Pick a Good Partner (Tee Parham)
A famous tennis coach, my dad, often asked: what is the first rule of doubles? Get to the net? No. Get your first serve in? Nope. Pick a good partner.
Picking a good partner is the most important decision in starting any serious pursuit, especially an internet startup. “Pick good cofounders” is Paul Graham’s top rule of startups. In Power of 2, Rodd Wagner and Gale Muller write that the most important element of a powerful partnership is complementary strengths. Your strengths shouldn’t overlap. Micah Baldwin blogged that the best tech startup duo is a hacker and a hustler. Micah’s post was a keen insight into the key complementary strengths technology startup founders need. The hacker can build a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and the hustler can start raising capital or bringing in revenue.
I embrace the word “hacker” to espouse a problem-solving methodology to rapidly deliver results, mainly because it sounds cooler than “fast problem-solver.” An early stage startup is not the time to be experimenting with new tools unless they are essential to the success of the project. You need to build a prototype using whatever gets you there the fastest. Often, a startup hacker should be a cobbler: you need to assemble some existing parts into Air Jordans.
But what are you hacking on and hustling about? A hacker and a hustler are rudderless without vision. Vision is hard to define and hard to get right. To be successful on a grand scale, you need to identify and tackle a large problem in a new way. Pursuing your vision is like carving a wooden duck: you simply need to cut away everything that doesn’t look like a duck.
Tim O’Reilly said “work on stuff that matters.” “Work on stuff that matters” equals vision. If someone else told you about your idea, would you care? Are you truly passionate about your pursuit? What will happen if you are successful? You must be fully committed to that vision. At Neighborland, our vision is to make neighborhoods better. We are constantly experimenting and testing new ways to try to achieve that big crazy goal.
Let’s assume you get over the initial hurdle of assembling a founding team with a complementary skill set and creating an exceptional vision. (That was easy.) Next is the question of how long to do things alone as founders. The bigger your idea, the shorter your time frame to grow should be. For really good big crazy ideas, the shorter you are Crosby, Stills, & Nash, the better. You need to become P-Funk (they have a large band). If it is on the internet, it must look great. So you need a designer with intuition about building simple and elegant user experiences. You need a shepherd to communicate with your community. You need an evangelist to spread word of the product to new people. You need some basic accounting, financial planning, and revenue modeling skills. Many of these responsibilities fall on the founders early.
Some things require outside help. Be scrappy and use the resources in your community. For example, at some point you need to write down some Documents of Reasonableness, Fairness, and Potentialities. The University of Colorado provides an invaluable service to startup businesses in the Entrepreneurial Law Clinic. A small team of law students and a mentor from an established firm will help you with entity formation and founding documents and answer any legal questions you have. The ELC program was an incredibly helpful partner for us at Neighborland.
Entrepreneurship is chaotic. At every change in direction, having good partners is crucial. When first choosing your co-founders, choose people you already know. You cannot afford to spend time getting to know your partner(s) when critical decisions must be made. You need to know how they like to communicate, what excites them, what their financial situation is, how they react when things go wrong, what time of day are they most creative, and what they truly love to do.
Building a successful organization is a never-ending series of decisions. The most important decisions are choosing the people you work with, both inside and outside your company. Choosing your co-founders is the first and most important decision, which is quickly followed by many other partnership decisions, most notably your early team and investors.