Building a Winning Team
During my more than 25 years of working life, I had the good fortune of spending close to 3 years working full-time in the Singapore Police Force. After the rather short full-time stint, I continued to serve part-time as a reserve police officer for the next 11 years, while holding down a full-time job as a lawyer and public policy professional. Apart from the privilege of being able to serve and protect my community, the experience as a police officer also taught me the importance of having a great team of people working with me. I had a few close calls during my time as a police officer. And till today, I am thankful for my team mates who were right next to me and kept me out of harms' ways.
It's the same when it comes to the success, or failure, of launching a startup. To get from idea to creating a MVP, you could probably do it all by yourself. So, you have gone from "0 to 1", as we say in the tech startup industry. But, to go to market with the MVP and scale quickly, to go from "1 to 100", you need a winning team around you.
Some of the biggest technology companies in the world when they were first started had amazing co-founders who came together and created something truly revolutionary and spectacular. Studying some of these success stories would help us better understand why it makes a lot of sense to bring on board co-founders on our startup journeys.
Apple was co-founded by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. The first Steve (the guy who is standing :-)) is a great salesman, a great story-teller and someone who has a keen eye for a good design.
The second Steve is not so good in front of an audience. But, he is an engineering wizard and almost single-handedly built Apple’s first few computers.
Another good example is Google.
Larry Page and Sergey Brin are the 2 co-founders. Although both of them are computer scientists, Larry (the guy who is sitting) is the more business-savvy of the 2 and ended up being the CEO of Google for many years.
Sergey Brin on the other hand was more interested in engineering. He ended up focusing a lot more on Google’s research and development.
Then, there's Uber. The 2 co-founders are Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp.
Both Travis and Garrett are coders. Both have launched and sold startups before they co-founded Uber. But, Travis was the more out-going one who took charge of the growth of the company. Garrett, on the other hand, spent most of the early days of Uber building the platform.
At Airbnb, the founding team consists of Brian Chesky, Joe Gebbia and Nathan Blecharczyk.
The interesting thing about Airbnb is that Brian and Joe, are designers by training. They graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design. They are not coders. But, they found Nate, who studied computer science at Harvard and Nate built the Airbnb platform.
COSMIC CAFE CO-FOUNDERS
In my own company, my co-founder Devin is the numbers person. She was trained as an accountant and has spent many years working in global audit firms, big multinational companies and finally as the CFO of a hedge fund in Hong Kong.
I, on the other hand, worked for many years as a lawyer before leading a team of legal counsels in Asia for eBay. My co-founders and I bring very different skills and experience to our investment and advisory firm Cosmic Cafe.
I am usually the guy who goes out to talk to people while my co-founder spends most of her time looking at numbers. When we bring our respective perspectives together, we have both the qualitative and quantitative picture of the company we are evaluating for investments or advice.
So, that is the very first reason why you want co-founders. Chances are, you do not have all the skills, knowledge or experience needed to make your startup work.
So, the best way to ensure your startup’s success is to find people who can bring those things you do NOT have.
FOR YOUR OWN SANITY, GET A CO-FOUNDER
A lot of people want to be an entrepreneur because they are sick and tired of dealing with office politics. They do not want to have to deal with a boss who is always watching over them. They do not want to deal with seniors who are always trying to make things difficult for them. They also do not want to deal with colleagues who are not carrying their own weight. So, they think the best way to stay sane is to do it all alone by themselves.
However, the entrepreneur journey is a really hard and emotionally-challenging one. There is a lot of uncertainty. There is a lot of self-doubt. There are a lot of failures along the way.
And that’s the second reason why you should always try to have co-founders. As a team, you can provide one another the emotional support you need to get over those tough times.
In my early days as an angel investor, I invested in a Fukuoka startup that had only 1 founder. He was an extremely talented coder. He was also a good businessman who could sell anything. But, he was just one person.
