A group of successful startup CEOs recently asked fellow members in an online forum: when do you know that it’s okay to start a company with someone?
Half a dozen people chimed in, all with similar advice, namely:
- Start with someone you’ve known for a few years and several months at the last.
- Start with someone you’ve had experience working with.
I violated both points. If the founders above are like the guy who has a steady girlfriend for four years and then pops the question, I’m the girl who meets a guy in Las Vegas and takes him to the Little White Wedding Chapel to get married. And actually stay married.
Nanoly Bioscience began at a college dive bar. I met my co-founder, Balaji Sridhar, there and started working on a company together the next day. That was 2011. Three years later, we’re growing faster than ever. Enplug, a company that develops intelligent software for digital displays, was founded by five strangers. One week after we all met for the first time, we moved into an apartment to live and work together. Two years later, we’ve grown to 35 teammates and moved our office from the house to a shiny building in Los Angeles.
Rather than taking months to get acquainted, my co-founders for both companies accelerated the process of determining whether to work together through finding these commonalities. Here are the five most important things to consider when looking for your own co-founders:
- Mutual admiration. This is an absolute must. Between my co-founders and I, there was always an instant sense of admiration and respect for each other. I was impressed that Balaji was an MIT grad, M.D. and Ph.D., and spoke five languages fluently. He thought it was cool that I had started a few companies in college. I felt the same way about my Enplug team’s accomplishments, like David Zhu, who dropped out of college and made seven figures from online poker. We viewed each other as equals. None of us had to beg for the others’ approval. You know it’s a good sign if you’re proud of sharing your new co-founder with others.
- Similar life stage. At Enplug, the fact that all of us were willing to move out of our homes into a tiny apartment with each other said that we were at parallel life stages in terms of our view on work/life balance (i.e., we didn’t care about the life part). I’ve heard situations where one founder works late into the night and the other is at home putting kids to sleep, causing serious conflict between their expectations for each other. Do you and your co-founders agree on working weekends and late nights? If not, it’s not a deal-breaker, but do be upfront about your time commitment.
- Comparable financial position. For both Nanoly and Enplug, the founders all agreed from day 1 to forego any salary for several years. We all live off of our savings and work on our startup full time. It was important that we didn’t have unpaid debt that would require us to pick up a part-time job. Is your co-founder starting a company because she doesn’t care about her steady salary from Google and wants to build cool things, or because she can’t get hired and needs to find some way to make money to pay the bills? Both can lead to successful companies, but will likely take very different paths to get there. Sharing a similar goal for your startup’s financial outcome helps set a good foundation.
- Complementary skillsets. Founding a startup with five co-founders is rare. We were able to make it work because each of us focused on building a separate component of the startup: design, hardware, finance, operations, software. I find that conflict is more common when founders share the same skill set because they end up stepping on each others’ toes.
- Shared values. While our expertise varies widely, we share the same values. These values include being respectful to each other at all times, even during intense conflict, and maintaining integrity and honesty. We think taking risks is the best way to learn. We are inherently optimistic people and believe there’s a solution to every challenge. We are motivated by the opportunity to build game-changing technology. Shared values matter because they shape how your startup team will be built and nurtured.
Finding a spouse is not a science and searching for the right co-founder is the same way. My co-founders and I committed to working with each other through sickness and health, even though we knew each other for less than a week at the time. My parents got married four months after they met and stayed happily married. Maybe falling in love at first sight is in my genes.
Nanxi Liu is the Co-Founder and CEO of Enplug, a Los Angeles technology company that builds the industry-leading software that powers digital displays in malls, restaurants, retail stores, and more. Marriott, Posche, and 350 companies around the world use Enplug’s software to showcase real-time and interactive content on their displays including RSS feeds and social media. Enplug was named Entrepreneur Magazine’s Top 30 Startups to Watch and Inc. Magazine’s Top 5 Women-Led Startups to Watch. Nanxi is also founder and board member of Nanoly Bioscience, which developed a polymer that enables vaccines to survive without refrigeration. Nanoly was awarded NASA’s Top 10 New Tech Companies and Intel’s Top Social Innovation.
The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched StartupCollective, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses.