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How to Meet Your Next Cofounder

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3 Nov 2008 – San Francisco

Over the last few months I’ve seen a number of people looking for cofounders on Hacker News or via their own personal blogs. I think this is, at best, a highly inefficient way to find a cofounder and, at worst, a way to fool yourself into finding the wrong cofounder. In any case, it’s a naive approach to finding the person that will need to stand by your side in the coming storm that we call “running a startup.”

Don’t get me wrong, the internet is an amazing tool for meeting people. The wider the net you cast, the more likely you are to find the perfect match. But the internet has its limitations. I’ve had internet friends that were engaging, witty, and brilliant online, but in person felt awkward and boring. Conversely, I know people that are volatile and inflammatory online, but present an attitude of friendliness and caring in person. This phenomenon makes it difficult to gauge an individual’s personality from online interaction alone.

A far better use of the internet is to find groups of people that share your interests. Track down the local users group for your language or technology of choice. The simple fact that members of these groups take time out of their day to show up means that they’re more motivated and driven than the average person. Even if it’s a bit of a commute to get to the meetings, start showing up regularly. Prepare a few presentations on topics that you’re passionate about. Bonus points if you present on ideas related to your potential startup. Don’t worry about revealing your game-changing secrets; stealth mode is bullshit. Talk to everyone. Steer the conversation toward your interests and if someone there is excited about the same things, it will be clear.

It may take weeks or months, but in a good group you’ll find a handful of people that you really like. If at all possible, go out drinking with these people after the meetups. This is one of the easiest ways to go from “acquaintance” to “friend” and gives you free license to bring up your craziest of ideas without sounding like too much of a nutjob.

Of the people that you like, several may make excellent candidates for cofounders. Do a little research on these individuals. What does their code look like? Have they done much open source? Do they demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit? Can they stick with a single project for a long time? Have they been loyal to their friends and companies in the past? A good cofounder should be someone with whom you feel privileged to work. And they should feel privileged to work with you. The two of you should be on very solid ground before you begin your startup adventure, because once you do, the impact of every argument is going to feel like it’s been multiplied by a thousand.

This all sounds like a lot of hard work. Maybe you’re wondering if it would be better to just go solo. I did that with Gravatar, and, in retrospect, it’s painfully obvious that I made a lot of stupid mistakes. When it’s just you and your thoughts it becomes too easy to pick the first thing that pops into your head. We’re programmed to think all of our ideas are good, but reality tells a different story. Truly good decisions are forged from the furnace of argument, not plucked like daisies from the pasture of a peaceful mind. A good cofounder tells you when your ideas are half-baked and ensures that your good ideas actually get implemented.

The second biggest danger with going solo is the loss of motivation. Solipsism might make you feel important at first, but the constant lack of feedback and the absence of support during tough times can easily lead to a premature end to your adventure. Cofounders are like workout buddies. Just when you think there’s no possible way you can do another rep, there they are, rooting you on toward an achievement that wouldn’t be possible without them.

Your choice of cofounder will affect everything you do in your startup. They’ll share every defeat with you and celebrate every success. They’ll help you understand your own ideas better by offering a different perspective. They’ll be the single most important decision you make during the tenure of your startup, so choose wisely and with extreme care.