Lesson: Be Careful With Cofounders, You Haven’t Seen Their True Colors Yet

While doing some research for a different post I came across this golden nugget from Paul Graham. His post was titled What startups are really like – and it’s the truth. In it he describes how he sent all his founders an email asking what surprised them about starting a startup. Their number 1 response was around cofounders. Boy can I relate!

1. Be Careful with Cofounders

This was the surprise mentioned by the most founders. There were two types of responses: that you have to be careful who you pick as a cofounder, and that you have to work hard to maintain your relationship.

What people wished they’d paid more attention to when choosing cofounders was character and commitment, not ability. This was particularly true with startups that failed. The lesson: don’t pick cofounders who will flake.

Here’s a typical response:

You haven’t seen someone’s true colors unless you’ve worked with them on a startup.

The reason character is so important is that it’s tested more severely than in most other situations. One founder said explicitly that the relationship between founders was more important than ability:

I would rather cofound a startup with a friend than a stranger with higher output. Startups are so hard and emotional that the bonds and emotional and social support that come with friendship outweigh the extra output lost.

We learned this lesson a long time ago. If you look at the YC application, there are more questions about the commitment and relationship of the founders than their ability.

Founders of successful startups talked less about choosing cofounders and more about how hard they worked to maintain their relationship.

One thing that surprised me is how the relationship of startup founders goes from a friendship to a marriage. My relationship with my cofounder went from just being friends to seeing each other all the time, fretting over the finances and cleaning up shit. And the startup was our baby. I summed it up once like this: “It’s like we’re married, but we’re not fucking.”

Several people used that word “married.” It’s a far more intense relationship than you usually see between coworkers—partly because the stresses are so much greater, and partly because at first the founders are the whole company. So this relationship has to be built of top quality materials and carefully maintained. It’s the basis of everything.

This hit home given the fact that I am going through this issue currently. I have never been married but it really does feel like a divorce. Respecting the unnamed (and by no means is this a personal attack), I can only tell you how disappointed I am in this individual. And maybe I am just disappointed in the overall outcome but I can’t help but be bothered at how it ended, with one of us making a B-line for the door once it was obvious this was actually going to take some hard work. For the sake of our “kids” it’s a good thing I am still around to help them grow and mature.

Let this be a lesson to all entrepreneurs and silicon valley wannabe founders out there:

Life is tough and unfair.

Startups are a hell of a lot tougher and more unfair.

Most ALL startups and iPhone applications DON’T GO VIRAL overnight. They take a shit ton of work and thus require a shit ton of commitment.

And know this: the founder who stuck it out and eventually grew a company to be large and successful is more wise, more battle tested and way more respected in the community than an overnight success who usually had no idea why he was successful. That person will fail to repeat it when he tries again because as an overnight viral success you don’t understand what worked and what didn’t. It just happens.

The time-tested individual builds lifelong skills along with a treasure trove of wisdom he can then apply to any other endeavor with a high potential of success. So if you are a founder I would suggest you swallow the pill and make long term commitments your goal.

Please, give success a fighting chance.