If you’re reading this, chances are that you’re founding a startup with a friend or colleague, considering bringing someone onto your early-stage startup team as a cofounder, or you just want to quickly understand the difference between the commonly used terms of “founder” and “cofounder”.
Knowing the difference is important. Let’s dive into it.
What’s the difference between a founder and a cofounder?
What is a founder?
The founder is someone that took an idea and ran with it to build out a startup. Usually, this speaks to a solo founder scenario, such as Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, or Sara Blakely, who founded Spanx. However, a startup that starts with a single founder, can evolve into a company with multiple members on the founding team.
This leads us to discuss the cofounder.
What is a cofounder?
A cofounder is someone that starts a company with the help of a friend, partner, or colleague. This refers to a founding team with two or more founding members. An example would be Linda Avey and Anne Wojcicki of 23andMe, and Larry Page & Sergey Brin in founding Google.
In the case of a cofounder, this term usually applies when talking about someone who has joined the ranks of the founder with the originating idea. This is what differentiates the founder and cofounder. The founder has the idea for the startup, and the cofounder is enrolled in the team to make the business happen with their contributing strengths.
For example, a founder may have the vision and insight into solving a core problem for a customer, but they don’t have the technical knowledge to build the solution. In this case, bringing on a technical cofounder with a software engineering background to build the solution and oversee integrations with tech partners would be a strategic move.
Now that there’s a definition for each role, it’s important to see what responsibilities are attached to these roles.
Responsibilities of a Founder
For a founder of a startup, the responsibilities are centered around moving the business from a simple business idea to a reality with an “up and to the right” trajectory.
To start, the big responsibility of a founder is to create a vision for what the path forward looks like. No matter what founding members and employees are pulled on board, the company is always grounded by the core established vision.
What are the beliefs and values of the company? What will the product look like as it goes from a “bicycle with training wheels” to its “rocketship” iteration? Who will be served and what are the user or customer goals?
Having a general plan and understanding of these answers helps guide the 30,000 decisions that a person makes, on average per day. Each business decision will more clearly contribute to carrying out the vision, whether it’s the founder or members of the early-stage startup team. In any case, the founder will be the person with the final say in decision-making.
Beyond the vision, the founder will be in charge of managing the companies finances and keeping an eye on expenses and the overall “runway”, or the amount of time that the startup can feasibly operate given the current funds.
The founder will also be charged with forming the core team to help carry out the vision and day-to-day tasks, once the startup is in a place to solicit more help.
Finally, the founder will be the point person that maintains relationships with any key stakeholders, such as investors, a board of directors, advisors, and other strategic partners.
Responsibilities of a Cofounder
The founder has a full plate and seemingly needs to head everything.
It begs the question:
Why do you need a co-founder for a startup?
The work of a startup co-founder is no easy feat. A co-founder is a part of carrying out the vision and measuring progress on the way to building a successful startup. The cofounder effectively helps a founder cover more ground and be in more places at once.
While the role may change depending on what stage of growth the startup is at, a cofounder is in charge of helping manage the team, vision, and using their connections and skills within a particular niche to move the needle.
The co-founder plays a key role in assessing risk and providing perspective to reduce “creator bias” which can be a big obstacle for the founder. Through risk assessment, the cofounder can help a founder overcome business challenges and issues while drawing attention to bugs, gaps in knowledge, and issues with product development, launches, marketing, sales, etc.
Beyond that, a cofounder is a big player in growing the company through the right talent and funding. A cofounder can help the founder “sniff” out the founding employees that are appropriately skilled and are aligned with the vision. Beyond the hiring process, the co-founder helps manage and assign responsibilities to keep the team on target.
On the funding side, a co-founder offers a lot of assistance in the realm of identifying and approaching investors. Investors also look favorably on co-founders that have the strength to communicate the potential of the product (meaning the founder is not the only member on the team with the ability to sell the vision).
Finally, an integral part of the cofounder’s responsibilities is the ability to identify market opportunities. What is the startup’s go-to-market strategy? How can the startup be positioned to tackle a market segment geographically and demographically? The cofounder is often the one to conduct research and determine the big picture strategy to move forward on scaling the business.
At What Stage Should You Find a Cofounder?
Now that we’ve defined the roles and responsibilities it’s fair to assess the timing to bringing on a cofounder.
Is it better to bring on a founding partner earlier when you’re figuring everything out, or later when you have a better understanding of the vision?
The most honest answer to this question is – it depends. You can bring a person on at the stage you’re scribbling ideas on a napkin, or when you have investor buy-in. The choice is yours to make.
In any event, you should choose to bring on a cofounder when you start to reach the limits of your skillset. If you’re lacking in a skill area, or you don’t have connections built within a certain space you intend to target, it will benefit you to bring on a cofounder.
Unfortunately, a founder doesn’t have the luxury to focus on both their strengths and weaknesses. Thus you need to focus on growing and developing your strengths and harnessing those for the business. Then, bring on the help that’s needed to compliment your strengths.
What are your weaknesses? Take some time to note these down. Don’t sugarcoat your weaknesses or dwell on them. Being honest in the areas you lack will help focus you on getting the exact help you need. Then you can more effectively search for your ideal cofounder.
It’s no small feat.
How To Find A Co-Founder For A Company?
The best way to find a co-founder is to network and assess your current connections and colleagues.
When you talk with people (whether it’s about your startup idea or not), keep tabs on people and their unique strengths, interests, values, and work ethic. Ideally, you should be on the lookout for those that offset the weaknesses that you noted in the exercise above.
Go through your LinkedIn connections, Facebook friends, and connections in your community. Shortlist the people that you would like to sit down with and introduce your idea to.
Look up startup/business networking events in your area or online startup communities that can offer further advice and connection potential. In startup communities, you’re likely to find people in the same mindset of finding the right match.
Finally, don’t be afraid of jumping into the startup Twitter landscape to make connections and share your need for a cofounder. You’d be surprised how helpful people can be in sharing advice and a potential introduction.
In the end, finding a cofounder will result in a two-sided interest. A co-founder should be just as passionate and understanding about the problem being solved and be willing to jump in. You shouldn’t have to twist a person’s arm to join your startup. And additionally, they are far removed from the role of being an employee. With being highly involved and intertwined with the fate of the startup, this is not a decision that either party should make lightly.
In determining your team’s cofounders, or navigating your relationship with founding team members, I wish you luck.
If you’re looking for additional early-stage startup advice, I recommend checking out these additional articles: