Don't Go It Alone: Find A Co-Founder
Mary Juetten, Founder of Traklight, looks back at the early days of setting up her company and shares her top 5 tips for finding the right co-founder for your start-up.
Hindsight is perfection and no exception here. If I had a do-over for my startup, there are many things I would have done differently. At the top of the list would be spending more time finding a true Co-Founder at the very beginning. Now that I have filled in my team and have some unbelievable people who will walk through fire and/or walls for Traklight, I wish I had found them sooner. Our growth and momentum is now exponential with the right people on the team.
I followed the Founder-only route because some early choices for Co-Founders were not great fits and those decisions are on me!
Your gut feeling must rule. Every time I have ignored even tiny red flags, it has come back to bite me.
Sadly this has happened several times but I am now adamant about my gut ruling my decision-making. At this point, I will pull out of discussions if my gut says no.
Not a trite exercise; make sure you have the shared values. When you start a company, you are the company (not in a legal sense because you always need a legal entity formed!) but your values are the starting point. You likely have not articulated your company values or code because you are still excited about your idea.
Once you decide to bring someone else into the company, it is key to step away from the shiny product development roadmap and discuss what is important.
Early on we identified some disconnects about money. For example, I do not believe in capping sales commissions. If someone is earning more than me because she is an incredible selling machine, which only increases our company’s value, then I would be happy to cut that commission check! Discussions around this topic highlighted some issues with our company value of rewarding people for their hard work and our culture of putting the company over the individual.
Start with the End in Mind
The end is how you want to exit. Is it a lifestyle business or not?
I met a fellow CEO in an airport. He and his college roommate started their business over 25 years ago in college and built it into a nice lifestyle business with slow and steady growth. Every buyout offer or venture capital injection is turned down. They love what they do and the pace at which they do it.
I am not building our company for a lifestyle, we are on a mission to educate and empower entrepreneurs on intellectual property and ensure their success by early identification and protection. We do not wish to do a quick flip but we do plan to exit at some point in the future. And at the exit I will likely walk away because I am quite sure I would not be able to work as an employee in a company that I founded, but never say never.
Last fall, we shifted our end goals. Changing what we wanted to do in three to five years upon exit was a shock to a couple of people who thought they could help build Traklight and then have a job as an advisor for years to come. And another partner was upset that we were not just trying to sell quickly within two years.
Have the “where do you wish to be in 7 years?” conversation with everyone before they become a Co-Founder or business partner.
Be Upfront about Money
It’s critical to discuss everyone’s situation and how they will cope with working at a startup, which is likely unfunded at the start.
Nothing is worse than a misunderstanding about how people are going to pay their monthly bills.
And my husband taught me long ago that people, especially men, do strange things around and over money. My experience is that women are direct and upfront about money and more willing to do the sweat equity route. Still wish I found some of my team earlier!
Co-Founders are generally unpaid until some money is raised. Estimate how long you can go without cash or surviving on side work and then double that and add another half. The runway to revenue or funding is always longer than anticipated.
Good times, bad times
Startups are hard work, long hours, and the word glamor is only used sarcastically. Anyone who says otherwise is not really building a company. There are perfectly horrible times where you will wish to remain in bed under the covers wallowing in self-doubt and perhaps some pity. One of our favorite Advisory Board members says, “you are not as good as you think you are and you are better than you worry that you are.”
There is always a silver lining and after bad times often comes good times. On the same day that our former CTO said he was not able to work anymore, we won the SUCCESS magazine Start Small Win Big contest.
The highs and lows are extreme and having a Co-Founder to share those lows with can be an advantage.
A Co-Founder must be someone that you would not hesitate to invite over to your house and hang out with your family.
If you cringe at that thought, do not do business with them. My true and tired method is like courtship – date by having coffee and then doing a small project together, then perhaps a longer project with a couple of social events and then start talking about inviting them to join the team.
You will spend more time with this person or persons than your spouse or partner and children. I do not believe in work/life balance; it is a matter of integrating your work and your life. A startup is not a sprint, not a marathon, it’s a triathlon.
Final word: you must like and trust your Co-Founder.
Find someone who complements your skills and that you enjoy spending time with and you are well on the road to success.
Mary Juetten had the idea for Traklight in January 2010 during law school and noodled away for over a year before finishing law school & working at another software startup. Traklight launched in October 2012 and re-launched our new website in July 2013. Mary lives in Phoenix with her husband (Traklight’s part-time CFO) plus the remaining teenage boy who leaves for college next year.
Final tip: kids grow up fast so find that work/life integration in order to spend the time with them!
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