Before deciding to go it alone, do whatever it takes to build a strong partnership with Real Co-Founders:
Move across the country…
Give up tons of equity…
Rebuild your product in a completely different language…
Pivot your entire company…
Whatever it takes; it’s worth it.
One final thought: Real Co-Founders take out each other’s trash — metaphorically and literally. Thanks Ash and Ozan.
*And the prominent angel who advised me to quit? He’s now an investor in Topguest.
Geoff Lewis is the Co-Founder & CEO of Topguest, the new service that gives you real hotel points, air miles, and travel perks for your Facebook Places and Foursquare check-ins. Follow him on Twitter @justglew