Tough Decisions: Picking founders

By Guest Author | entrepreneurs | January 3, 2017

“You are a very good partner,” said my co-founder as we closed another working day. “The feeling is mutual,” I responded happily. “I’m quite pleased at how well we have been working together.”

By Marc Dillon

2016 has been busy and seems like a small lifetime – together, we took a product from prototype to delivery, funded our startup for growth and built a roadmap and team to tackle the future. We are good partners and like anything, that’s partly down to luck and partly down to good, hard work. Every day is a good one, and I owe a lot of that to my relationship with my partner.

A year ago I was a free agent working in projects, advising boards, and giving a lot of free consulting to students, entrepreneurs and youth. I didn’t know what the future would hold, but I was doing everything I could to meet as many entrepreneurs and startups as possible. I was looking to find the right opportunity that fit my skills and, most importantly, searching for a co-founder whose strengths complemented my own weaknesses.

Just as I was resigning myself to apply for a more conventional job in order to pay the bills, I got the call that changed everything. The person on the other end of the line was a bit different than the other entrepreneurs I knew; Asmo Saloranta had founded four companies: two in hardware, one in media, and one in the game industry. His mobile charger company’s product, however, was not on track. He thought I might be able to help and I was instantly excited by the thought of taking a popular man with a popular product and building a new startup together.

Since he’s from Oulu and I live 400 kilometres away in Helsinki, we met in the middle ground, at the Uusi Tehdas startup centre in Tampere. I began the due diligence by interviewing Asmo.

First, I had to be sure about the man – someone I would be signing up to work with for years, through unknown ups and downs. What did he want from the company? Where did he see his life in two, three, five years? What were the financial and engineering statuses of the company and its product? Was there a roadmap for the company? Was there traction for the product? If there were an exit opportunity, what figure would he want to cash out?

When it came to talking about the product itself, I easily found something to grab hold of: there was a story here that needed to be told, and storytelling is one of my passions. There was a pitch that was clear and direct. There was a product that fulfils a need and is easy to understand. The financial documents were mapped out and plausible. There was traction from a crowdfunding campaign that had hit its goal in the first few hours. And just one person had managed to do all that.

We didn’t just jump into creating contracts and agreements; I started by just helping out here and there at first. We worked together with the product team, went on sales calls to distributors, created new pitch materials and met investors. We both understood that a trial period of getting to know each other’s personalities and working habits, strengths and weaknesses would tell us what we needed to know.

In any type of hiring, I look for vision, talent, and attitude. Picking a co-founder is similar.

If you can quickly share the vision for what you choose to do and how you choose to do it, you’re off to a good start. You may look at things with different depth and scope and have different ideas, but they should merge into a common vision fairly easily. I found that building a great company was a value we shared, and while I had ideas about growth and business, he had the vision for long-term roadmaps and the overall goals of the company.

Look to recognise which of your skills and talents are overlapping and which ones are unique to one person. One of you might be able to create beauty in excel, while the other is a wizard at pitching; one tends to think far into the future while the other knows all the practicalities for next week. Then if you are both good with people and share a passion for entrepreneurship, you are onto something. A good fit is someone that can help you take your work further than you can, pick up where you left off, add technical skills if you are more founded in business or vice versa.

Attitude is perhaps the most important quality; it is important to want to do the work and to have passion for the goal.

A compatible sense of humour, compassion, and empathy are just as important as drive, focus, and hunger for success. People who are in entrepreneurship just for the money may have a better time buying lottery tickets.

There is a lot of hard work ahead, and the startup lifestyle is a roller coaster with few breaks, so having a fun and understanding partner along the way is absolutely essential.

Do you know your goals for the company and the lifestyle of building a startup? What is your exit strategy: do you want a long road towards IPO, a fast acquisition by another company, A-round, B-round, growth and global domination? Are you in it for the money, for the title, or for the lifestyle? Are you someone who doesn’t get along easily with others and looks at entrepreneurship as an escape from a corporate job? Answering these questions for yourself will tell you a lot about what kind of co-founder you are looking for.

Startups with single founders are rare – investors look for teams that can take ideas and make them successful. It is going to be a long road, and the greatest thing to ensure your success is to find the right person to share the journey with.

(Photo: Jussi Hellsten/Slush Media)