Lab Dispatches

Finding Your (Business) Partner in this Crazy World

A few years ago, I wrote a piece for the Amex Open Forum telling people to stop actively searching for a cofounder because you can’t predict and plan for their arrival, just like you could never decide to meet a potential spouse next Saturday night. I stand by it:

Stop asking people to help you find one, and stop talking and thinking this way. I say this not because it’s massively annoying and clichéd by now (which it is), but mainly because the very act of looking for a co-founder is already a sign that you are hopelessly unprepared for the coming venture—and going about things in a completely backwards way.

First of all, just like in life, don’t assume you’re not enough. You can acquire skills and employ powerful tools to get to a minimum viable product all by yourself. In fact, it’s so easy and accessible, there really is no excuse not to. Imagine how powerful this is. You can generate a massive amount of value before even thinking about having to dilute your equity. Ironically, this is actually the best way to find co-founders, early employees, and investors—just get a real business up and running by yourself!

Better solo than hastily and unhappily coupled with the wrong cofounder. Consider this undesirable alternative, that I lay out here: If you partner with someone you don’t know well just because you assume they can fast-track your knowledge of a field, that might leave you on a ship with someone else at the helm, or abandoned altogether. 

Second of all, if a cofounder partnership is in your future, it should come about organically. It’s going to be that coworker who you work really well with, or person you’ve met over a shared interest. But even then, it’s a relationship you cultivate over time before you jump in to building a startup. Get to know each other by working on a few projects together and getting a feel for things like work ethic, process, and conflict management.

Think about it. During the fundraising process, when potential investors are considering backing a company, they will typically ask cofounders how they met. What do they really want to know? They want to know how stable the partnership is, because that is the foundation of the company. And if the foundation isn’t solid, nothing that is built on top of that is solid. 

If you’re sure of your solid foundation and you’ve made a commitment with your cofounder, staying together as business partners sounds a lot like staying together with any partner you may have decided to share your life with:

  • Speak clearly and openly with each other – not only about work, but about emotions as well. As you’re building a business, you will have to work through difficult moments and being able to say what you need to say – always directly, and with kindness – will make a massive difference in your mental health and the health of your business.
  • Keep a monthly social engagement with your cofounder on the calendar, one where you don’t discuss work. 

A final word to the wise: A prenup might be optional, but signing vesting documents with a cofounder is not. In my 14 years at Columbia, I have seen countless teams go from “but we’re best friends” to not speaking to each other, so it’s best to get these documents done while everyone is level-headed. Otherwise, you might find yourself embroiled in an ugly cofounder “divorce” with plenty of money, equity, and time at stake. 


Dave was appointed Director of Entrepreneurship at Columbia University in 2013. In his years with Columbia Entrepreneurship he’s helped launch the Columbia Startup Lab, the Columbia Design Studio, Startup Law Studio, CTech and a host of new tech programs and curricula throughout the university’s many schools. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Entrepreneurship at Columbia Business School where he teaches the Greenhouse Accelerator Program, the Launch Your Startup class and at Columbia Engineering where he teaches the Entrepreneurship Bootcamps to incoming Masters students.

By background he’s an entrepreneur (2 exits) and angel investor in 100+ companies. His personal blog, www.davelerner.com/blog, explores the worlds of university entrepreneurship, angel/venture investing, and startups and he’s a frequent contributor to many other publications, including Business Insider, whose SAI group recently named him both one of the “top 100 most influential New Yorkers in the digital business community” and “one of NYC’s top 100 early stage investors”.

 

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