Neal Sales-Griffin and Mike McGee of The Starter League
First-time founders have much to gain from the support of another. How do you find the right person to join you on your journey?
You must have a cofounder. You must not. You’ll hear lots of advice on the topic of whether you’ll be helped or hurt by having someone along for the ride. But not even all the data you seek can give you the insight you seek about your individual experience.
So think logically. A cofounder will force you to bend and merge visions. She will take on responsibility, which means you’ll give up ownership, in all meanings of the word. Do you want that or not?
Mike Subelsky is a noted Baltimore-based entrepreneur and developer. He’s been a technical cofounder on a pair of companies, including Staq, an adtech company with offices in New York and Baltimore. For him, the opportunity to pair his technical expertise with someone who has a business background to develop a shared approach has been the more valuable approach. That decision might be different for you depending on your goal and the time of your life.
For many first-time entrepreneurs, having someone to learn with and from is valuable. This person is your co-captain, and it’s one of the most important professional relationships you’ll ever have.
Mike McGee met Neal Sales Griffin as an undergraduate at Northwestern University in 2007. They had similar backgrounds, and both served as student body president. After college, they teamed in 2011 to create The Starter League, a coding school that set apart Chicago from other cities investing earlier in the talent pipeline.
“After we graduated, we wanted to continue solving problems, only this time instead of helping the student body at Northwestern we decided to work on technology startups, to help the world,” McGee said.
The Starter League is one of the pioneering tech ventures that came out of Chicago. Now, dozens of programs across the country are teaching transitioning students how to code.
That shared drive continues. The Starter League was acquired in 2016, but the partnership forged by the founders remained. A few months later, they teamed to lead another coding school called Code Now.
Mike Subelsky paired his technical expertise with cofounders that had a business background.
Know whom you’re seeking: It’s important to know what specific skill set you need to complement you. Often this is seen in broad categories: someone experienced with business development, an expert in your organization’s subject matter, a technical cofounder and the like. What do you most lack? It’s also worth understanding that your cofounder is going to be a longterm relationship. Seek someone with whom you enjoy spending time.
Go where those people are: It may seem obvious, but you ought to meet many of the kind of people you’re seeking to find your potential cofounder. If you need someone to help with sales, go to a professional trade group’s networking affair. If you need a technologist, spend time at hacking and coding events. If you’re seeking a subject matter expert, go to the gatherings that those industry leaders attend. Meet and speak and come to build a network of these kinds of people.
Play the name game: Start with someone you do know and keep asking for an introduction to someone who seems relevant to your interests until you find the right community. You don’t need the first person, you need the right person. This is a process you can begin while moving forward your project. Look at your existing network: are there people in your life who might be the right fit to start a company with? Ask: do you know someone who knows this or does that? Can you introduce me to that person so I can speak to them?
Don’t ‘pick someone’s brain’: Always offer value. “Brain picking” can be seen like you are taking from someone without offering something in return. Remember that if someone is offering their time to talk about your idea, you should offer something in return — for example, buy them lunch, offer insight into their work or trade contacts.
Discover via social media: Even before you’re sure of the product, you should use the social web as another way to discover pockets of people and ideas that might lead to your cofounder. You could start a private Twitter list of potential partners to help track their viewpoints and activities to see if you particularly align with any. Shelley King of Atlanta-based app engagement startup mobile STIR said LinkedIn can be a tool to find people with similar passions.
Get started on your project anyway: Don’t let your lack of a cofounder be a road block. Move forward with the process, and this Toolkit, while you continue to keep open the possibility of a partner.Allow yourself the idea of building it on your own, while continuing a passive search.
Have a trial: If you find someone you’re interested in working more with, find a smaller project you could trial together. “You want your cofounders to be friends you’ve worked with before,” said Scott Bohrer, cofounder and CEO of Thrive Commerce, a deal discovery platform for online retailers. You should have worked on something with your cofounder before you start a business together.
No really, it is like marriage: A cofounder is a business partner, so the goal should be to maximize the strength of a business, but like a marriage, there will be great compromise throughout the process. You don’t go on a first date and tell someone you’re seeking a marriage. That means when it’s time to talk about equity or vision or hiring, you have to be willing to adapt your own. “Over time I found that the person who became my cofounder is somebody I’d been friends with for a long time and I could really trust,” said Stacey Mosley of Philadelphia-based Fixlist.
Right Now: Write in a sentence your best guess for the type of person you’d most want for a cofounder (skill set and style) and send that to someone you know who might know someone like that. Ask if they do or have advice whom might. Don’t go in with any more expectations than a meaningful conversation.
The point here is that choosing a cofounder can be one of the most important decisions you’ll make, and, critically, it has to happen early. Be thoughtful and be open. It’s an exciting part of the business building process.