As an advisor to startups, I often get asked what to look for in an ideal co-founder or business partner. My first response is that it’s much like finding that ideal spouse, where chemistry, common interests and complementary communication skills are key. After some reflection, I now realize these attributes are necessary but not sufficient to be an ideal business partner.
Other attributes of a great business partner, such as real experience and near opposite ends of the age spectrum, may actually be counter to ones you look for in a spouse. A great example was when Eric Schmidt, with years of experience at Sun Microsystems and Novell, joined forces with Sergey Brin and Larry Page at Google. This was a win-win in business, but not a marriage.
In either case, it pays to find someone that you trust and enjoy being with for hours at a time, even through hard times. Otherwise, the relationship will be doomed to conflict, stress and unhappiness. Believe me, life is too short to have that happen in business, or in a marriage. I recommend that you look for these additional traits to make a business partnership work:
- Recognizes the need for relationships. Building a business is not for loners or autocrats, no matter how smart that person may be. Many of the entrepreneurs I meet prefer to focus on the technology, so they desperately need a people-oriented partner for balance. Together they can attract investors, employees and even customers.
- Able to help, rather than be a helper. This means every entrepreneur needs partners who are smarter than they are in complementary domains. For example, a technologist needs a strong finance person or a strong sales person who is willing and able to make decisions. You need to believe that you can learn from them, not manage them.
- Shared vision, values and culture. If your vision is to change the world, don’t sign on with a partner whose primary drive is to get rich. This also applies to how you both see quality, service, work ethic and employee relationships. Too many entrepreneurs later see their partners as working against them.
- Credibility, visibility and connections you need. Most startups need investors, vendors, distributors and industry support at different stages to achieve aggressive customer growth and penetration objectives. These are partner values that can far exceed any budget you might allocate, or all the hard work you might contribute.
- Similar dedication and work habits. More than one startup team has been broken due to differences in work style — for example, if one person works on the business 20 hours a day, while the other has a nine-to-five mentality. It’s very difficult to maintain a productive relationship when one person prefers texting, and the other only communicates face to face.
- High integrity and commitment. Most business people form a quick impression of the level of integrity of people close to them, and become very uncomfortable trusting their future with those who are perceived to be on a different plane. In the same fashion, they expect a level of commitment that’s at least equal to their own.
- Business ethics and moral values. In the last few years, the ethics and moral compass of a business have become more and more important to success or failure. In a world of instant communication, everyone knows if employees are not treated with respect, or if business practices are negatively affecting the ecology or economy.
- No perceived negatives or red flags to overcome. As a startup, your key team members’ image is your brand. Thus partnership decisions are much more critical then employee hiring decisions. Even if all initial interactions look positive, don’t forget the due diligence process, especially follow-up discussions with previous partners.
If you can find and attract a business partner or two that satisfy all these criteria, your company may likely be the next Google, no matter what the business idea is behind it. That’s how important the right people are to a new startup.