Picking Good Co-Founders

From the MIT 100K Entrepreneurship Competition Blog

By Ric Fulop, General Partner at North Bridge

The MIT $100K business plan competition invited me to write a post to help students. I can’t think of a better topic than picking good partners.

One of the most important decisions anyone makes in their life is picking who they get married to. Picking a co-founder is like picking your husband or wife. Startups are very intense life experiences and it’s almost a given that when you start a company you will spend as much or more time at work than you will at home. You usually spend years dating someone before you decide to marry them but you rarely have that luxury when you pick a co-founder. Would you like to be hitched to someone at work who you don’t like?

One of the things that I think made the biggest difference on the success or failure of my previous companies are who I decided to co-found them with. A123 being a great example of one of the best teams I’ve worked with.

Having started six companies I have developed some basic hygiene rules on what to look for:

Number one – different is better than equal: A startup’s chances of success are much better when you have a well rounded founder team. If you are an engineer, pick a co-founder who is good in business development or marketing.

Number two – friction is good but watch out for mutual respect: Startups are very stressful and often circumstances put founders at odds on key decisions. There is a saying that it takes a lifetime to earn someone’s respect and a minute to lose it. Co-founders who don’t respect each other don’t make good partners. Figure that out early and save everyone the pain.

Number three – synchronized ambition and emotional maturity: Startups are always facing significant emotional volatility. One minute you are on a big high and the next you are on a big low. I think a really important quality of good co-founder relationships is to reduce volatility and bring each other back to the middle. I’ve met 20 year olds with more emotional maturity and ambition than a Fortune 500 CEO and that’s great but what’s really important is that co-founders are at a similar emotional maturity level. Infighting kills perfectly good startups and there is no better source of friction than a mismatch in maturity or ambition.

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