4 Key Values to Look For in a Cofounder

When it comes to co-founders, it’s hard to avoid the marriage analogy. Any partnership has to be founded on basic compatibilities and can thrive only if both parties want the same thing. But the qualities that make for an ideal co-founder can vary, depending upon each entrepreneur’s vision, temperament, communication style and measure of success.

Setting up house with your co-founder often comes with negotiation and the attendant emotional complications. You don’t ever want to find yourself in the “can’t live with them, can’t live without them” predicament. That said, those businesses that make it past the start-up phase tend to be helmed by co-founders who share the following values.

Before you can begin the process of matching yourself with someone who will, for all intents and purposes, be your equal, you have to know yourself. And to know yourself, you have to be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses, as well as your proclivities and pet peeves. How far are you willing to compromise? Can you distinguish between what you need and what you want? How easy or comfortable is it for you to examine a situation from a perspective other than your own? Both founders should be willing to look inward and be firmly flexible throughout the lifespan of their partnership.

It’s often a good idea to take a personality test to determine how well you know yourself and then exchange the results with your potential co-founder. This allows you to make sure you both have a good sense of the other person and how they see themselves. Discuss the results and learn more about what was surprising about the results and what was confirmation of what you already believed to be true about yourself. There are several personality tests available, but the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Keirsey Temperament Sorter are two that are regularly used in business settings.

Your co-founder should be able to apply a different set of skills to leading your company. Every individual, no matter how well trained and accomplished, has their blind spots. Look for a co-founder whose abilities fill in your own gaps. Moreover, be clear in establishing roles and dividing responsibilities based on a thorough and conscientious mapping of your respective areas of expertise. If a potential co-founder appears to be a good match based on their skills but doesn’t recognize the significance or worth of what you have to offer, you may want to cross them off your shortlist. It’s your role as a co-founder to not only determine and discover you and your co-founder’s different skill sets, but also to embrace and even celebrate them.

To use the football analogy, it does a team no good to have two quarterbacks on the field at the same time. You need to make sure your team has the appropriate amount of skill positions, the right number of blockers, receivers, running backs and a few strong utility players. If you’re too busy trying to play QB, receiver and lineman, there’s no way you can be successful. Part of the need for a co-founder is to find someone who offers qualities you don’t possess and who’s willing to take on situations you don’t want to handle. It’s only when you embrace your different talents that a company can thrive.

NOTE: When hiring a team, you and your cofounder need to make sure you take the same approach to hiring that you did to finding each other. I always tell people that if you’re the best in your company at more than one thing, then you hired poorly. But if you’re not the best at anything in your company, then you hired brilliantly.

You may think collaboration means you’ll always be working side by side, but collaborators often work independently of one another, coordinating their efforts asynchronously. Not only is it impossible to be a helicopter partner, constantly observing and evaluating your co-founder’s work, but this not the kind of partner you want to be. Your co-founder has to prove they can be trusted with your ideas and the reputation you’ve built, however you have to show your co-founder that you can be trusted to respect their status and authority within your company. At the end of the day, only your co-founder really understands the pressures, frustrations and, not insignificantly, the rush that comes with building a company from the ground up. Trust means leveraging that shared experience and emphasizing what’s mutual in your understanding. And just like a good marriage, success often comes down to a few key elements: communication and expectations.

You and your co-founder have to continually communicate with each other to make sure you know what’s being done, why and how it ties back to the overall mission and vision of the organization. All too often, co-founders become cross with each other because they feel like one is offering more value than the other. For example, a technical cofounder is building the technology or application you want to sell, but you can’t sell it until it’s finished. You end up getting frustrated because the technology is taking longer than expected to build, and your co-founder is frustrated because you haven’t been out selling the product. You have to communicate expectations and measure against those expectations.

If you and your co-founder agree on an end-of-the-year launch date, you can’t get upset that the technology isn’t ready by September 1. I often suggest writing down expectations — just like in a contract — and having both co-founders sign the paper so you can always reference what both parties initially agreed upon. That doesn’t mean the document can’t change, but it does mean you have something to point to that can help clarify any miscommunication or confusion for the organization and the co-founders.

Is your co-founder the kind of person who’s willing to tell you what you don’t want to hear? Is your co-founder willing to listen when you have bad news to deliver? Can you have those necessary and difficult conversations with your co-founder? While you both are working tirelessly to succeed, you should also be the two people in your company willing to discuss and plan for a future in which things don’t work out. Confrontation is difficult for most people, but if you realize the future and potential success of your company is based on your ability to endure confrontation, it often makes it easier to have those hard discussions. Being candid often entails being fearless. Have you taken into account how success might change your relationship, for better or worse? Have you both had the confidence and foresight to admit the inevitability of a certain amount of conflict? Have you both committed contractually to the kind of conflict resolution that sets your own personal interests aside for the company’s greater good? Within the context of your start-up, what would qualify as unethical behavior, and what consequences are to be expected should there be a breach of those ethics? Most importantly, do you both have exit strategies in case your relationship sours beyond repair?

Your co-founder has to be someone who shares your passion and supports your vision, but your co-founder also has to be a realist, someone who can acknowledge the limits of both optimism and pessimism, and who can separate business from their own baggage. All too many co-founder relationships end ugly and with irreparable damage, but if you follow some of the above guidelines, you’ll put you and your co-founder in the best possible place to be successful and maintain a long and healthy relationship.