A startup is like a marriage for its co-founders. It will last many years, be incredibly stressful, and involve an emotional roller-coaster of ups and downs. How do you know your co-founder will not buckle under the stress?
First, the questions. Here’s my list of co-founder questions that I need to get answered. Note that there are no right or wrong answers, this is all about character and values.
- Why are you doing this?
- What are your expectations about share equity, salary and money?
- Hypothetical: your investors want you to cut a feature from your product because they believe it is too expensive and doesn’t bring the value. You believe that the customers love it and it just needs a little more work to make it shine. How do you handle this situation?
- What in your life is more important than this startup? (list them all)
- Do you expect a seat on the board as an executive director?
- Are you happy to be known and connected to the brand values that we need to espouse to make this work? Are they your values?
- Hypothetical: a manager in a very large potential customer approaches you with a huge deal, on the condition that you give him personally 10% of the equity in the startup as a kickback. What do you do?
- What do you fear most about working in this startup?
- What makes you most excited about working in this startup?
- Hypothetical: Your relationship breaks down because of the time you spent working on the startup. What do you do?
- How would you define “success” for this project?
- Hypothetical: Your partner has a huge career opportunity, but it involves both of you moving to a foreign country, and you spending more time at home with the kids/house/pets/low broadband/whatever. You will be limited in your ability to work on the startup. What do you do?
- Hypothetical: we struggle getting traction, and can’t get investment. The business is not making money, but we think another few months of work could turn it around, if we can survive for those months. How would you handle the situation?
- What do you want as your job title?
- Hypothetical: we get investment, but the investor has some firm ideas about management, and wants to appoint an external executive director overseeing your role. How do you handle the situation?
- How do you handle stress? What can the rest of the team do to help you manage that?
The questions need to be asked and answered by everyone on the founding team. This is not an interview thing where the CEO asks potential collaborators about their attitudes – the CEO needs to be clear about their expectations too!
The point of asking these questions is to stimulate frank, open, discussion about what you both (or all, if there are more than two founders) expect from the startup. Co-founder drama is a huge killer of startups, and usually the drama is about mismatched expectations around money. Getting very, very, clear around what everyone expects from the business and the team is really important.
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A startup is a ten-year commitment, minimum, and usually involves at least a couple of years of poverty, and plenty of stress. Everyone involved needs to be really clear about this. It’s not an easy ride to fame and fortune, and anyone expecting that is going to have problems.
If the discussion exposes some fundamentally incompatible expectations, then it’s much better to know that from the outset. And often, knowing that there are mismatched expectations and having them out in the open goes a long way to helping resolve them.