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Finding my co-founder
My personal journey and lessons for aspiring entrepreneurs
The ones who are close with me know that I have been working with Hagen to build Narratic. We’ve had a few very successful weeks in a row and I attribute that largely to the exceptional work relationship we have developed.
Having tried a few a few other constellations before, I learned a few things that were important for my hunt for the right person to join forces with and I think those lessons are worth sharing, especially for those looking to collaborate on a creative venture.
Finding a co-founder is similar to dating. It’s a numbers game, there needs to be trust, it can be frustrating sometimes you commit to the wrong person, and you must be on the same timing.
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While the numbers game works nicely for the very first stages of dating (awareness, interest), finding a co-founder can get incredibly slow once you get to the part that matters: Figuring out common subjects, understanding a person’s values, experiencing the other one in action.
It’s obvious that without any connection, there is little energy to be wasted. But connection goes deeper – it is not only based based on the mere understanding of the other but also the feeling that there is something more that builds towards mutual trust. You are looking for someone you can turn your back towards and still expect things to work as they would if you were involved.
The frustrating element comes in when you notice at some point that there are slight differences. It’s still possible to get along but it feels like something is missing and not everything can be solved between anyone. This is something that happens mutually and it is amplified by fact that there are other potential matches out there.
When you meet “the one” it’s an instant click. You think about the same things, you laugh about the same jokes, and you are eager to join forces. That’s what happened when I ran into Hagen.
This won’t be the last word of praise about him but it’s fair to say that it was love at first sight. We fully connected during our first meetings and it was a straight line from being strangers to knowing that I’d want to work with this guy.
In a world where everyone’s job is to sell a vision, many people get sucked into the habit of overstating things ever so slightly. That places a cushion between people, a safety margin. Hagen is one of the exceptions to this. He is a living example of how first principles thinking and foundational knowledge consistently lead to better insights and I’m impressed to discover every day how smart that guy actually is.
Even if everything else is in place, bad timing can kill what might have been a perfect match. This is trickier than it sounds but think of someone you would instantly form a company with – chances are that this person is currently happy with something else or not ready to commit to such a major step at this point.
Complementary but aligned
What’s relatively easy to figure out are the commonalities as this is what often brings people together in the first place. Even though I had heard it a few times, I greatly underestimated how important it is to be complementary on the right things.
When I started out, I didn’t think that a similar skillset would be causing any major trouble but, with my chosen environment as a given, I learned that I wasn’t able to build a big enough team that would help us offset missing skills fast enough. I am not saying that I never will but it wasn’t in the cards for me and the constellations I worked in.
Whenever a team is incomplete in their skills, shortcomings need to be compensated by optimism and hard work. But there is an end to both after which reality kicks in. Sure enough, also Hagen and I are limited in what we can do but we can go a long way without adding more people while already delivering the full package, albeit slower.
If you are an aspiring founder looking for your partner, I encourage you to be patient and ensure that your values are aligned. Misalignment will cause issues around employees, reputation, and a loss of direction.
Look for someone that can consistently teach you in those areas you don’t know that much about. This doesn’t guarantee that you found the most talented person in the world but it gives you a sense that you might be able to figure things out together that you can’t on your own.
You want to be sure that the other person thinks about important things in the same way you do. For starters, look at a startup’s four key areas and figure out if you think about key decisions in the same way. Examples:
Product: What products do you want to build?
Customers: Which audiences do you like to serve?
People: How do you think about dividing responsibility?
Finance: Is everyone fine with raising money from VCs?
While there can be disagreement on single questions around all these, you will quickly see if you are directionally off in one area. Pay attention to what you and the other person values – those issues will not magically go away as you put more time and resources into it.
With Hagen, I deeply share beliefs around technology and what the future holds for society that many others currently don’t. This will sound a lot more heroic after that future has actually happened. Until then we are left with regularly probing those beliefs and spending the rest of our time building it.
I already mentioned trust earlier but rather as an intermediate product of a working relationship than an aspect of it’s own. Both are true. While trust can be advanced to some degree early on, it only solidifies as time progresses and difficult situations occur.
While Hagen and I got to know each other, I was going through a rough patch of my life and there was no room (and desire) to keep everything behind covers. Although I didn’t plan for these moments to be a test, it turned out to be important cues for the quality of our relationship: “If he sticks around while it pours, I want to hang out when the sun comes out!”
Starting a business is risky. Therefore, it's important to understand your co-founder's risk tolerance, how they approach risk, and how risk is managed as a team.
As with some of the others, risk tolerance and management is best experienced together and in concrete situations. Looking back, there are a few things we did (unconsciously) and that I would emphasize to get a model version of what might happen:
Previous experiences: A person will naturally speak about past stories that contain some element of risk, whether it was in a business setting or not. This can help you understand how they approach risk and how they might react in the face of failure.
Scenarios and day dreaming: Discuss hypothetical scenarios that may pose a risk to the business and jointly figure out how you might handle them. But don’t focus on negative ones alone, it is information on risk in how high a person dares to aim.
Start with a smaller project (aka: just get on with it): If possible, consider working on a smaller together to see how they handle risk and how you work together as a team. I did that with a few people and it is what you should be pushing anyway when trying to get a business of the ground: Speak with a few people, develop an idea, try to win your first customers, and build a tiny version of your product.
Individual attitude towards risk is something that is easily hidden underneath all the positive energy around creating something new. But I have observed several teams fail due to issues related to opposing views of how far one should go and once a person’s personal red zone is reached, conflict awaits.
Conflict can come from many sources other than different views on risk and no matter how good your partnership is, you will disagree. A lot. Those disagreements will arise from differences in work styles, disagreements over company strategy or direction, or personal conflicts outside of the business.
Ignoring conflicts or letting them fester can be detrimental to the success of the business and the co-founder relationship. Unresolved conflicts cause tension and mistrust, which can lead to communication breakdowns and poor decision-making. And all this ultimately affects those around you and leads to a slow-down on the journey you started.
Conflicts should be addressed as soon as possible and approached in a productive and constructive way. If there is no leftover from previous fights, this shouldn’t take too long and should be doable amongst the two of you. The end result should be greater knowledge about the other person and additional resilience as a team. Think make-up sex, not resentment.
All of the above elements should have their place in your search for a suitable co-founder because success doesn’t make any of these easier, let alone address their root causes.
As a project becomes more successful and expands, the impact of decisions and actions is amplified due to the increased number of people and resources involved. With more people and more capital at stake, there is greater pressure to make decisions that will yield the best results.
I am not saying this in the context of exponentially growing organizations that are fuelled by VC money, all of this already happens at a small scale. Unless you keep it amongst the two of you, you will need to regularly convince people – customers, employees, investors – of the fact that you are a team they can take a bet on and that joining you puts them on a winning journey.
This shouldn’t be daunting but a positive outlook. Your co-founder’s presence should make all of the above easier, not harder. A prospect should be more convinced of your solution than if one explains it on their own – not because you don’t know your pitch but because your vision is buried inside two brains when there is little else to show.
In short: Success doesn’t cure fundamental issues and it’s important to figure things out and move on. The faster you do that, the faster you will find your very own Hagen.
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