Prologue, Apr 2011

I Quit

It started on a rainy evening. I was working for a company that made widgets. (Really, they make customized social widgets for clients). I had spent the entire day poring over a jumble of hideous Java code that could have been written by a thousand monkeys on typewriters.

Any mention of using a more elegant language like Python, (or heaven forbid Ruby) was blasphemy. We had no tests for the most important stuff that always kept breaking. There had to be a better way to do this.

Yet, the powers that be refused to allow any changes to the status quo.

That’s when I knew I was going to build my own company. I had dinner with my friend David and we decided we were going to build our own startup.

So, I quit.

Unfortunately, David got cold feet and decided it was too risky to do this. Whoops.

So, there I was, all alone.

And there began my journey to find a co-founder.

Hackers and Founders

Hackers and Founders

The “Little” Tower of Babel (from Paul Graham’s book, Hackers and Painters. Image courtesy Wikipedia)

One of the first things I did was to attend meetups aimed at connecting co-founders. “Hackers and Founders”, “Bay Area Co-Founder Meetup”, and many others.

The experience was a bit disappointing. I’ve catalogued the types of people I met there:

  • People already doing a startup and trying to recruit you as a “co-founder” for a laughable equity stake
  • “Business people” with an idea looking for code monkeys (I really think this notion of a “business person” is bogus. All founders need to have business sense. And you don’t need an MBA for it. But I digress)
  • People selling consulting (or other) services
  • Poachers – people working for established companies trying to hire you
  • People with almost no useful skills for building a startup
  • People looking for free beer or pizza

I quickly realized this wasn’t working. So, I moved on to…

Startup Weekend

I Quit

Vertigo is a new ride at the Allegan County Fair (from mlive.com)

Basically a glorified hackathon. The whole event had a bit of a juvenile feel to it.

Everyone was excited about the idea of a startup, but almost everyone had a full-time job and just lacked the seriousness necessary to focus on a startup. I was in a group of 10 people (can you imagine 10 founders for a startup?), many of whom didn’t even live in the San Francisco Area.

It was pandemonium. Much like a county fair. =) But, hey, at least the rides were fun!

I did get to meet some great designers and some smart people there, who I’m still in touch with.

So, overall it was worth it. Just don’t expect to meet your co-founder there.

Match.com and OkCupid

Cupid's Arrow

Cupid’s Arrow (from coolmyspacebackgrounds.org)

Just as you can date online, there are several sites focused on helping entrepreneurs find each other. I created profiles on two of these: Techcofounder.com and FoundersHookup.com.

Within days, from Techcofounder, I was inundated with emails from “business guys” with no coding ability (or any desire to learn coding) who wanted me to build their idea for them.

I think I immediately deleted over 90% of the emails. I also found lots of people in other parts of the country (New York, Seattle, etc) emailing me, which was a bit odd. And what’s with so many business folks asking you to sign NDAs?

I quickly got turned off.

FoundersHookup was slightly better, because it had more advanced search, allowing you to focus on the right people.

Also, their system of connecting is really great – you simply express interest in a person and they get notified and if they are interested, they send an email with both people on it. No need to write a long message or read a long pitch.

I met some people from both the sites, but didn’t really find anyone that was interested in the same spaces and was able to work full-time on a startup.

Founder Dating

Founder Dating

Good old fashioned dating (from graphicshunt.com)

It’s true.

Finding a co-founder is SO much like dating as I was starting to discover. You end up spending so much time together, that compatibility is the MOST important thing.

Actually, it’s more like marriage, not dating. And, there’s an event aptly named “Founder Dating” that aims to help entrepreneurs find a match.

What I like about this event is it attracts a much higher quality of people – only people who are seriously devoted to doing a startup and have useful skills demonstrated by past experience.

You have to apply and interview and they hand select a small group of people.

I did meet someone from the event and we went on a “date” afterwards. We worked together for a few weeks and I quickly realized that I was doing all the work.

It just felt weird to be writing code non-stop for weeks while your co-founder is just sitting around. Now, I don’t expect anyone to become an expert coder.

I just think it’s important to be willing to learn. Especially front-end stuff that I’m not good at and that would help us build this stuff much faster. To me, an unwillingness to learn suggests a fundamental lack of respect for the engineering side of a startup.

After all, I’ve picked up a lot of so-called “business stuff” in the last few months. Things like customer acquisition channels and acquisition cost vs. lifetime value – things that I had no background in, but just seemed fundamental knowledge for any startup founder.

And I’m willing to learn whatever I need to in order to make my company succeed. So, why can’t the “business guy” do the same thing?

This wasn’t going to work for me, so I called off our relationship. I was single again!

Founder Institute

Golden MBA

Getting your MBA is no small matter – the price, the prestige and the time along with many other factors make it a big decision. (from mscareergirl.com)

Towards the end of June, I got accepted into the Founder Institute, which is something like an incubator, but not exactly.

I was in a group of 5 people: one in LA, one lived in Chicago and was here only for the program and a third who had a startup running for 3 years already (It’s still not clear to me why these people were in the program at all or more importantly why they weren’t screened out).

It was obvious that the application process was a farce and everyone was given admission). Only one of the people seemed serious about any of it, but he was working on something I had very little interest in. From mingling around, it seemed mine was one of the better groups!

One of the main reasons I joined the program was to gain mentorship from the advisors in the program.

