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Business  9, Jan 2014

Who you build a company with is as important as what you’re working on

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How do you find the right co-founder? e27 spoke to startups and investors to find out what they thought about matching entrepreneurs

Featured Image Credit: EDHAR / Shutterstock

In late 2010, Shahab Kaviani, the co-founder of US-based startup HyperOffice, started Cofounderslab, a meetup event for entrepreneurs to find like-minded individuals to join their companies as Co-founders, in Washington D.C. What began as a mere voluntary work, turned into a full-fledged business venture in January 2012.

Shahab Kaviani, Co-founder, Cofounderslab

Shahab Kaviani, Co-founder, Cofounderslab

Finally, this coming January 16, Kaviani and his team will be travelling to Singapore with the first Cofounderslab event in the city-state, making the trip their first entry into Southeast Asian soil. In the past they’ve taken Cofounderslab to Brazil, Tel Aviv and India.

When the product is nothing short of great, but the startup is failing, it’s better to understand the reason behind it, instead of pouring in more resources and building accelerators and co-working spaces. “We should be doing what we’re already doing, but smarter,” says Kaviani, who has been an Economics student.

Along with his team of six members, Kaviani, facilitates 4,000 introductions a month (one user deciding to contact the other). More than 500 people have been matched. Users can take an assessment to see if they are more of a builder, innovator, specialist or opportunist. He says that founders should have both — commonalities and differences.

He warns about the concept of false harmony where co-founders pretend that everything is fine and dandy. “Don’t sweep things under the rug. You should to take them head-on,” is his short advice.

Read also: Finding the right “match” on oDesk: an interview with Matt Cooper

With regard to the event next week, Kaviani is not looking for large numbers, as that can hinder the process of matching prospective co-founders. The matches can also be seen through Cofounderslab’s mobile app, which shows each individual’s potential.

At the moment, Cofounderslab generates revenue through licensing of the platform for institutions like New York University and multiple accelerators. He says, “In Singapore, we are getting some support from Ministry of Finance. There is one University we’re in conversation with.” Users can also opt for pro-membership, which entails receiving matches directly in their inboxes, instead of having to search on the network.

After Singapore, Cofounderlabs is contemplating travelling to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia; Bangkok, Thailand; and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

One, two, or three?
In order to find out how co-founders interact with one another, and how solo founders are on the lookout for new partners, we talked to a few startups, namely e27, Carousell, Collectibly and Shoppink.

Thaddeus Koh, Co-founder, COO, e27

Thaddeus Koh, Co-founder, COO, e27

Thaddeus Koh, Co-founder and COO of online tech publication e27,  feels that when founders start a business, the small team often forces them to work on new areas. “You can’t say, ‘I’ll just stay in the office and you go out to meet all the clients,’ because, when it comes to a co-founder’s decision making stage, what I have to contribute will be trivial.”

He adds that co-founders who agree all the time might not be suited to run a business together. However, this could lean towards the other end as well. If co-founders disagree about every single nitty gritty detail, it will not bode well for the company. While finding an external mediator might be unnecessary, he suggests having a board of advisers who can help steer the company in the right direction.

What about having three co-founders, instead of just two? Three’s a crowd, which, might just hold the company back. In his opinion, it will take companies even longer to take decisions, when there are three co-founders contemplating choices.

However, this does not seem to be the case for local companies — Carousell and Collectibly. Both startups have three founders, who are aligned in vision and complementary in terms of skills. In the sense, it was very much like the fabled dream team with a hacker, hipster and hustler.

Shopping app startup Carousell was first launched by Quek Siurui, Lucas Ngoo, and Marcus Tan in August 2012. The three only got to know each other better through Quek, who was coursemates with Tan in Ngee Ann Polytechnic, and befriended Ngoo in the NUS Overseas Colleges programme. Quek said, “Lucas didn’t know Marcus yet, so I introduced the two of them. But it was a good fit.”

Read also: Investable vs. employable: Which startup founder are you?

Even though Quek was not a technical co-founder, he managed to code a simple prototype to show Ngoo and Tan. Ngoo said, “For non-technical co-founders, the way to  convince a technical co-founder to join them is by learning some programming and code.”

Carousell team photo: (L-R) Marcus Tan, Quek Siu Rui, Lucas Ngoo

“So far, there have been no crucial decisions made (with voting). We usually just ship it and see how it goes. Done is better than perfect,” says Quek.

