How to Choose the Right Cofounder: 5 Essential Rules

Founders get lonely. They get insecure. They get stressed out, and pressured, and overwhelmed by the myriad of responsibilities, unknowns, pressures, and roadblocks that come with startup life. So it makes sense that most solo founders end up adding a cofounder or two somewhere along the way, someone who can share some of that heavy load.

But how do you choose? How do you know if someone is the right fit to help lead and represent your company? It's kind of like trying to find the right spouse or life partner; this will be a very intense, committed, long-term (hopefully), and stressful relationship. There will be huge benefits and joys and successes (again, hopefully,) but there will also be disagreements, conflicts, setbacks, and failures along the way (definitely). So how to choose?

There's no one right answer to this question, of course. It will depend on you as an individual, and on your unique personality, needs, and challenges. Still, based on our counseling work with multiple founders and founding teams over the years, we've found a few basic ingredients are essential to any successful cofounder relationship.

1. Know Yourself.

This is step one, always. Without self awareness, there is simply no way for you to know who will be the right fit for you and your company. And we don't mean sitting cross-legged and breathing while you think about who you are for a while (though that kind of thing is proven to significantly improve your life). We mean taking real action to get to know yourself: do a core value assessment, do a leadership style assessment, ask the people around you how they perceive you as a person and as a leader, evaluate and clarify your personal boundaries, goals, priorities, etc., have a few therapy sessions with a focus on self-discovery, do some focused writing or journaling. Actively look inwards before attempting to look outwards. You can't find the perfect match without knowing who you are matching to.

2. Skills Balance Matters.

This will depend on the industry, but overall, balanced cofounder teams with at least one business founder and one technical founder have been found to be way more successful: They raise 30% more money, have 2.9x more user growth, and are 19% less likely to scale prematurely than technical or business-heavy founding teams, according to the Startup Genome Report. So, if you are already skilled in one area, try to find someone with a complementary skill to yours. Even if your personalities or working styles are not perfectly aligned (which they almost never are,) that can be worked on and figured out over time.

3. Look for Openness, Authenticity, & Respect.

Obviously there are hundreds of positive qualities you can hope for in a cofounder, but in our work we've found that cofounder teams need to have at least these three between them to succeed:

  • Openness refers to a willingness to learn from others' perspectives, flexibility over time and circumstance, and ability to actively listen. You'll need this in a cofounder if your company is going to survive the twists and turns of a startup timeline, and for your relationship to survive conflict and differences of opinion and beliefs.

  • Authenticity means showing up as your true self. Of course it's hard to fully know when you are first getting to know someone whether they are being genuine, but this is still an essential quality to watch out for and do a gut-check on. Do they immediately agree with whatever you say or are they willing to speak up for themselves and their opinions? Do they come across as fake or trying too hard? Can you connect with them as a human? Trust your gut here. You'll know.

  • Respect is pretty basic: do you respect them? And do you feel they respect you? And we don't just mean respect their abilities or skills or resume. Do you respect them as a person, as an individual? Their way of thinking, their perspective, their beliefs and values? You don't have to agree on everything or even most things. But you do need to respect one another enough to weather changes over time and to communicate effectively through stress. Respect needs to be felt and shown: someone who interrupts you, who violates time or space boundaries, who talks about others behind their backs, who uses language or tones that offend you, who doesn't check in with you before moving forward with major decisions, is someone who is not showing proper respect to you or to the company.

4. Go Slow.

You wouldn't get married after knowing someone for a couple of months, right? Same goes for a cofounder. Take your time. "Date" them. Spend time with them in a variety of situations and circumstances. Do a test run, either by hiring them on a trial basis for a while, or by doing a completely separate goal-oriented project together like training for a marathon or taking a trip together. Vet them well: ask others who have worked with them, speak to their friends about what they're like under pressure, do whatever you can to get to know as much as you possibly can about them, and invite them to do the same about you. Speak to them openly about yourself (here's where knowing yourself comes in handy,) and ask them questions about their boundaries, values, goals, etc. Only fools rush in.

5. Consider Hiring.

If you have already been a solo founder for a while and you are looking to add a cofounder, consider hiring someone rather than making them a 50/50 partner. This will allow you to keep control over decision-making, while still benefitting from their skills, commitment, and involvement in the company. In order to attract and keep the top talent, you may have to consider giving away quite a big chunk - some recommend as high as 20, 30, even 40%, vested over a few years. That will ensure they truly feel that they are a part of the founding team rather than an employee who can (and will!) move on to the next best offer that comes their way. But it still keeps you in control of your company. And remember: "cofounder" is really just a title that feels good. It doesn't specify anything beyond that in terms of roles, responsibilities, or equity. Use it to your advantage to find great talent, but be sure to clarify exactly what is meant - and not meant - by the title when considering adding to your team.

Of course much more than this goes into finding and choosing the right cofounder for your team. But if you follow these 5 rules, you'll be off to a great start.