Who’s On Your Ideal Co-Founding Team?

Published in
4 min readFeb 15, 2016


The real founders of a business are the ones that make the business work, not just the ones that initially got it funded.

Written by Sean O’Sullivan, Managing Director at SOSV.

I should state my own bias (if it’s not clear enough already): In an ideal case, there can be between zero and one person on your startup’s founding team who is non-technical.

On a two person founding team, it is possible for one founder to be non-technical, but if so they must have a tremendous amount of knowledge of the customer need and marketplace.

On a three or four person founding team, it’s definitely possible to have one non-technical founder to take on customer-facing responsibilities and/or logistics. On the other hand, there is no problem with having all the people on the founding team be technical, as long as the founders are sufficiently human centered and market oriented in their design and engagement approach.

On larger teams, of five or more founders…well…hold on…there aren’t teams of five or more founders. You’re just having a party at that stage. Two to four? Ideal. And a senior management team (after the company grows to 20 or more) of five or more? No problem. But five or more founders isn’t likely, except as tiers of “multiple classes” of founders — it’s just too unwieldy for clarity of direction and leadership.

What do I mean by technical? This could be a programmer, engineer, scientist, doctor — even a mechanic or designer. If the business is planning to have a website or software as a core to their business value, then the core team for damn sure should include programming skills.

What do I mean by co-founders? People who are working on the business full-time, who are not engaged in multiple businesses at the same time. Anyone not working on the business full-time is not a co-founder, and should not receive founder-level equity. A co-founder is the first to go without pay, and even when the business is properly funded, co-founders will continue to receive under-market wages, up until the company is profitable.

Co-founders come into the company at the beginning, not six months later or one year later. The equity split between co-founders can range from, for 2 founders, 50–50 to 70–30; for 3 founders, 33–33–33 to 50–30–20; for 4 founders, 25–25–25–25 to 40–30–20–10. There are a wide range of circumstances that indicate what a “fair” split is…part of this is due to the leadership role, part of this is due to the technical contribution (for example, if someone is contributing a patent or the original invention). What isn’t a co-founder is a split like 90–10. That’s either (a) greed on the part of the alpha-leader or (b) too much equity to give a non-essential staff member.

In exchange for this equity split, co-founders of the company must then sign, in blood, as part of a non-satanic ritual involving circles of candles and prodigious amounts of alcohol and/or sweet cakes, that they are now the soul of the new machine. They are committed to the company for the next 7 years (or however long it takes to make the company fly, whichever is longer). Yes, I know that the stock vesting period for most companies is 4–5 years, but true co-founders are around through this period and beyond, at least up until the time that the company has achieved profitability.

In my book, a co-founder who leaves the company before profitability is not really a co-founder of that company…unless of course the company dies and the co-founder was there until the bitter end. The real founders of a business are the ones that make the business work, not just the ones that initially got it funded, or the ones that shipped the first non-profitable product.

To save the company from unnecessary dilution, all co-founders sign vesting agreements that earn them shares over the years that they are present.

As an investor, at SOSV we will occasionally see companies that see the whole founding team change out. This is an unfortunate, rare circumstance, and usually happens because of situations beyond a founder’s control, such as a death in the family. It can happen due to incompetence, or it can happen due to the unpredictable nature of startups and/or a change in market opportunity. The new core team of leaders, who are possibly recruited by the previous founder(s), are generally compensated with the shares of the original founders who didn’t see the company through to profitability.

In the case where a company survives and thrives in its new form, it’s generally because the new team is just as passionate about the opportunity space.

Who’s on your ideal co-founding team?



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