On the other hand, a site for collectors, Collectibly, which was founded by Zack Yap, Jalen Lun and Soh Zi Haur, saw similar humble beginnings. Yap says that the two other co-founders met through him; Soh was his classmate in junior college, and he first met Lun in the Army.

While Yap was appointed CEO, Lun as CMO and Soh as the CTO, all of them have secondary roles as well. “Jalen was mainly doing marketing and user acquisition, but sometimes, I feel that I should be doing more fundraising activities, and I don’t have much time to work on design – because sometimes I work on design as well – so Jalen picks up the slack from me,” says Yap. “Sometimes, when he’s covering me, Zi Haur might have to pick up user acquisition. There’s no fixed role, because the team’s so small.”

He adds that whenever needed, the team would vote on decisions or work with the general consensus. “Someone gives in… We go with the approach of try out something and see what people think. In the end, it doesn’t matter what we think…. Of course, we do talk about stuff… and someone may not agree; but we don’t just throw it out to users. We talk about it and determine what is the best.”

He feels that it is important for co-founders to be on the same page and going in the same direction. “Not in the same direction as in the company should go this way … but that everyone is working together in whatever direction they’re moving to,” he says. “There’s this bond, unity or trust in the team that you can stick it out, no matter what happens.”

Read also: “Don’t be blindly in love with your idea, be ready to adapt and change”

Bryan Lim, Co-founder, Shoppink

Bryan Lim, Co-founder, Shoppink

These might sound like happy endings and matches made in Heaven, but the truth is that there’s an excess of founders looking to be matched up with potential co-founders. Bryan Lim, founder of Shoppink, says, “Yes, I’m looking for a co-founder. I don’t have the specific attributes but anybody who can get things done and contribute.”

While Lim likens the process of finding a good co-founder to finding a girlfriend, he says that the former is an even more difficult task. He adds, “I don’t think the reason is that there are not enough people who can get things done.”

When asked about his thoughts on finding a co-founder with Cofounderslab, Lim says, “Why not? It should work. I don’t think it’s so easy, but I won’t rule out the possibility.”

Investors talk about co-founders
In our interview with Kaviani, he also shares that investors want diversity in founding teams. e27 spoke to two investors — Sae Min Ahn, Managing Partner, Rakuten Ventures, and Vincent Lauria, Co-founder, Golden Gate Ventures, to understand more about how they think.

Ahn, whose investment firm was part of the Carousell funding round and Viki acquisition, says that it really depends on the startup. He adds, “Some startups, because of how viral their products are, do not need a growth hacker. Some just need a good product manager. Some (need) an engineer.”

His answer on Quora, about what a venture capitalist looks at before deciding on making an investment was enriching as well. He wrote, “The team just gets along naturally with one another and I – the VC – genuinely enjoy talking about the company and themselves.”

Lauria, on the other hand, thinks that an internet startup should have a technical Co-founder. However, there should be a balance in the team. He says, “An all technical co-founding group, generally, isn’t investable. Usually, you have a CEO and CTO, and if there are three co-founders, then there’s a CMO.”

He also believes that it is natural for co-founders to disagree, since it’s part and parcel of working with different individuals from varying backgrounds. He added, “It’s how they handle the conflicts.”

Elaine Huang

Elaine Huang

Elaine is a fervent believer that if there ever is a zombie apocalypse, we will all be snapping away at them with our phones and posting them onto Instagram. A Mass Communication graduate of Ngee Ann Polytechnic's School of Film and Media Studies, she enjoys writing about technology and entrepreneurs. When not hashtagging her way through all sorts of trouble, Elaine is probably contemplating how to write in the third person.

  • http://www.urbanhikers.com vinnie

    Note, I’m all for all technical co-founding teams, what I was trying to say is there is no perfect mix, and I’ve met all technical co-founding teams that miss the balance that a biz person would bring to the team

  • Chua Meng Kiat

    Interesting article. However, let’s forget that not all companies in the world are technology companies. So the focus on having a CTO might not be relevant for all companies. Having a co founder who has CMO skillsets is often neglected I must say.

    Here is another article about building great founding team which could be an interesting read to this – http://steveblank.com/2013/07/29/building-great-founding-teams/

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