You have a killer startup idea. You want a team to help make it a reality. But, you don’t have the money to hire anybody -- yet. If only you could find co-founders who were willing to work for equity!
But, the right cofounders can be exotic animals -- you don’t see them walk by your front door every day. So, how do you find them? Here are some suggestions.
Before you go on a co-founder hunt
1. Know what you bring to the table.
You came up with the idea. I get that. But, you can’t even buy toilet paper with ideas. Joining a startup comes with a ship-load of risks. What have you got to convince others that working with you would make the future less uncertain?
Do you already have customers or a large social following that could turn into leads? Have you built successful startups before? Do you have a seven-figure checking account or have Warren Buffett on speed dial?
If none of the above, do you know how to code? If you don’t, maybe you should learn. Hiring developers is expensive, especially at the early stage of your project, when you don’t know exactly what the final product should look like and will likely need to constantly experiment and pivot.
Being able to at least build a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) on your own makes you instantly more attractive as a co-founder. On the other hand, finding a tech co-founder who would code for you is 10 times harder than finding a business or marketing partner. Before starting my company Soundwise, I spent six months learning to code and went to Hack Reactor, a top software engineering training program. Programming is one of most worthy investments on my startup journey for many reasons. Making it easier to attract cofounders is just one of them.
2. Have something to show for
Yes, I know -- you don’t have a product yet. But, do you at least have a landing page? How about wireframes, business plans, pitch decks and video presentations? Do yourself a favor. Get some of those ready before you pitch a co-founder. It signals that you’re serious and committed. And, it makes explaining your vision so much easier.
Fantastic cofounders and where to find them
1. Your existing network
People you already worked with are more likely to be good co-founders than strangers, for the obvious reason that you already know each other’s style and have at least some mutual trust. That’s why you see so many former colleagues co-found companies together. If you’ve lost contact with some talented former peers, maybe now is the time to shoot them an email and say "hi."
Talk about your idea with everyone you know, and ask if they know anybody who’d be interested in joining you. Don’t assume people would know how to help without you popping the question.
Make friends in your local startup world. These people are more likely to know others who have an entrepreneurial bent. If you’re a first-time entrepreneur, it helps to have advisers who are well respected and connected in your startup community. I once mentioned in passing that I was looking for a co-founder to my adviser, Joshua Konowe, who is the chief product officer of Canvas and a successful entrepreneur. He graciously offered to help spread the word. And, within 10 days I got two quality co-founder candidates.
2. Job boards
Job boards are the most underrated place to find co-founders. While most people looking at job boards are looking for a real salary, it is equally true that most startups do not post co-founder “jobs” at these places. That’s why when you do, you easily stand out.
Write as a job post what you’re looking for in a co-founder, including a description of your company, job responsibilities and qualifications. And, consider posting it to popular job boards that would let you (some don’t unless it’s a salary-paying job). I put up this posting for Soundwise on Craigslist’s job board a while ago, which generated numerous interesting leads for not only co-founders, but also mentors, collaborators and friends. The ad was worth every dollar I spent on it.
Many universities now have MBA programs that feature entrepreneurship. If you’re looking for a sales/marketing co-founder, it may be useful to contact the MBA program director at your alma mater and ask if the school could spread the word for you among its graduating class. A professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business posted my company’s information in its student Facebook group. Within a week, I was connected to a few MBA students there who had impressive business backgrounds.
4. Startup forums and events
Search on meetup.com for startup/entrepreneurship. If you live in a major city, you’ll probably find at least one startup event every week. Startup incubators also host events, such as the Startup Weekend by Techstars. In addition, there are numerous online forums on Facebook and LinkedIn related to entrepreneurship.
The upside of going to these events and forums is that you easily meet many people who are interested in starting a business. The downside is that it’s easy for everyone. There are lots of ideas competing for attention at these events. They’re beauty contests with sometimes dubious criteria. And, it’s difficult for anyone to stand out and be heard.
5. Founder dating apps
Of course you can always try social networking apps such as the CoFoundersLab, whose sole purpose of existence is to help entrepreneurs find co-founders. But ironically, these can be the worst place to find a co-founder. They suffer from the same drawback as No. 4 above, i.e. too high of a noise-to-signal ratio. What you may also find is that most people on these platforms are already wedded to their own ideas and looking for others to join, just like you!
After your cofounder hunt
You find the perfect co-founder (on paper) and you start building a company together. But, how do you make sure you’re a good fit and what do you do when you’re not? These questions deserve entire books. For a start, take anyone on board slowly, with a proper trial period and vesting. Having the right co-founders can make or break your startup. And, if the relationship fails, at least let it fail fast.