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.


1. The Idea – The Story of a Startup in Palestine

This post is a continuation of the previous post.  The title of this series of blog posts is “The Story of a Startup in Palestine: What I’ve learned in the past 16 months”

The idea itself is useless

While we read it over and over and hear about it so many times, some people here still have the notion that their ideas alone are valuable.  That’s the reason they never share their ideas and protect them as if their lives depended on it.  No one cares about your idea.  No one is going to steal it, and even if they do, it doesn’t matter.

So why doesn’t it matter? If you share idea with others, this doesn’t mean you’ll execute on it, so if you don’t, you really have nothing to lose if they actually use it to build a company.  You just inspired someone else to build something and it didn’t cost you anything except saying a few words.  If you do execute on it, then you run the risk of competition.  However, if someone has the intention of “stealing” your idea, they can just as easily “steal” it after you’ve gone through all the trouble of building your company.  So, after you spend months and months trying to build your company, the moment you announce it to the world, someone else could build something similar and better.  It’s BS that just because you’re first to market you will remain number one.  There are many examples of where being first to market did not result in the company surviving.  Some simple examples from our present time are:

  • Yahoo, Alta Vista (who?) and Google.
  • MySpace, Friendster and Facebook
  • Blackberry, iOS and Android
  • Netscape, IE, Firefox and Chrome

I’m sure some people had never heard of Alta Vista, which at one point of time was the best search engine available.

Validate, validate, validate: It doesn’t matter what you think, you must validate, challenge them to hate your product. 

The upside to sharing your idea is that you can get constructive criticism on it.  Many people will tell you that it sucks if they think it does.  Don’t take this is an insult and never try to defend your idea.  Instead, ask why they think it sucks and what they would change to make it better.  In the end, it doesn’t matter if you have the best idea in the world, the best team, the best market and the best product.  If your product or service doesn’t sell, you won’t last for very long.  And the only way to sell is to have people who are willing to pay for what you offer.

Customer validation is key to determining whether people are interested in your product or not. It’s important to try to find people who are willing to give their honest feedback, and to spend more time listening to their problems rather than talking about your solution.  If everyone you speak to tells you your product is great, that means you’re not asking the right questions or you’re not talking to the right people.  Go out and challenge people to find problems with your product or service.  Ask them why they wouldn’t pay for it rather than trying to get a good feeling that you’re amazing.

Don’t be afraid of change

As a result of customer validation, it’s almost guaranteed that your initial idea isn’t the best thing you can build or offer customers.  Many people will give you advice on what to build and how to make your product better.  Listen carefully to these comments, think about them and try to validate them with customers.  Many entrepreneurs feel that changing their idea is an insult to their intelligence.  It shouldn’t be like that.  The main reason you started a business is to sell to customers.  If most people agree that they would rather buy a modified version of what you’re trying to build, it would make more sense to at least consider the idea.

When we first started, the idea had nothing to do with what we’re building today.  We started off as a database of tenders and Requests for Proposals (RFPs), and we initially called the company Propozal.com.  We then went out to try to validate our idea.  During one of our first meetings, we heard a comment that we’re trying to do too much, and a suggestion to focus on one sector, such as the non-profit sector, which we thought was a good idea.  We continued to brainstorm and thought we would add more features, like a proposal builder, since the RFPs are already there.  We then thought of adding a project implementation module to capture the entire cycle from requesting proposals, to writing and submitting them, to project execution.  For the non-profit sector, one of the most important aspects of project implementation is monitoring and evaluation (M&E).  So, we created our slide deck and went around presenting our idea of a complete end-to-end platform, RFP database, proposal builder and M&E tool.  During one of our meetings, we received a comment that all the services we’re providing are great features to have, however the most important one by far is the M&E tool.  Using this knowledge, we went around some more and asked people what the most important feature was in their view.  In all the cases I could remember, it was the monitoring and evaluation tool.

Clearly, we found something here and there was some sort of need.  We redesigned the slides showing only the M&E component and again started asking around.  The feedback we received showed us that there really is a need for a dynamic M&E tool.  When we saw that we’re moving away from both the RFP database and proposal builder, we realized that the name Propozal.com didn’t reflect what we were building, so we decided to change it to AidBits.  I’ll talk about how we chose the name in a later blog post.

On the other hand, had we stubbornly stuck to our initial idea, we would have built a great product that no one was willing to use or pay for.  Companies die because no one is willing to pay for the products or services they sell.  It doesn’t matter how good or even amazing your product is, if you can’t make at least enough money to cover your expenses, eventually your company will cease to exist.

Bottom line: who is your customer and why should they care

This is one of the more challenging areas, because many people have the wrong impression that if your market is everyone, then you’ve just increased your chances of selling.  On the contrary, if everyone is your customer, no one will buy from you.  Simply put, you can’t market and sell to an athletic male teenager, the same way you would to a 40-something rich business man, the same way you would to a 70-year old grandmother.  You stand a much greater chance of success by focusing a segment (or few segments) of customers and identifying what your ideal customer segment (or segments, but don’t choose more than 3 at first) looks like, talks like and how and why they would buy your product.

When you figure out who your customer is, then you can jump to the next step of determining why they should care about you, your company or your product.  Just because you believe you’ve found the miracle product of the 21st century doesn’t mean anyone else feels the same way.  The best way to really know whether they actually like what you offer and are willing to pay for it is through customer validation.  If you get to a point where you think that you’ve exhausted all possible questions and the person you’re talking to likes the product, then you should go ahead and ask them to buy it.  Whether it’s discounted or not, if someone (other than a friend or relative) is willing to pay you for your product, that means you’re on to something.  If you can repeat this a dozen or more times, then it’s likely that you’re on the right path.  If you really, really want to test if there is a need for your product, after you have them completely convinced of your product, try to persuade them not to buy it and that it’s not a good fit for them.  This isn’t something I recommend you do frequently, but would be interesting to try and see the reaction.