Finding the right co-founder—one whose values align with yours—can be tricky. Sunil Nagaraj, founding partner of Ubiquity Ventures and co-founder of Triangulate, learned this lesson the hard way. In this short clip from a longer informal conversation with Shikhar Ghosh, he shares his insights and quick tips on the importance of co-founder fit. Comparing the relationship between founders to a romantic partnership, he explains that both need some chemistry—an initial spark. Once the spark fades, you need to have built an underlying foundation—long term compatibility—for either type of relationship to survive.
Quick Takeaways on Co-Founder Fit
- Don’t choose a co-founder based on superficial complementary skills.
- Sharing similarities with your co-founder might generate an initial spark. But long-term compatibility matters more in for a successful business partnership.
Friendship Doesn’t Automatically Translate to Co-Founder Fit
However well you think you know your co-founder, Nagaraj recommends that you don’t make assumptions that they feel the same way you do about core values. When he had the idea for his first venture, Triangulate, Nagaraj initially thought he’d build the company with a friend who an entrepreneurial mentality and was considering starting a company. “It started innocuously,” he recalls, in the sense that we thought we would in parallel explore our different ideas, but sort of just use each other’s tools to explore and then go off our ways.” They held long conceptual brainstorming sessions that made each feel energized. They assumed their friendship would enable them to work well together. Within a few months, they decided to co-found a venture. Once they began working together, he reflects, and their conversation changed from conceptual to tactical, they noticed problems. Eventually, the partnership ended. Nagaraj remembers, that “For me, it was devastating” even though “it was clear that it should happen.” But the experience gave Nagaraj critical insights into co-founder fit.
He recommends asking your co-founder about their primary motivations for starting a business. Do they aspire to make a lot of money? Or make a big impact in the world? Then discuss practices and preferences. For instance, “Do they like to sit on $5 steel folding chairs? Or do they want a beautiful office with a view?” Those questions may seem trivial, but answers can provide good indications of whether your partnership is compatible. After having candid conversations with your potential co-founder, be honest with yourself about your own core values. Then have a series of discussions to openly assess whether your values align. Nagaraj learned, “finding that alignment on core values is much more important than the initial spark.”
Aligned Values Establish a Strong Foundation for Your Partnership
You can only build a solid foundation for your partnership if your values align. Establishing a co-founder relationship has some similarities to finding the right romantic partner. Are your general outlooks on life compatible? For instance, how would you describe a great day? What would a great day for your co-founder look like? Alignment of values and outlooks matter because your co-founder’s attitude and personal values on life will shape the culture of your startup.
In a romantic context, the underlying foundation is “How do you feel about money? How do you feel about kids? What are your key values in your life?” Those actually apply almost identically to a co-founder.Sunil Nagaraj
Nagaraj wasn’t daunted by the failure of his first co-founder relationship. As a result, during his second founding experience—building his founding team for Triangulate in Palo Alto—he prioritized finding a partner whose attitude and core values aligned with his. “I had already started working on the product. So I needed people who could code with me.” But equally important to that skill, he emphasizes, he searched for people who “were okay working for free in a small apartment, sitting on a $5 steel folding chair, above a subway.” Using that criteria when searching for a new founding team “automatically filtered people.” Eventually, Nagaraj built his team. They grew the venture, pivoting along the way, and then exited. Now, based on that learning experience, he advises others on how to build strong teams.
Want tips for assessing potential co-founders? Our posts, Choosing a Co-Founder? How to Find the Right Person and 3 Topics to Discuss before Writing a Founders’ Agreement, provides lists of questions to ask potential co-founders before formalizing your partnership. Our Founding Team section provides frameworks for creating a founders’ agreement and allocating co-founder equity. It describes the pros and cons of adding a co-founder vs. becoming a solo-founder.
Other online resources, tools, and services can help you find a co-founder and determine if potential candidates are good fits for your venture.
“34 Questions to Ask a Potential Co-Founder,” contains a master list of questions that you can use to get to know potential co-founder. It was created and shared by Jessica Alter, co-founder of FounderDating and Entrepreneur In Residence at Social Capital LP.
Founder Itamur Zur shares his personal experience co-founding a startup with a friend in “12 Brutally Honest Lessons about Life and Entrepreneurship.”
Steve Blank‘s “Looking for Love in All The Wrong Places – How to Find a Co-founder” encouraged founders to collaborate on a project with potential business partners before becoming co-founders. Working together on project with a short timeframe gives you a chance to assess a person’s behavior under pressure. He advises, “You want someone who exhibits intense focus in chaotic situations, keen decision-making skills when faced with little data, relentlessness, agility, and curiosity.”