This post is more of a reflection of our journey at Hoop than a suggestion that there’s one ‘right’ way to start a business. If anyone is aware of a surefire way, though, please let us know. 😀
Co-founders are essential for the journey
Building a business is really hard. You’re taking an idea and a belief and willing it into existence. You’re taking a huge risk by betting on yourself, and the future is uncertain. Is there a market for the thing you’re selling? Is the thing itself compelling and useful enough for people to care?
Although there are tons of great examples of solo entrepreneurs going after these challenges alone, having co-founders can be a huge benefit. Entrepreneurship can be lonely, and having co-founders along for the ride means you have a support structure built right in - there are people going through what you’re going through right there with you.
In a recent podcast, Eric Ries talked to Lenny Rachitsky about how sometimes you don’t know if you’re on the flat part of the hockey stick of growth, just about to take off, or if you’re just mired and hopelessly lost. Teams will say that “It’s darkest before the dawn” - but as Eric points out, it’s also super dark when you’re dead. (Check out the podcast, it was awesome, and not all bleak, I promise.)
But the point is that after the honeymoon phase ends and you’re trying to build a business, there is a lot of uncertainty. Uncertainty can be scary and depressing (Andrew Chen’s piece on the Trough of Sorrow is a must read). Going through that journey with a built in support structure means you’re more likely to get through it - sometimes grit and perseverance matters most.
Shared values through tough times
When SVB imploded earlier this year, things looked grim for a minute. Was our bank balance really at risk? During those few days, having partners that felt the risk in the same way was a big part of getting through that crisis. It provided emotional support and a sounding board for planning.
In order to have that dynamic, you need trust and shared values. When Justin, Stella and I decided to work together again after our time at Trello, one of the first things we discussed was the culture and company we wanted to build, and the effect we wanted to have on the world of work. We also had to be at the same, right place in our careers of starting something together - hardly a foregone conclusion for three different individuals.
This is something more founding teams need to discuss even as they figure out potential product directions or MVPs, a startup is a marathon and you don’t want to find out some core value is not shared in a moment when the team is put to the test. I recommend developing a core set of values at the very beginning of any venture. It doesn't need to be fancy, a Notion page or Google Doc is fine. The value is in the conversation and making sure to uncover any tricky or sticky potential points of conflict at a moment of relative calm, before any eventual conflicts arise.
Complementary skills are critical
In addition to trust and support, having complimentary skills working together means you can have parallel impacts on your business early on, without having to hire individuals to fill those roles or having to look to consultants/ outside service providers.
At Hoop, what that means is that we can have Justin totally focused on product development and working closely with our engineers, while Stella leads go-to-market. And I can keep the trains running, from salary and benefits to accounting and legal, all while supporting Justin and Stella’s efforts. And we all are deeply invested in our product journey, so all core areas of our business are moving with a lot of care and urgency.
OK OK, but where do you find these great people?
In a lot of instances, co-founders come from your primary or secondary networks (people you know and have worked with, or people who know people that you know and have worked with). In the case of Stella, Justin and me, we had worked together for years at Trello, then Atlassian after Atlassian acquired Trello. I guess we just hadn’t had enough of each other, recognized shared values and goals, and saw complementary skills.
Of course, every founder find is different. Here are some origin stories from other founders I spoke to:
- Some co-founders had worked together in the past.
- An entrepreneur that always looked up to a sales leader, and asked him to join his company as an advisor, which led to them working together as co-founders later.
- Two professionals in the same industry had informal, virtual coffee chats together after meeting online and - after discovering a shared interest, decided to start a business.
There are many paths to finding a great partner(s), but it’s critical to start thinking about what you want to achieve and where you’re going to find the right partners to work with that check those critical boxes: shared goals, shared values, complimentary skills, and being in the right place in your career & life to take the plunge together.
Having co-founders along for the ride can be a huge benefit. It helps provide support when times get tough, and it’s a force multiplier if you can nail a team with complimentary skills. It’s probably not the right answer in every situation, but if you can get the stars to align with a rock solid group, it can help in a big way.