Startup Diaries: Your Co-Founder Is Not Your Friend

Members of the Webcrumbz TeamAlexandra Anghel looks at why it’s best to look outside your circle of friends and family for your ideal co-founders.

A startup is a mix of team, product and market. Obviously, it first starts with the team – the base on what everything else is built.

In the last years, I read many articles on how to choose your co-founders, what pitfalls to avoid and how to build a successful team. The most recent piece of reading I have stumbled upon was one article that opinioned you don’t need a co-founder, that you can go out there and start something on your own. I do agree that building an MVP is doable without anyone’s help, but the reality is that teams of one have a very high failure rate - a good enough reason for all accelerators to require a team of two or more.

A “lone wolf” will always have a question mark above his head; if you’re so great, why doesn’t anybody work with you?

In my case, finding the right co-founders was a combination of luck and hard work. It took me about 5 years of working together to realize how incredibly lucky we all were. I wrote another article about our team’s selection in the first batch at the Startupbootcamp business accelerator and about how we changed our project during the first week into the program. It is one of those cases when the only thing that can save you is a powerful team. If we hadn’t been working together for a long time, we might have split up then and there. Even today, we are given as a strong team example, one that can completely swap its project and yet survive the change.

So, in case you haven’t yet been lucky enough to find your perfect partners, how can you choose them?

Almost everybody will tell you that the best way to find a co-founder for your startup is among friends and family. I disagree.

Assuming that “friend” is more than just a connection on Facebook and it really depicts a close relationship with a person (by definition, not linked to a professional activity, but rather a personal one), you should think really well if you’re willing to risk it. It’s the same for family. Starting a business with a family member might be great because you can completely trust him or her, but it will also mix up work and personal issues.

My father has his own small computer business and I could have easily joined him. Fortunately for me, he was wise enough to encourage me in finding my own path. Today I see plainly that we couldn’t have worked together.  Even though we have a great relationship, our personalities often clash – not something that you would want in a working environment. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule – families or close friends that have built successful startups, but most likely they have in common a lot more than their personal connection.

What brought my co-founders and I together was a previous working relationship that encouraged us to enter a more formal agreement.  We barely knew each other from college and just got together one night and started working on a website, as freelancers. We really clicked even though we were not friends back then and discovered that we complemented each other in terms of skills and knowledge. It was enough to get the company rolling and we were fortunate enough to survive difficult moments. There were times in the beginning when the lack of projects and income almost tore us apart, but our common goals brought us back together.

In some ways, a co-founder has to be more trust-worthy and helpful than a friend. Friendship is not enough; you need a common set of values and the same motivation to succeed.

I do not expect my friends to share my ideals, or passion for my project, but I really want, and need, to see them in my co-founders. And this doesn’t apply only to co-founders. As I see it, the co-founders are the core of the team that should have the ability to gather around them people who can add value to the startup.

But being in a startup is not a job and there is no such thing as a simple employee. A small team has its perks and pitfalls – you can create your own culture, but a “bad apple” will negatively influence the rest. Sometimes we deal with tension that everyone can sense and even though there are no loud complaints, I can see how the production drops, work gets sloppy and no one dares to crack a joke. More often than not, these difficult times are caused by someone who doesn’t want to be part of the team and is there for different reasons, like getting a paycheck at the end of the month.

No matter the field, attitude is at the core of everything. We have worked, and still work, with amazing people that managed to acquire an impressive set of skills just because they enjoy their work and being part of the team.

On the other hand, we have seen some that are equally smart and capable, but never made significant progress because they were there for the wrong reason.

This was a lesson for us as well, because we hired them ignoring our gut feeling that told us something was off. In the end, we had to manage a situation that was making everyone unhappy and I hope we learned a great deal in the process.

To finish on a positive note, I will tell you a small story that happened to us a few years back. We had just hired a junior PHP programmer who was not rising to the expectations. After the first week, we thought it wasn’t going to work out and decided to have a talk with him. He surprised us by asking for a second chance. He knew he wasn’t doing well and was studying a lot on his own in his spare time. We did give him a second chance and he turned out to be not only an excellent programmer, but also a great guy to work with. Needless to say, he was part of the team for several years and we are still friends today.

He will always remain a great example on how ambition, the desire to learn and the right attitude can fully compensate the lack of knowledge and skills.

Alexandra Anghel  is the Co-founder and CTO of Webcrumbz. She has a Bachelor’s Degree in Automatics Control and Computer Science from the University of Politehnica Bucharest/Romania and over 9 years experience in server-side programming (PHP, Python, NodeJS, MySQL, MongoDB). She also works as a designer, writes articles and makes a great team leader with over 100 small and medium projects developed over time. In 2012, she was awarded with the 2nd place at Girls in Tech, Paris.

Photo credit: Monica Marcov

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