Qualities of a great co-founder

Apr 06 2011

I’ve been thinking for the better part of a year now about the key qualities of a great co-founder. As I’ve learned more and more about how Valley startups work, I think I’ve become better able to articulate these qualities, or at least the ones most important to me — the ones I’d hold myself to. Most of the qualities on my shortlist, I think, apply to both technical + non-technical founders, but a couple are specific to each side. I’ll start with the shared qualities first. To me, in ranking order, they are:

1. Relentless determination — the thought of failing or giving up feels so viscerally repulsive that you literally cannot sleep at night or concentrate on anything else if your startup feels stuck, or has fallen on hard times, and you don’t have a perspective or thesis on how to jump-start things again.

2. Motivation first by personal pride and wanting to build + achieve something special, only secondly by money — you’re fundamentally motivated by a higher, non-financial purpose, and that’s your driving passion. Because of this, it’s hard for you to stop thinking about how to delight ever more users, how to release even more value into the world than you capture; you’re always noodling on how to stay ahead of your competitors, how to adapt to new developments in your field. You don’t have time to go clubbing Saturday nights like your old college friends who still chase those evanescent thrills every weekend. You’re building something that you deeply, deeply believe will change the world, and you’re motivated by that mission, so you crave community with other similarly motivated entrepreneurs, because no one ever changed the world by going clubbing. You know that it’s not what you do, it’s why you do it that matters.

3. Humility — you fundamentally respect your teammates; you can disagree without being disrespectful; you know how to problem-solve with your co-founder (including the inevitable disagreements that come with it) without ever making her feel attacked, belittled, or defensive; you aren’t passive-aggressive; in short, you never take things for granted, so you approach problem solving not with the mindset of being the “smartest person in the room,” but rather with the mindset of relentless focus on getting to the right answer.

4. High integrity / ethics — you have values; the best way I can put it is: you won’t do or omit anything you’d be ashamed to tell your significant other, or spouse, or parents about, even if doing so “hurts you” in the short-run. Anyway, it always pays off in the long-run. (Plus, if you give up your integrity along the way, then what’s the point of it all anyway?)

5. Willingness to roll up your sleeves for anything — you don’t see your role as exclusively one thing (e.g., designing product or system architecture); nothing is beneath you, and you’ll do whatever it takes to make the startup succeed, whether it’s building product, pitching journalists, making powerpoint slides, buying team groceries, debugging code, or emptying wastebaskets.

6. Bias toward rapid prototyping + iteration — you know that “done is better than perfect,” since it will never matter how pretty or cool a product is if users don’t care about it; your single, laser-focused goal is to build the minimally viable useful quantity of product, i.e., it is ready to go once it gets at solving at least 1 core user problem (even if it’s very rough around the edges), and begin getting feedback from users on it to “feel your way” into product-market fit. That’s the only thing that matters in terms of the product. The only thing. If you start to get traction, the goal just intensifies: how do you delight your users ever more, and how do you retain and grow that traction? For most consumer products that I can think of, the minimum viable unit should be buildable in a weekend or two or at most three. The only exceptions I can think of are hard core technologies like Skype, or Google Search, or Wordlens, or Siri personal assistant.

7. Interested in people who want to be founders more than “chief (X) officers” or other fancy titles — this is thematically related to point #2; the essence is that you’re interested in building and creating. In my experience founders are fundamentally people who build and create — if you do a good job at that, other things will naturally follow, and that’s certainly an incentive, but it’s not the core reason why you’re doing it in the first place. In my experience (having now worked at a few big companies), people who pay close attention to what title they are getting really tend to be “posturers,” not builders. They are often good at politics (as distinguished from being effective leaders), but they don’t fundamentally build or create. So why would you want them in a startup?


Specific qualities of a good technical founder 

1. Hard-core engineering horsepower — especially on the back-end (at least for me, since I can do a lot of front-end stuff myself already :); you have a “spidey sense” of intuiting your way through ambiguous problems you’ve never encountered before — consequently, you aren’t wedded to any languages or frameworks, because you think in terms of problem-solving and the most efficient tools for rapidly turning your hypotheses into testable products; you’re closely aware of evolving trends in the tech community, and you’re constantly thinking about their implications and how to incorporate that new information into your product ideas and engineering architecture; you are always coding your own cool personal projects, even after your day job; you start a lot of projects and finish at least some of them.

2. A fundamentally user-centered mindset — which influences your thinking and strategic perspective along the entire technology stack: back-end architecture, front-end structure, UX, interface / interaction design, and even the form factor itself.


Specific qualities of a good non-technical founder 

1. Front-end street smarts — this isn’t about SAT-puzzle-game-IQ smarts; it’s a test of whether you can intuit how to survive when you’re thrown to the lions. PG writes about one of his favorite entrepreneurs, Sam Altman, and says you could parachute him into an island full of cannibals and come back in 5 years and he’d be the king. Those kind of street smarts are critical when negotiating with partners, managing investors, listening to users / customers, courting engineering talent, and communicating with all stakeholders. Part of this is what PG calls being relentlessly resourceful, or the opposite of hapless.

2. Multi-disciplinary skillset — since you won’t have the luxury of having departments, you have to be able to fill as many departmental roles on your own as possible — at least in the critical early days. This means being not only willing to, but also capable of, handling much of the business, operations, HR, finance, legal, sales, marketing, biz dev, admin, investor relations, office management, and anything else (including even contributing to the code base) as you can in order to clear as much bandwidth as possible for the technical co-founder to focus like a laser beam on building and shipping product. While this doesn’t exempt the technical co-founder from having the mindset of doing whatever it takes when the non-technical side of the house needs additional hands on deck, there should definitely be a bias for clearing as much bandwidth for the technical lead as possible. As the non-technical founder, I wouldn’t think twice about doing my co-founder’s laundry, or cooking the team meals (and cleaning up afterward), if that meant we could ship more product faster.


What it’s all about 

PG talks about the importance of determination (here and here). He often says the two qualities he looks for most in founders are determination (to a degree resembling that of a cockroach surviving a nuclear winter) and intelligence — with determination being by far the more important of the two qualities. Determination doesn’t mean stubbornness, since flexibility in knowing when and how to pivot is a key part of customer development (and therefore survival), but it does mean being strong enough to survive the many low points — the “troughs of sorrow” — that you will inevitably face as a founder.

As I was drafting out my list of 7 shared qualities that I think all great co-founders have, I realized that all of them really have to do with determination. None of them are fundamentally about intelligence. By contrast, the 2 technical vs. non-technical specific qualities are more about intelligence, less about determination. I think that’s an important observation. It means the shared qualities that make a great founding team fundamentally militate toward raw determination, because you can get a remarkable amount of mileage just from that. Intelligence is required in a couple areas, but really the most important stuff is about determination. That feels much clearer to me now having finished writing this blog post.

What do you think?

Andrew Chen is a tech entrepreneur and startup founder in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can follow him on LinkedIn, Twitter, Quora, and Google+.

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