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Ten Steps in Choosing the Right Startup Partner

Posted on the 15 June 2011 by Martin Zwilling @StartupPro

schmidt-zuckerbergIf you are a first-time entrepreneur, I often recommend that you team with a co-founder with experiences, connections, and a skill set that complements, but doesn’t duplicate yours. Even experienced entrepreneurs need a partner to strengthen their position. The question is how to find that elusive perfect-fit partner.

First, I will admit there is no magic formula here, just like in real life when trying to find a relationship partner. But from my own experience, and input from others, there are useful approaches that will improve your odds of success:

  1. Define the ideal partner. The most important step is deciding exactly what skills and experience you need to best complement yours. Start with your own judgment, but don’t hesitate to ask for advice from a seasoned investor. Ideal partners here should not include your best friend or a family member.

  2. Start the search with business networking. Actively participate in local business groups and events, like The Indus Entrepreneur (TiE) and entrepreneur forums. Join entrepreneur groups online, like Linkedin “On Startups”, Facebook for Business, and use Twitter to find people with like-minded interests.

  3. Join online “dating” sites for business partners. Believe it or not, there are online websites that are dedicated to just this challenge. Examples include PartnerUp, StartupAgents, and Cofoundr. Don’t forget the wealth of business blogs frequented by entrepreneurs and investors, where you make your interests known.

  4. Use local university connections. Call some professors and students at your local university to see if they know any entrepreneurial students, alums, or professors who might be interested in jointly creating a real company.

  5. Look for diversity in outside activities. Major universities, like Stanford and MIT, are flush with smart people from all cultures, many of whom would bring a whole new energy and creativity to your startup. Certain activities seem to attract the right kind of independent thinkers, like rock climbing and ultimate Frisbee.

  6. Talk to people at work. If you have worked with someone at another company for a couple of years, and realized that your work ethic, goals, and personalities are similar, that person may be a good match. Watch out for non-compete clauses, and conflicts of interest with the current employer.

  7. Move to the right geography. If you live in the middle of nowhere, your chances of finding the right co-founder for your new high-tech startup are poor. Maybe it’s time to consider relocating to one of the hubs for startups, like Silicon Valley, Boston, Seattle, or Austin. As soon as you find the partner, these are the places to find funding as well.

  8. Get to know potential partners before committing. Take your time. Meet personally with potential candidates in both formal and informal environments to check for a match in chemistry as well as interests. Ask every question you can think of, and don’t let emotions get the best of you. Co-founder is a long-term relationship.

  9. Agree on role assignments early. The last thing you need after all this work is partners stepping on your toes. Make sure you all agree on what you know, what you are good at, and what responsibilities are assigned to each. Get this in writing as a standard pre-nuptial.

  10. Hire a lawyer. Especially when dealing with co-founders that haven’t worked together before, meet with a lawyer with all the partners present and tell him what type of company you are starting, who is contributing what, and other relevant information. Get it written down. Later will be too late.


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