The Master List: Questions to Ask Potential Co-Founders

When looking for a co-founder, entrepreneurs need to make sure they are matched with the right partner before taking the startup leap together. Otherwise, disaster could ensue.

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By Jessica Alter

This story originally appeared on FounderDating

We often get asked what co-founders should look for in a potential partner or what questions to ask each other. Well, we now have an answer.

We combined our knowledge, along with insight from our community, to create a master list of questions to ask potential co-founders (or rather to make sure you cover).

We've broken them down into four categories: Personalities and Incentives, Personal Priorities, Working Styles and Culture and Roles and Responsibilities.

So without further ado, here is the list.

Personalities and Incentives. You have to spend a lot of time together, so just having complementary skill sets isn't going to cut it. You really need to have chemistry and be aligned on why you're building a company.

Related: 4 Tips to Avoid Co-Founder Conflict

1. Why do you want to start a company? (It's important they answer why they want to start a company right now.)
2. What motivates you?
3. What do you do with your free time? How do you unwind?
4. How do you deal with stress and big challenges?
5. What do you think I'd be most surprised to find out about you?
6. What are our respective personal goals for the startup (i.e. a sustainable business that is spinning off cash and running it forever or high growth and some type of liquidity event)?
7. Will this be the primary activity for each of us?

  • What is the expected time commitment now, in six months, two years, etc.?
  • Are we allowed to take on anything outside of the company?

8. Would we sell this for $5 million? $100 million? Are we waiting for the billion-dollar exit?
9. Is there a part of our plan that we are unwilling to change (i.e. the product being built, the market being addressed or some other aspect of the company)? (Pro-tip: the only guarantee is that things will change, so if someone isn't open to that there is a problem.)

Personal Priorities. Risk tolerance varies by individual, so make sure you know where the other stands and that you're both comfortable with it.

Related: Partnering Your Way to Startup Success

1. What are our personal cash needs in the short term?
2. Are we both going unpaid and when would this change?

  • If you're not able to go full time now, under what circumstances would you be able to start working on something full time?

3. Do we want to raise outside money?

  • If so, how much now, in six months, two years and over the life of the company?

4. Where do we want the business to be located?
5. What are your personal committments (i.e. Are you married? Do you have kids?)? How will you manage your time?
6. Have you ever failed at anything?

  • If so, how did you handle it and what did you learn? (If they answer no, that is a big red flag)

7. Talk about times you both did something you had never done before. How did it get handled and what was the outcome? (This could be technical or non-technical. For instance, this could be scaling a company or internationalization of a website.)
8. The Spouse Test. This isn't neccessarily a question but a kind of evaulation. Given how much time you're going to spend with a co-founder, you should have your spouse or significant other meet the potential co-founder. Not only do they know you better than almost anyone but they can provide a second opion. Also, they should know the person you're going to spend a lot of time with.

Working Styles and Culture. This is an important area that is often overlooked. Think hard about the type of company you want to build culture-wise and make sure you're aligned on how to build it.

Related: How a Couple Managed to Make It Work as Co-Founders

1. If you had to come up with three words to describe the culture you want to create, what would they be (i.e. open, hard-working, eccentric)? (Pro-tip: if you're really serious and far along go visit a few office spaces together to get a sense of what each of you likes in work environments.)
2. What values do we want to instill in our employees?
3. If you could pick two things to change and two things to bring with you from your previous companies, what would they be and why?
4. How much equity are we allocating for future employees?
5. Who do we think the first five hires will be?
6. Describe your working style to me in a few words?
7. What are some of the products you love and why? (Pro tip: This will help you get a sense for what they appreciate)
8. How do you deal with conflict? Compromise? (The only real way to know this is to do a side project or start working together. Fights are healthy, how you get through them is the question.)
9. Ask for references or just back channel them. Don't be afraid to do this, it's important.

Related: How to Know When You've Met the One -- Co-Founder, That Is

Roles and Responsibilities. It's great to have complementary skill sets but there is such an immense amount of work to do at the beginning that you should make sure you agree on who is really going to own certain areas and which areas can/will be shared in the first 12 to 18 months.

1. What areas do you see yourself definitely wanting to be point person for the first 12 to18 months?

  • What about yourself?
  • What are the areas you know you're not particularly good at?

2. What do you think I am best at?

  • What do you think I need support for?
  • How will you help me succeed?

3. How will decisions get made?

  • Can you outvote me?
  • Can either of us fire the other?
  • If one of us gets fired, what do we leave with?

4. Why do you think we'll be good together?

Related: 5 Secrets to Creating Harmony Among Co-Founders

5. Some of the legal stuff…

  • Have you ever been fired, gone to jail or done anything that would materially impact your time with the company?
  • Do you sit on any boards of companies and do you have any conflict of interest with our project?
  • Is there a "no-compete" clause that is active at this time?
  • Will any of you be investing cash in the company? If so, how is this treated? (i.e. Debt? Convertible debt? Does it buy a different class of shares?)

6. Have you worked and/or managed diverse teams and if so, how?
7. How do you think we should give feedback to each other (and the team)?
8. Who is going to be CEO (and why)? Are we both comfortable with this?
9. What's the equity split and why? Are we both comfortable with the reasoning behind this decision?

Again, we don't recommend just going down this list in one sitting, like in an interview. Have several conversations -- a lot of these topics should come up naturally.

You'll also note, we don't have questions like "What language do you code in?" or "Tell me about a deal you put together?" These questions are fine but try to refrain from making them the focus -- it will feel like a job interview.

This is someone you want to be your partner, not your employee. And as exhaustive as this list might be, in order to really understand how you work with someone you have to actually work with them. Once you've agreed you're aligned on a lot of the categories above, start a side project, go to a hackathon (or two). It's really the only way to tell.

(The original blog post was edited for clarity)

Related: 5 Tips for Picking the Perfect Partner

Jessica Alter

Jessica Alter is founder and CEO of FounderDating, the people network for entrepreneurs to connect and help one another. Previously, Jessica ledbBusiness bevelopment and was GM of platforms at Bebo. She is also a startup advisor and mentor at Extreme Startups and 500 Startups. 

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