Don’t look for co-founders; make friends

How to go about finding co-founders months or years before starting a company

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Don’t look for co-founders; make friends

“Don’t go into business with friends”  is a commonly-repeated-yet-awful piece of advice. I’d say the opposite is true – if you’re co-founding a company with someone who you don’t consider a friend, you’re in trouble.

When entrepreneurs think about finding co-founders, I often see them they put too much weight on the transactional elements, asking questions like, “what type of person would compliment my skills?” or “what skills are required for building this type of business?” or “how should I think about equity splits?”

While these are of course valuable questions to ask, they skip over far more important questions involving co-founder relationships. Questions like “who would I enjoy spending most of my waking hours with?” or “who do I deeply trust with my future?” or “who would I be willing to lean on for emotional support?” Once you’re in it, these are the questions that really matter. It’s likely that co-founders will need to spend multiple late nights with each other and not hate it.

When people ask, “how do I find co-founders?” the answer is usually, “if you’re asking now, you’re late.” The answer is to start making friends months or years before starting a company, with people who you could see yourself starting a company with. Similarly, when people ask “how should I think about finding co-founders in the future?’ the answer is “look at your current friends and the friends you’re making.”

The ingredients of a co-founder relationship

There are three foundational ingredients to a good co-founder relationship: (1) trust, (2) mutual professional admiration, and (3) mutual joy collaborating. Some of these ingredients can take years to build (e.g. trust), while others can be figured out pretty quickly (e.g. mutual joy collaborating).

Trust can take a long time to build. But if you’re going to put your future in your co-founders’ hands and lean on them for emotional support, it’s required. There’s no shortcut for this one – trust comes as a result of a genuine friendship that’s built over time.

Mutual professional admiration is key to a functioning co-founder relationship. Co-founders who believe in each others’ respective superpowers or areas of competence will have more trust in execution, clearer delineation  of responsibilities, and a more productive dynamic. There may be people you admire and respect professionally, but you have to admire and respect them in ways that are professionally relevant. For example, I have friends who teach K-12 who I admire and respect professionally. If I was building an EdTech startup, that admiration would transfer. But if I were starting a FinTech startup, most of that admiration wouldn’t transfer.

Mutual joy collaborating is something that can be figured out pretty quickly. This can be validated through working together on actual work projects, collaborating on side projects, or even collaborating on pretty inconsequential things, like planning a friends’ surprise party. 

Throughout my career, I’ve had 4-8 friends at any given time where these ingredients are in place. And at different times, it’s been a different group of people.

So how do you start developing friendships where you can work on these ingredients?

Ways to make friends who could become co-founders

1. Start with the people you already work with

The first way (and easiest) way to make friends who could become future co-founders is to start with the people you already spend each day with – your coworkers.

Some of the people in my life right now who’d I’d consider starting a company with in the future are the people I currently work with. If you look around at your coworkers at your current job and you can’t see yourself starting companies with any of them, you might have a bigger problem.

John Yarchoan and Mark Bernstein overlapped at Resource Environmental Solutions for a year from 2013-2014, working on wetland restoration projects. After a few twists and turns with their own ecological-offset-focused ventures, they ended up joining forces with Magnolia, a company that restores and conserves the habitat by providing ecological offset opportunities to companies that make unavoidable environmental impacts.

Brian Sze, John Wang, Ryan Wang, and Jen Ong Vaughn all worked together at Stripe building out Stripe’s customer support operations. They developed strong enough friendships (and expertise on scaling customer support operations) that three years ago, Brian, John, and Ryan co-founded Assembled, a customer support software startup. After about 18 months, when it was time to make their first business hire, they brought in Jen.

When working for someone else, it’s worth thinking about which of your coworkers you really admire and trust, and then find more ways to work with and spend time with those people. If you can use the precious time you have working together to build an enduring friendship, then they could be your future co-founders, employers, or early hires.

2. Join and engage with “professional” communities

The second way requires a bit more effort:  joining and engaging communities of people with similar professional interests.

I met my two co-founders from my first startup through the Venture For America fellowship. The fellowship brought together like-minded aspiring entrepreneurs, and we’d become good friends and collaborated on silly side projects for about a year and a half before we became co-founders. 

Communities like Venture For America are becoming more accessible. Historically, you either had to found a company and receive investment from accelerators like Y Combinator or Techstars, which offered access to these valuable communities in exchange for equity in your company. The other option was to quit your job and pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for business school to replicate the college experience with aspiring entrepreneurs.

Now, entrepreneurial communities are becoming unbundled from actual company investment and are much more accessible. New programs like On Deck, Compound Writing, Day One, or South Park Commons (and countless local incubators) make it their job to forge friendships between their like-minded community-members – much like business schools do. But you can engage with these communities on the side while working a “real job.” Joining and engaging in these communities can help you make friends with people with whom you’ll share professional admiration with out of the gate.

3. Attract friends with side projects

The third and most time-consuming way to build friendships that have these co-founder ingredients is to attract friends with side projects.

A great example of this is podcasts. Yes; there are too many podcasts. But when I see someone launch a new podcast, I don’t evaluate if it’s a good idea purely based on whether or not the podcast will be successful. I think about the friends they’re going to be able to make through the podcast. 

Starting a podcast that never exceeds 100 listeners can still be valuable if it enables an entrepreneur to meet new friends who they (1) admire professionally, and (2) find that they enjoy collaborating with. Through that lens, a podcast is actually a great way to make friends who could become future cofounders or collaborators. 

All-in-all, finding a co-founder is a lot like finding a life partner. It’s hard to say, “I want to get married this month” and wind up with a life partner. So if you’re asking yourself, “who are the right co-founders?” the answer is pretty simple. It’s whoever you want to spend the next 5-10 years of your professional life with. And much like dating, entrepreneurs should invest in building these relationships long before they’re ready for big commitment.