Get Set Startup- Chapter 3: The Founding Team
When you have a startup idea the next thing you want to do is to execute it, you want to try and make the difference you always knew you were born for, do what
“If You Want To Go Fast, Go Alone. If You Want To Go Far, Go Together”
When you have a startup idea the next thing you want to do is to execute it, you want to try and make the difference you always knew you were born for, do what you always wanted to. But there is a problem; you don’t have all the capabilities to execute it.
No one is capable of doing it alone; creating a startup out of an idea is a mammoth task and requires too diverse skillsets for anyone to poses. You may be good at the core of the idea but there are different components which add up to form a startup.
One fine morning of 2007, two roommates sat frustrated as they were struggling to pay rent for their San Francisco apartment. One of them came up with an idea of renting out three air mattresses on the floor and serving them breakfast, the other roommate agreed to it.
This was the prelude of one of the most well-known startups AirBnB was born. There was a design conference in the city and the hotels were both costly and jam-packed. They created a simple website and hosted details of their apartment, a few photographs and a promise of home-cooked breakfast in the morning.
Three individuals turned up, two men and a woman showed up, paying $80 each. They had their first revenues but it was not a startup yet, it was simple rental service done online.
What happened next was magic, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia could believe their eyes when mails started pouring down the next weekend from around the world asking, when were they going to start their services in destinations like, Buenos Aires, London, and Japan.
They started brainstorming and realised that there is a market, a lot of people around the globe were facing the same problem and they had a solution to it. If they wanted this idea to scale up and grow into a startup worth billions of dollars, they needed a skillset which none of them had.
They needed a computer engineer, an expert in website optimization to develop a professional website which can handle the worldwide scale and traffic. They needed a chief technology officer. They called up a former roommate and engineer Nathan Blecharczyk to help them launch Airbed & Breakfast.
They launched it around the Democratic National Convention in order to capitalize on the resulting lack of hotel space. Almost a decade of work and Airbed and Breakfast has turned into Airbnb a 25 billion dollar unicorn. They needed a CTO as their cofounder, you may need someone else, maybe a marketing genius, but trust me you need one for sure.
To provide your startup idea with the best-skilled people around, you have only two options, either you get them on board as cofounders or hire them as employees. In the world of startups employees work for two things, first is salary and second is a small part of the total value of the company vested to them as employee stocks.
As a first time entrepreneur, you barely have your own sustenance let go the idea of paying anyone. And about the value of your stocks, you haven’t even registered your company yet. So your only option to move ahead is getting the best cofounder. Even if you have money by chance or you have already registered your company and have stocks, a cofounder comes with added benefits.
Your cofounder is the true believer in your idea; he not only comes with skillset but also his zeal and passion. When you have an idea which you think you will be selling for billions of dollars, it is very obvious to get excited. Adrenaline is rushing through your veins and you believe that after this venture your name will be an example for all aspiring entrepreneurs. But, it is just the beginning.
Just beside these peaks of excitement, there will be lows. Between your life-changing idea and a successful venture there lies a valley of death. Millions of good startups died their silent deaths in these uphill climbs.
There are times when excitement is replaced by frustration and only fear causes adrenaline to run through your sinews. These are the moments when co-founders hold each other’s hand to climb the cliffs and rope the gaps.
When you are performing the infinite task of building up an enterprise, stress comes as a by-product. Despite all planning and perfect executions, shortfalls and failures are sure to come. You will be in a situation called helplessness. What to do with these stresses? Take them home?
Your family can’t understand what you do. Your friends can only console you with their hollow advice, with the time you get reluctant; you don’t want to talk to your friends. They don’t understand the agony you are going through. You certainly can’t vent out at your employees, they are free birds, and they will leave you more frustrated and broken.
You need a friend at the office to share the burden. This role is also played by your cofounder. He is your wingman when you fly through enemy territories. Building a startup can be compared to parenting and everyone knows how difficult it is to be a solo parent.
If you are a first-time entrepreneur then a cofounder becomes a compulsion, as running a company is not only doing the core business, it also a lot of legal, financial and administrative work.
Being a noob you will face difficulties executing them. You will find yourself doing something you don’t want to do. You can’t hire people for every expertise at the very beginning. You need a co-founder who can share the dirty work with you.
Running a startup is also a lot of troubleshooting. It is often less of planning and more of getting into problems and solving them efficiently. Fire fighting will be a daily routine for you. You start with a product road map in your mind but everything does not go as per your wishes.
You get huddles to jump off, roadblocks to manoeuvre and sometimes you face dead ends so you need to take a U-turn. As a rule of thumb, troubleshooting is always better when you have at least two people. You can discuss possible paths and respective outcomes.
A solo mind tends to get blocked by unilateral and monotonous thinking, to get to a perfect solution you need someone to oppose you. We often get biased and look at only one aspect of the problem. An advisor or a mentor can also be a good choice to overcome these problems but remember, he does not have his own skin in the game. Imagine you come across a brilliant solution at 11:30 in the night, you can’t call your advisor and say Eureka! But you will certainly call your partner in the crime.
Lastly, if you have a cofounder you are a better bet for investors. They believe in having a team led by at least two co-founders. This is their way to mitigate risk. Imagine if a solo cofounder goes crazy or slip off a cliff, millions of dollars go waste. Further, they want to invest in a wholesome team and not on hired employees. So if you want investors and want to go far with your startup, get a cofounder first.