It turns out, most of the advice you get is from the people within the group you’re assigned to! The blind leading the blind.

They also advertise that you might find your co-founder in the program. That seemed pretty unlikely from what I could see.

They offered a 24 hour money-back guarantee. I quickly took it.

The good thing about all this was I was quickly narrowing down a set of criteria to use in choosing a co-founder. And this was turning out to be very helpful. Specifically, I realized I was looking for:

  1. Full time commitment (actually, it’s more like 24-7 commitment)
  2. (a) Ability to code or willingness to learn and (b) passion for product definition (user experience, feature definition, etc)
  3. A real co-founder equity split (50-50 or something close to that
  4. Passion for the lean startup methodology (especially customer development)

That’s the basic threshold for me. The more important stuff like “how well do we work together” isn’t worth figuring out if the basic foundation isn’t there.

Epilogue, Dec 2011

Disruptive Innovation

Disruptive innovation is a term coined by Clayton Christensen that describes a new product or service that is so innovative, it disrupts the market and forces businesses in that market to radically change their business or suffer serious consequences. (from innovationtools.com)

Finding a good co-founder is pretty darn difficult. I still haven’t found one yet, but I’m confident that the groundwork I’ve been laying — and continue to lay — will connect me to the right co-founder at the right time.

I’ve also met some great people, some of who have become mentors and good sounding boards.

In the meantime, I have been executing on an idea that is as disruptive as Travelocity et. al. were to travel agencies.

I’ve started building out the minimum viable product, and hope to have the MVP done soon.

And I’m still looking for a co-founder to join me. So, drop me a note if you think that might be you!

P.S. A little blurb about me: I live in San Francisco, I studied Computer Science and Math at Carnegie Mellon, I’ve worked a variety of software jobs in the area. And I can be reached at: andyagrawal99@gmail.com

P.P.S. Follow me on twitter @andy_agrawal

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by in Entrepreneurship

  • Sam J

    Difficult indeed! That echoes the lesson I’ve learned since first starting internships in school – “good help really is hard to find” (or, as the case may be, good co-founders). Human capital is truly valuable, even if it’s so often massively mispriced and plagued by information problems!

    Good luck! My issue, when trying to jump off the deep end, has likewise been trying to convince my talented friends to leave their plush gigs for choppier waters. Will have to work on my charm…

    • @Sam, How are things going with finding folks to help you build the boat as you set sail? I’ve found there is a fine line when looking for talent, especially in a startup or smb environment. Yes, you definitely need man power to make things happen, but you also want people that you don’t have to “convince”. It’s enough work sometimes to keep yourself motivated, let alone someone else who’s your friend and WILL take advantage of the relationship. The last thing you need is to be running behind them trying to keep them on course because they haven’t adopted the dream as their own.

      You are right though, Good help is hard to find and damn near impossible when you tell them you are voluntarily sailing into a hurricane and they are on the beach enjoying the waves.

  • I think you pretty much nailed it. I’d suggest geographic proximity as a 5th pre-requisite to considering any particular co-founder. Long distance relationships don’t work.

    • Andy Agrawal

      Excellent point. It’s great that FoundersHookup allows you to narrow down by geography.

  • Some people have had luck at co-founder matching events – I organize one and have seen first had connections being made. If you are in the DC/MD/VA/PA areas check out these free local Meetups at http://cofounderslab.meetup.com

  • Speaking as a technical guy, my default position is to be turned off by co-founding with a business guy unless they have an amazing track record. I like the advice of earning a technical co-founder.
    I just wish more business guys realized their ideas aren’t that special, aren’t a magic way of printing money and just coming up with the idea doesn’t entitle you to 75% of a two-man venture. It doesn’t even really entitle you to an extra 10%.
    In the beginning, your job is probably going to be to find a place to work, deal with the guy who’s installing the Internet line, buying computers, buying food, buying and assembling furniture and generally just making things work. That’s all very unglamorous work but, depending on the venture, it’s quite likely your (alleged) business skills will be of very little value (while you’re building a PoC/PoS/MVP).
    I don’t think I’m alone (as a technical guy) in generally finding business guys to have an inflated sense of self-importance who often want to treat technical people as an exchangeable/replaceable commodity.

    • Because non-technical people lack the skill of implementing ideas in code, their experience in following through with ideas and learning from that process is extremely limited.
      Clearly, coming up with ideas and trying them out is not something you can only do in code, but when you do code you do that all the time. Every day, every hour, maybe even several times an hour.
      Ironically, a self-described non-technical “idea guy” has relatively little experience in coming up with an idea, implementing it, testing it and iterating on it.
      I’m speaking in general terms of course, some “idea guys” are simply brilliant and have an amazing vision. But they’re the rare exception.

  • I started reading Napolean Hill’s Think and Grow Rich recently and the one thing that sticks out the most for me and predicts success, is your ability to have an idea and make it happen. It sounds simple on the surface, but the make it happen part is where 99.95% of people fail.

    I think Andy’s journey is a tried a true testament to the fundamentals. Have an idea, believe in that idea and make it happen. Oddly enough, it reminds me of my son who’s now learning to walk. Has he done it before? Nope. Does he know how to do it? Nope. Is he going to fall? Gaurunteed, but he keeps trying and little by little he gets closer and closer to making his idea happen.

  • Great post. I felt like you were narrating my story.