As the company grew, he hired more people to work for him. Because he was a coder himself, he naturally gravitated towards other people who are coders. He ended up hiring mostly coders, just like himself. As the company grew, he had a lot more management duties as these coders could not really helped him with other things.
We tried to get him to make one of his employees a co-founder or get some of his employees to handle some of his responsibilities. However, he just did not trust his employees enough to let go. And he was dealing with all the stress alone. In the end, he burnt out and the company failed.
So, for the sake of your company and for the sake of your own sanity, find a co-founder.
SAME, SAME BUT DIFFERENT
So, WHAT exactly do you look for in your co-founders?
Human beings are tribal by nature. We tend to gravitate towards people who are like us. That is fine in our social lives. But it is usually not a good thing for our business. When I was looking to launch my own firm, I looked at what are the gaps in my own skills and experience. I also took an honest look at what I like to do and, more importantly, what I do not like to do.
Then, I looked around me to see who may have the skills, experience and temperaments which I do not have. At the same time, on my list of potential candidates, I also made sure I only have people who share the same outlook as I do in work and life.
So, on one hand,I want to find in my co-founder skills, knowledge and experience which are completely different from mine . But, on the other hand, I was also looking for a co-founder who believes in the same things that I do. That was how I ended up with my co-founder Devin.
The same is true when it comes to one of my favourite companies - Apple.
If you just take a look at the earlier photograph of the two Steves - you will notice immediately how different they are. Then, when you peel away the physical differences and really get to know their skills, abilities and temperaments, you will again be struck by how different they are. But also how complementary they are. It is as if the two Steves completed one another.
Eventually when Steve Wozniak left Apple, Steve Jobs found Tim Cook. Even though Tim is not a co-founder, he brought to Apple skills which Steve Jobs needed to grow Apple to the tech giant that it is today.
In short, find someone that will complete YOU.
FINDING THAT MISSING PIECE - YOUR CO-FOUNDER
In a lot of the companies I have looked at, the co-founders come from the founders’ immediate social, academic or professional circles. The co-founders could be classmates, schoolmates, colleagues, business associates, friends or family members. This makes sense because founding a startup is a very long and difficult process. Therefore, it would be quite natural for a founder to reach out to people in his or her immediate social or professional circles to talk about what is being attempted.
If you are unable to find someone in your immediate circles to join you on your startup journey, don’t worry. I have also seen cases where co-founders came together through open calls on social media or professional network platforms. Linkedin, Reddit, Quora, Twitter, Facebook, it really does not matter which platform you use. Just ask.
An interesting avenue to find your co-founders is to recruit from the ranks of your investors, advisors, mentors or even early users. Think about it. These are people who already know you, your company and your product. So, why wouldn’t you look at them to see if they have something else you may need?
Finally, a way to look for co-founders is to go to accelerators, incubators or even co-working spaces. These are places where startup founders, investors, mentors, advisors and service providers come together for business and networking. So, if you are looking for co-founders, go out and meet people at these places.
EARLY EMPLOYEES vs CO-FOUNDERS
When you are just starting out, you probably would not have a lot of money to hire and pay people. It is tempting to make your early employees your co-founders. Do not be hasty. Take your time before making that decision. Some of these early employees may indeed be worthy of becoming your co-founders. But, there are also plenty of employees who will jump ship the minute they sense something is wrong with your company. Or they may turn out to have very different ideas of what the company should be doing. You might end up having to spend a lot of time, efforts and even money, which you don't really have, to get rid of your co-founders.
Therefore, when making someone your co-founder, be very sure that the person truly shares your vision, can bring to you skills and experience you do not have and most importantly, will stick around long enough with you to take the company forward.
As a matter of principle, we do not invest in a single-founder startup. It is a simple case of reducing our risks and improving our odds. The probabilities of a single person who is a great engineer or designer and at the same time, he or she is a great salesperson, an awesome leader of people plus a financial whiz are just too small. But the odds of a single person giving up or burning out are actually very high.
Hopefully, I have provided you with some pointers on how to find your co-founders.