Every startup idea needs its champions. In the last article, we covered key strategies for eliminating risk in the early days to get you to a point where you’re “all in,” thereby making you the first ‘champion’ of your new startup idea in the process. Now, it’s time to start considering human capital needs in the context of building out your founding team. Of course, it’s possible to go it alone for now, but the last time I checked there weren’t many one-person billion-dollar startups out there.
Recognizing that you can’t do it all yourself is probably the most important thing at this point. As we’ll explore in the next installment of the Launching a Startup series, it’s smart to think lean and keep things simple as you search for product-market fit, but ‘simple’ and ‘lean’ unfortunately don’t equate to easy. Plus, the odds of succeeding are greatly improved when you add just one cofounder to the mix. Why is this so? Here are a few reasons:
- Two cofounders, in theory, should be able to work somewhere in the neighborhood of twice as fast as a single founder.
- Startups are hard, and it’s harder to quit when you have at least one other cofounder in the same boat as you.
- Cofounders, to some extent, balance out one another’s weaknesses.
Ideally, you’ve fleshed out your startup plans to the point that you have an understanding of where you’ll need the most help early on. That way, you can put these key strategies and resources for attracting talent to your idea to good use.
Networking Your Idea
In order to effectively recruit talent, you first need to refine your idea to the point where (1) it’s actionable and (2) you’re comfortable making it public (without having everyone you speak with sign a non-disclosure, which many people won’t do anyway).
Networking your way to a solid cofounder introduction is the most advisable strategy for recruiting talent, but it’s also probably the most expensive in terms of time commitment, as well as being the longest from a time to completion standpoint. But hey, no one said it would be easy!
Below are key resources you can use in addition to common sense that will increase your chances of launching into a fruitful relationship with a cofounder (or two, or three).
1. Leverage Your Personal Network
This is the straightforward place to start your search. Suffice to say, your chances of attracting talent go up exponentially as the number of degrees of separation to your prospective cofounder(s) goes down. So, the closer you are to them the better.
2. Attend Meetups and Join Startup Clubs
A quick online search of your city + meetup + startup/hackers/tech/etc should produce some results for you to look into. Most semi-active groups meet fairly frequently—and it should be at the top of your networking to-do list to attend a few of these events. In addition to seeking out a cofounder, it’s also a great way to work on your 10-second pitch.
For many of the same reasons that Meetups are a good idea to attend, joining and becoming active in a local startup club or organization is another great way to get plugged into ‘the scene’. Additionally, many startup groups provide you with the opportunity to pitch your idea to the group in a setting that’s more formal than the latest Meetup Happy Hour.
In addition to your local groups, look to get involved in larger online communities where people are looking to find founders. Cofounders Lab is a lot like an Internet dating site for startup founders. If you know what you’re looking for, it’s a viable option to get involved with.
3. Apply to Startup Accelerators
Some startup accelerators allow you to apply as an individual versus applying as a completely in-tact team of founders. There’s a chance you could be accepted as an individual and be matched with an idea, or that someone else could be matched to your idea. This doesn’t seem like a surefire bet, however, since getting into the accelerator in the first place is a prerequisite.
Here’s a look at a few of the more well-known accelerators and their policies for solo applicants and founder matchmaking:
Y Combinator, which is largely responsible for the startup accelerator trend itself, does accept single founder companies as applicants. However, they imply that single founder companies may have a harder time getting in based on their stated position that startups are “too much work for one person”.
All of this said, Drew Houston (CEO and Founder of Dropbox) applied as a single founder back in 2008—got in—and, well, the rest is history. (You can even check out his application.)
Techstars, a Partner of CoFoundersLab
Techstars allows single founder companies to apply, but the language on their site would suggest that these companies will face longer odds in the application process—similar to Y Combinator. More precisely, ‘team’ is a large component of the application that won’t necessarily be scored well for single founder companies. As a result, they strongly suggest seeking out additional team members, and have taken the additional step of launching a cobranded portal with CoFoundersLab to perhaps drive this point home.
If, however, you were able to get into Techstars as a solo founder, you’d have access to a top-tier ‘bench’ of talent they’ve cultivated for their companies via Hackstars.
