2. The co-founder: What to look for? The Story of a Startup in Palestine

I’ve been dreaming of starting my own company ever since I was 17, maybe even before that time.  There have been numerous attempts to execute on the great ideas that pop into my head while I’m lying in bed at night or staring at the television in the evening.  The one common theme is that all these ideas ended up fading away, some in as little as 15 minutes and some took weeks before they left.  In some cases, I would actually register a domain name and start working on a prototype and try to write up a brief business plan.  Looking back, one of the reasons that I didn’t pursue these ideas wasn’t that they were bad ideas or they didn’t have a market, but what I feel were due to a lack of a co-founder.  We all need someone to talk to when the going gets tough, which it definitely will, someone to bounce ideas off of, and someone to help carry the burden of creating and running a company.

While I had known my co-founder, Ibrahim, for a while, we never really thought of starting a company together.  Like me, he had a lot of ideas that he was trying to bring to life.  We would sit together every once in a while and discuss ideas and talk about how we each individually wanted to create something for ourselves.  It wasn’t until one evening that we were sitting down together that he said he had this idea and asked if I was interested in joining.  He had the name and the idea, but still hadn’t really started execution.  He had validated the idea with a few people and saw this as a pain that we can address.  As we began to talk about the idea, we both saw amazing possibilities.  We both agreed that we’ll work on this together, and that’s how the partnership was born.

In my view, having a co-founder is a must. Many investors won’t, or are at least hesitant, to invest in a startup with only one founder.  Having more than four is usually a bit too much as well.  Even the big names that we think of like Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple, Google and Facebook all had more than founder.

If I had to look for a co-founder all over again, here’s a quick checklist that I would use:

Not a “Yes man”, someone to challenge you

The last thing anyone needs when starting a company is people around them agreeing to everything they say.  It’s crucial that someone plays the role of devil’s advocate and brings up all the what-if situations.  Remember, that if the co-founders themselves aren’t 100% convinced of what they’re building, it will be extremely difficult to convince customers.  Having someone to challenge you can cause serious headaches, but will also result in a much better product.

We have had many discussions where the whole team wanted to pull their hair out.  I think that’s normal as long as people know how to resolve their differences and not be sensitive if someone critiques their ideas.

Someone you can get along with

As co-founders, the two (or more) of you, are going to spend a lot of time together, and when the real work begins, such as incorporating the company and getting an investment, a split-up is a nasty thing that could destroy many things, including the company.  Having someone that you can get along with is crucial.  If you can’t stand the person while you’re still starting the company, chances are you’ll hate them even more in the coming weeks or months.  Save yourselves from the agony and headache and think of other people you could partner with.

Someone who you can rely on

Building a company is hard enough as it is.  Having to hold someone’s hand along the way will most likely cripple the company you’re trying to start.  A clear telltale sign that the co-founder isn’t right for you is if you have to tell them what they need to do and assign tasks to them.  If your co-founder treats the startup as a job, chances are they’ll leave you the moment things take a turn for the worst, or when they get a better offer somewhere else.  You need to be able to trust that your co-founder will take care of their part and help you carry the company in the same direction that you both agreed to.

In our case, we decided to divide our roles.  My focus would be outside the company and Ibrahim would focus more on the internal operations.  I’m more involved in sales and marketing, talking with customers and the finances, while Ibrahim is taking more responsibility over product development, working with the team and making sure the inner house is in order.  This doesn’t mean that I don’t know what’s happening with the team or Ibrahim doesn’t know where we are terms of finances or doesn’t help out with marketing.  Quite the contrary, we’re both aware of and involved in all aspects of the company, however each person has a different list of tasks that they need to complete.  It’s very important that, as co-founders, we’re each aware of what’s happening in the company.

Someone with experience who can complement your skillset

If you’re a developer, finding another developer as a co-founder will probably help you create a well-structured application, but you’ll have a hard time building something customers will buy and you’ll probably find it difficult to sell to customers that don’t understand how great your product is.  If you’re a marketing expert, finding another marketing person as a co-founder can help you sell like crazy, but you probably won’t have anything to sell.  It’s very important that you find someone with skills that compliment your skills, and you’re each able to focus on different areas.

One of the problems that we ran into was that we would do everything together.  When we were meeting with potential customers, we would both work on the presentation, then we would realize that we needed to work on the platform, so we would both run off to development for the next couple of weeks. If we were talking with a potential investor, we would both leave everything and spending the next week or more preparing answers and spreadsheets for the investor.  We quickly realized that when we start to work on one thing, everything else gets left behind.  That’s when we decided to split the work, agree on tasks and have each one of us focus most of their time on specific areas.