5 Key Qualities you should be looking for in a Startup Business Partner
Ukrainian entrepreneur and angel investor Eugene Vyborov posted on his LinkedIn page the article that describes how to understand if a person fits to be your startup co-founder, according to his own experience. AIN.UA has selected the key thoughts.
You see, you may have an impressively wide skillset and enviable enough experience to start a business alone. But the pressure of funding commitments, the neverending grind, bouncing back from a failure – all that you can’t handle on your own. And that’s why I believe that sometimes choosing the right partner may even be more important than choosing your business idea.
I met my business partner in YayPay (acquired by Queadient in 2020), Anthony Venus, by accident. I was helping Techstars Boston as a lead technology associate, and Anthony was going through the program with a very early version of YayPay.
He reached out to me when he needed help, and I ended up spending most of the program working closely with him on his project. At the end of those 3 months, Anthony offered me to stay as a co-founder and CTO of the company.
When I had to give Anthony my answer, I didn’t have any clear frameworks to help me decide if he’d be a good business partner for me. Some of the important qualities I’ll be listing down below only became clear in hindsight. And that’s what makes it all the more important to share them with you – so you learn from my mistakes.
Honesty and Transparency
These two are a must, hence #1 on my list.
In a big organization, you can pull off playing house of cards, controlling the flow of information, manipulating people, while in a startup — it’s simply inefficient.
Every discussion or decision made with a partner you can’t fully trust slows down your growth.
Besides the fact that working with someone who lies to your face is downright toxic, navigating through the half-truths, hidden motivations, and behind-the-back discussions are sure to take a lot of your mental energy that you could instead put into developing your business.
If that’s not enough of an argument for you, here’s this. VCs tend to pass on promising startups when they see there’s no trust between the founders or that the founders are untruthful to VCs.
Apart from my own experience, there are so many examples in the industry that prove my point.
Founders understandably aren’t excited to publicly drag their startup’s failure, especially if it happened because of their partner’s dishonest behavior. But sometimes, they open up, like the current Executive Chairman of Bento Engine, Jeff Wald.
His first startup, Spinback, collapsed due to co-founder issues, leading to serious legal problems and forcing him to pay back investors with his own money.
“The first thing I did was not talk about it at all — not in any way, shape or form did I acknowledge the failure, the depression, the isolation, and everything else for many years.”
Now, you decide how important honesty and transparency are in your startup.
Ability to understand other perspectives
When building a startup, you’re always working in a state of uncertainty or Complex Context in the Cynefin Framework.
According to that framework, the only way to move forward is to experiment, make mistakes fast, learn from them, and repeat.
That’s why, when throwing spaghetti on the wall to see which portion sticks and makes you money, it’s essential to be open-minded.
Startups, where the founders fail to create a safe space to spitball unusual or at times even downright bizarre ideas, are fated for mediocrity.
It’s hard to believe but back in 2010, a handful of angel investors turned down Uber because it seemed “unremarkable.” Imagine if the co-founders believed them and dropped the idea?
The point is, if you want to disrupt, you need a partner who’s free of judgment and doesn’t let “rational” thinking stop you from trying out new ideas.
Empathy and strong ability for introspection
I hate to break it to you. But there’s no way to avoid differences of opinion and heated discussions on different topics with your business partner.
If your partner and you are humans passionate about your business idea, prepare for those discussions to be more emotional than rational.
That’s why, just like in personal relationships, you need to learn to empathize with one another, genuinely trying to understand where your partner’s coming from and not dismissing their emotions.
Holding grudges, putting your ego before your startup’s success, listening just to reply will all make your journey inefficient and may eventually break you up.
When asked in an interview, what message he’d want to share with founders, out of everything he could’ve said, Spotify’s Daniel Ek said, “Be kind; everyone is on their own journey.”
Ability to bounce back from disagreement
It’s just like that saying, “Do you want to be right, or do you want this to work?”
If there’s one thing you learn from this article, it’s that disagreeing is normal and should actually be encouraged.
But be mindful of how you disagree. Expressing your opinion because you believe it’d take your project forward is one thing; being proud and stubborn is a whole different ball game.
When making any decision, make sure both you and your business partner agree on the path you take. Otherwise, you’ll get stuck in a vicious cycle of endless “I told you so’s – and that’s a step back every time you say it.
Now, this one I learned the hard way. I used to dwell on our mistakes, especially the ones “we could’ve avoided.” And I was lucky to have a business partner who brought it up so we could be more aware of it moving forward.
Aligned interests and skin in the game
Apart from psychological traits that are harder to pinpoint from the get-go, there are also more practical qualities that make a great business partner.
Their emotional intelligence simply won’t matter if they (a) aren’t moving towards the same goal as you and (b) are only here for the laurels and not the bumpy road.
You need to have comparable assets invested in the game – things like money, time, reputation, and opportunity. So, if your potential partner is planning to do two more projects parallel to yours, it may not be the best idea to involve them in your startup. Or if, for example, they’re only putting in money and not their time and effort, you’re better off with an investor.
Even more importantly, you both need to suffer in a similar way if your startup doesn’t work. If every time all the weight of a problem lays on your shoulders, you’ve onboarded a team member – not a partner.
You probably noticed that I didn’t even cover any of the essential hard skills like the ability to hire, raise capital, build teams – the list goes on.
But as cliché, as it may sound, in my experience and that of many tech founders I know, hard skills can always be learned.
Trust me, it’s a lot easier to teach a person financial literacy than explain to them how to listen with empathy.
All that said, if you find a partner who matches all these criteria, unfortunately, that still doesn’t guarantee your startup won’t fail.
But if you make your decision based on this checklist, at least you’ll have a better chance of failing for a reason other than a founder conflict.
Author: Eugene Vyborov, Technology Entrepreneur and Operator, Angel Investor (ODA5)