DreamIt operates in a slightly different way than some of the top accelerators by allowing individuals to apply—without necessarily having an idea or company in place already. The intent is to match good talent with accepted companies who are looking to round out their team. But, while DreamIt is willing to play matchmaker to an extent, it becomes incumbent on the founder(s) and the individual(s) to work out a long-term employment agreement with equity and the like.
4. Place Ads on Job Boards
If playing the long game, and networking isn’t working out, or if you just don’t have the time, it's possible to source a quality cofounder through a job board. Recruiting is a challenge and it's not a surefire method, but you can increase your chances of success by placing ads on high quality job boards with the greatest relevance to your needs.
AngelList—which is like LinkedIn for startups—is a great free option for both sourcing talent and getting some early exposure for your startup.
- Great place to meet candidates with startup experience.
- Candidates can ‘apply’ without producing a resume or cover letter.
- Less trafficked than some other popular job boards.
Depending on your needs, you may be looking to go the more ‘professional’ route, for which LinkedIn is a good option. It’s not cheap, but you should get sufficient exposure and a decent list of candidates, provided that your job description is on point. Take the time to create a company profile for your startup before going this route.
- It's the largest talent network.
- Likely to produce higher quality candidates.
- It's somewhat expensive.
- May not produce viable ‘startup’ candidates.
If it’s a technical cofounder you’re after, Stack Overflow’s job board is a way to meet someone on their turf.
- A great site for attracting ‘passive’ technical talent.
- Pre-screened candidates via online community.
- It's somewhat expensive.
- Not exclusively startup-focused.
GitHub’s job board is another solid option for sourcing the technically-minded cofounder.
- It's the largest network of developer talent.
- Mobile app job board.
- It's somewhat expensive.
- No option for company profile page.
The Apple Founders
Most people plugged into startups or, more generally, the tech scene in Silicon Valley won’t have trouble recanting the names Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak as founders of Apple. What’s lesser known is how the two of them paired up to create what is now one of the most valuable companies in the world.
How Steve Met Steve
As it turned out, Steve Jobs met Steve Wozniak through a personal friend who recognized that they shared a mutual interest in technology. This is important to note: your personal network is a great place to start when seeking cofounders. It wasn’t until years later, after the introduction and after their friendship had blossomed, that they set out to start a company and build the Apple I.
Homebrew Computer Club
Homebrew Computer Club was essentially the local tech Meetup of their time. And although they didn’t meet there, the Apple co-founders were able to, in part, validate their side-project to the point of recognizing a business opportunity through their membership at the club. In other words, they networked their idea into a startup company, and relied on local networking to do so.
MBA’s Versus Engineers
There’s definitely an ongoing debate amongst respected startup brethren as to the true value of early-stage employees. More precisely, I’m referring to the age-old MBA’s versus engineers debate. Or, put another way, non-technical founders vs. technical founders. The debate has even seeped into the discussion of early-stage valuation techniques, often heavily discounting the value a non-technical founder could bring to a technology company.
On its face, the pro-technical argument makes sense. If you’re going to build and run a technology company, you should know technology. That said, ‘A-players’ come in all shapes and sizes, and there are plenty of good reasons to bring in a sales or marketing professional if it makes sense for your company (see Apple example above).
Both points have their merits in considering a potential cofounder or key early employee for your startup. Are you looking for a technical or business professional, which would your company benefit from most at this stage? Think strongly about your greatest needs in your early days, well before you commit personal resources to attracting talent to your idea.
Championing Yourself and Your Idea
Essentially, the ability to attract others to your startup idea comes down to this:
- How good are you at marketing yourself? What steps have you taken to build a personal brand or network that you can leverage in your attempts to add cofounders and early employees?
- How is your startup idea being presented? Do you have a slick slide deck? Have you launched a LaunchRock page? Do you have an AngelList profile?
In today’s world, the reality is that competing for top talent is extremely difficult. So much so that large, profitable companies spend inordinate amounts of time and money to do so. Does this mean you should give up now without even trying in the first place? Well, if you’d give up that easily, your startup isn’t going anywhere anyways.
New partnerships are forming everyday; get out there and make it happen.