When it comes to choosing a biotech co-founder, there are many schools of thought regarding the most important qualities.
Here we will examine some of the most prevalent advice regarding choosing a co-founder and the reasoning behind it.
This seems obvious, but in truth, there are many ways to define what a co-founder is. A co-founder could be the person with whom you first discussed your idea and who said “yeah, we should go for it!” only to later decide not to be involved. A co-founder could be the professor in whose lab a technology was initially conceived, but who plays an advisory role for the company rather than working there full-time. A co-founder could be the investor who put in the initial seed funding to get the startup off the ground, but who participates primarily by attending board meetings.
Here, we use the term co-founder to mean a person who is involved in the day-to-day work of starting the company, whether or not they were around for the ideation phase. This person owns a part of the company roughly on par with other co-founders, though not necessarily the exact same amount.
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Before discussing the best qualities in a co-founder, it’s important to decide if you need one at all. If you came up with the idea to start a company and have many of the requisite skills, why should you bring in another person who will take a large part of the ownership of your company, have their own opinions, and potentially make mistakes? Possibly, you shouldn’t. Perhaps you work best alone, have mountains of intrinsic motivation, know the science and the business, have a far-reaching and well-maintained network, and so few other responsibilities that you can confidently assume all of the work of starting and running a successful biotech or medtech company. However, this describes exceedingly few people. Most of us mortals would do best with a business partner who can take on some of the responsibilities of a startup and contribute skills that we don’t have. Plus, starting a company is difficult and lonely without someone to share in the journey. A co-founder can provide the moral support that gets you through challenging situations.
If you do choose to bring on a co-founder, the choice of person is incredibly important. This is someone who will have roughly as much impact on your company as you will. Therefore, making an informed selection is paramount. This may take a while, but allowing the wrong person to have a large amount of control over your company is one of the easiest ways to fail.
Ideally, you and your co-founder will be spending a lot of time together working through the inevitable hurdles that startups face. Therefore, it helps if you like them. Beyond just making life more pleasant, having a co-founder that you honestly like working with will be important when convincing venture capitalists (VCs) to fund you. The team is one of the most important aspects of a startup that VCs look at, so any animosity between the founders will be seen as a warning sign.
Consider what personality types you have worked well with in the past, whether as teammates, supervisor/employee relationship, or otherwise. Avoid choosing a co-founder based solely on personality traits that you find beneficial in friendships. A great friend might make for a terrible business partner, as the things that make someone fun to be around are not necessarily conducive to getting work done. The idea isn’t to pick your favorite person to drink with, it’s to pick a person you respect and can tolerate for long periods of time. If you also end up being friends, that’s fantastic, but it’s not the main goal.
It might feel more comfortable to ask someone very similar to you to be your co-founder, but that means missing out on the chance to bring someone in who complements your personality, rather than copying it. Complementary personalities are fantastic in small companies since one person really can’t do/be everything. If you’re an “idea person” who loves to start things, think about finding someone who loves to finish projects and check things off the to-do list. If you can’t stand networking events, find a co-founder who loves them. Maybe you are a risk-taker and tend to get yourself into sticky situations? A more risk-averse co-founder whose opinion you respect could help to prevent missteps. The idea is to find someone who will challenge you when your worst qualities are showing themselves, and who will take on the projects that you really aren’t good at. You will do the same for them, and thereby create a balanced team.
A common cliché for startup founders is the concept of “wearing many hats.” However, there’s generally a limit to the “number of hats” any one person can wear. Thus, having a co-founder who has skills that you don’t have and that are applicable to your company can be highly beneficial. If you are a scientist, you might want a co-founder who has a business background. You could certainly learn business skills, but that might be neither an efficient process nor good use of energy. A co-founder whose background is complementary to yours rather than the same adds to the business. There may be some skills that are great for both co-founders to have, such as effective communication, time management, and presentation skills. However, many other skills are really only necessary in one co-founder. Especially in a biotech or medtech startup, there is commonly a bifurcation in skill sets such that one person has the scientific or engineering background and the other has the business acumen. This natural split makes dividing up responsibilities much easier than if both co-founders have the same education and experience.
The difference between a co-founder and an employee is not only who owns the company--a co-founder must also have a level of motivation that is not dependent on outside factors. That’s nice in an employee too, but for a co-founder, it’s really essential. There are inevitable difficulties when starting a company, and a distinct lack of rewards early on. If your co-founder is not intrinsically motivated, they might become disillusioned quickly rather than having the determination to work through hurdles.
A good co-founder is not a “yes man,” but someone who will state the hard truths. The quality of honesty is integral to successful relationships of all kinds. In business, a lie can begin small and end up creating large, unforeseen problems for a company. This means that your co-founder must be honest with you, honest with employees, and honest with clients/investors. However, there is a way to be honest and tactful at the same time. We’ve all seen someone deliver an honest opinion in a blunt manner and accidentally hurt the recipient’s feelings. Honesty is crucial, but when delivered inappropriately it can damage relationships. It’s much easier to find a co-founder who already understands the balance between tact and direct communication than it is to teach someone.
On the other hand, it’s up to you as the founder to accept constructive criticism. If you make it difficult for your co-founder to be honest with you because your feelings are easily hurt, you might cause them to avoid telling you truths that you need to hear. So find an honest person to be your co-founder, but understand that may mean hearing things you don’t want to hear.
For two people to work well together as co-founders, they should have similar visions for the company. If one person’s goal is to sell the company as quickly as possible and the other one wants to grow it into the next biotech behemoth, then decisions won’t be aligned and friction is inevitable. Luckily, determining if your potential co-founder has a similar vision is as easy as asking them the question. Assuming they have enough information about the company and are honest, then you can take their answer at face value.
For almost every startup, there will be moments of crisis. Whether this is related to an experiment, funding, or an employee, it is a test of a founder’s strength as a leader. A good leader will keep their cool in a crisis and focus their energy on finding solutions rather than bemoaning the situation. No one is perfect, of course, but in a crisis, you don’t want to have to cater to your co-founder’s emotions rather than fixing the actual problem.
Determining whether someone has the qualities of a good co-founder for you is difficult without spending a lot of time with them. Therefore, one of the best ways to know if someone will work out well as your co-founder is if you have worked with them before. If you’ve already worked together you might know their weak and strong points, whether they are honest, if you get along, and whether they have a complementary skill set to yours. You may have had the chance to learn how to communicate well together and will thus have a smaller learning curve. If you saw them experience a crisis, then you may even know how they handle pressure.
The drawback to selecting from the pool of people you have worked with in the past and who would make a good co-founder is that the number is likely to be very small. And that isn’t even considering whether they would want to co-found a company with you. However, someone who knows you relatively well is more likely to say yes--assuming of course that they liked working with you and found you to be trustworthy as well. Essentially, your potential co-founder is making the same judgments about you as you are of them.
This is the kind of decision that it helps to discuss with others. Ideally, talk to other biotech startup founders who have gone through the process of choosing a co-founder and find out what they see as the most important characteristics. Also, ask them what the hardest part of working with a co-founder is. Talk to people who know you well about who you think would make a good co-founder for you.
Ultimately, the choice of a co-founder is up to you. There are ways to give yourself an escape route if things don’t work out, such as vesting shares, but co-founder drama is one of the most common ways that companies die. Better to choose your co-founder with care...and vest the shares anyway.
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