Getting the perfect cofounder is as important as the idea itself. The most recommended way of pairing up is, one of you create the other one sells. If you are the seller kind of entrepreneur then look for the person who can develop or implement your idea to perfection, while if you are a developer look for a person who has the best sales skills.
Also, make a list of all the essential skillsets required to implement the initial product. If you and your cofounder can take care of all the aspects of the implementation of your idea, then it’s perfect. Don’t leave a big gap in the required skillset list; initially, you won’t be hiring employees to fill the gap.
Like in case of Airbnb, none of the initial co-founders had required skills to build a stable online system which could have the millions of potential customers, so they opted for a CTO to bring the technology in place.
Apart from having complementary skillsets, your cofounder should be a leader. A charmer to lead a group of people toward a self-realised definitive goal. Remember he is going to lead a large part of your startup; he is going to be a CXO, owner of a complete department at your would-be huge a company.
He can’t be a follower of instruction you give him. He must be capable of taking brilliant decisions and take pride in the results, also he should have the courage to stand by the mistakes he commits. Doing things is great, but getting things done is also a must for a cofounder. Initially, you need to do everything yourself but later you can’t replace your cofounder. So always try to make a perfect choice.
Your cofounder should be flexible enough to endure disagreements. Running a startup is like a treasure quest, you need to make decisions every day. Few of them are simple black or white situations while others will have various shades of grey. In these moments you and your cofounder will tend to disagree and every disagreement comes with a responsibility on each of you to either understand or to make the other one understand. It may seem very simple but most people in our civilisation lack this skill of taking disagreements with patience.
People have false egos which can ruin everything to dust. While choosing your co-founder, pay very close attention to how he handles conflict. Disagreements are unavoidable; you have to develop a conducive environment where experimentation is encouraged and failure isn’t necessarily looked down upon. A healthy co-founder relationship will consist of disagreement with the goal of making better, battle-tested decisions.
One way to avoid futile discussions is an alignment of vision; there must be an alignment in vision so as to what each one of you wants to create out of your efforts. Alignment of vision leads to coherent discussions, you come out with great amplified ideas only when thoughts resonate.
When cofounders have passion for the venture they try to find solutions and agree to point which are implied for the betterment of the startup. So look for a person who is passionate, whose vision is crystal clear and also perfectly aligned to yours.
Most of the successful startups were architectured by friends and relatives together. Nothing can be better than finding a cofounder in someone with whom you have worked for a while. Preferably a friend or a co-worker from your last workplace. This also answers the question of why most startups come out of premier colleges. When an entrepreneurial brain from these great institutions comes up with an idea he has no dearth of like-minded people to discuss with. He has a palette of all kind of skillset to choose from. He has spent years with them discussing a spectrum of relevant and irrelevant topics. He knows them well, their positives, their strengths and also their shortfalls. I firmly believe that friendship is the best adhesive for cofounders to back each other and stick together.
But the journey of entrepreneurship has no thumb rules. Sometimes strangers also form a great team. When two complete strangers Raaja Nemani and Aaron Firestein met for the first time in the slums of Argentina, they did not know that their friendship was actually a prelude to one of the most successful startups in the field of art and craft.
Raaja Nemani was a backpacker, a travel enthusiast; he was passing through Argentina as he decided to roam around the world for one year after quitting his job in finance, Aaron was a California native, he went there to study Spanish after graduating from the University of Oregon.
Their path crossed for a while, and the two strangers became friends. When Raaja left to continue on his expedition Aaron sold him a pair of shoes, they had his original hand-drawn designs on a pair of blank canvas sneakers. As Raaja travelled across the six continents, his new shoes sparked conversations with people from all over the globe.
People would comment on their unique design and several friendships sparked out of these initial conversations. Aaron had been drawing these artistic patterns on canvas sneakers since his college years.
His designs were unique and were appreciated by his classmates, who started purchasing his handcrafted shoes. Aaron’s friends at the University of Oregon had nicknamed him “Bucket,” so he aptly named his creation “BucketFeet.”
After Raaja had completed his travels, he knew the charm of the first-hand design shoes he had, he contacted Aaron on Facebook, enquiring if he would be willing to join him in Chicago and build a business around the idea of artist-designed sneakers. Aaron agreed, and the two moved to Chicago in 2010 and officially launched the business in 2011. They named the startup – Bucket feet.
Whether a friend, a relative or a stranger once you decide on your cofounder give your cent per cent. Differences are sure to arise, sort them out. Back him in his worst times and erroneous decisions, redress him don’t leave him.
A splitting cofounder is the worst thing that can happen to your startup. Very few startups can sail through the legal and mental trauma generated when a cofounder leaves. So if necessary use every effort to duck tape your startup together. Always keep looking for any developing fractures in relationships and seal leakages as soon as you find one.
But if you have chosen the correct partner, these tasks will require less time leaving you with zeal and energy to crack the real problem.
Last but not least is the number of cofounders you should have. Some people have their arguments for two being the best number but in my opinion three gives a lot of advantage over two or four.
More than four is too many cooks spoiling the food and less than two is going solo. When you have an odd number of decision making becomes much easier. With a third co-founder on board, you are not alone when the second one is on a leave.
Yes, it’s a long journey that can’t be concluded in one go, so people go on leaves. When two people have a rough time together then there is the third one to reconciliation and bring peace to the table. So I suggest starting up with three people forming a truce. Truces are definitely the most rigid geometric shapes we use to make long bridges and sky-high towers. So, get two more enthusiasts and make a truce together.