As a female entrepreneur, it can be tough finding a the right co-founder. Here's how to hook up. By Brett Elizabeth Larkin (CEO & Co-founder, Referbright)
The stats aren’t great for women entrepreneurs – a message reinforced by the media daily. Women make up only 6% of chief executives at the leading 100 tech companies2. And, according to PitchBook, companies with at least one woman founder make up only 13% of those funded. Then, if funded, most startups have all-male boards.
The truth is that the battle fought by female entrepreneurs starts early. So early, in fact, that it starts before the games can even begin. Finding the right co-founder is always a challenge, but as a female entrepreneur it’s exponentially harder. Men tend to pick other men. It’s terrific when you can find another woman as cofounder, and sensational when that woman has tech expertise. But the reality is that in male-dominated tech, the odds are skewed against that happening.
The result? For many female entrepreneurs, there is a fork in the road: defer their entrepreneurial desire or decide to go at it alone.
While going at it alone may seem like a solution, the reality is you’re at a massive disadvantage long-term. Most incubators and accelerators won’t look at you unless you have at least two founders. Many investors won’t take you seriously. The odds of being overwhelmed are high. The chances of quitting, taking a break or “putting your idea on pause” are even higher since there’s no one else in the picture to motivate you to move forward or pick your spirits up at low moments.
There is a third way. It involves treating your search for a co-founder as a prerequisite to moving forward. Getting “hitched” takes precedence over everything else you’re doing. Yes, that’s right, over everything else. While it may seem like you’re putting your business on hold in the short-term, the long-term benefits of having a team (aka “someone beyond just you”), will open doors and play a critical aspect in everything from fundraising to sales to product.
I not only walked this third path, I sprinted down it. I found an incredibly talented technical co-founder who I love (platonically) and with whom I am still working with today, a year plus later. We’ve been through ups and downs, an accelerator and a pivot. It took two months of searching to unearth my perfect co-founder. These are the strategies that worked for me:
Focus on Getting “Hitched” Early
When you put into perspective the positive impact a co-founder will have on every facet of your business, nothing else on your to-do list is of equal importance.
Make finding the perfect partner (or partners) mission critical.
A benefit of doing this early on is that you have a lot more flexibility in who you can co-found with. If you invest a lot of money and time into a particular idea or prototype, chances are you’ll get very attached to it, consequently narrowing the odds of people who’ll likely be interested in the exact same thing.
Think of it like dating: if you already are deeply committed to a particular life plan, finding the perfect mate who shares that precise life plan might be challenging. It’s better to have a high level idea of where you want to go with the business and a few industries and areas you’re interested in. Now you can go on a lot more “founder dates” and find overlap with a much larger pool of people. Even if they aren’t the one, these people may challenge you in a beneficial way, providing feedback that could make your idea that much better.
If you read the above and thought, “But I do know exactly what I’m doing. I have everything about the business planned. Why should I hold off and prioritize finding some perfect cofounder?” Here’s the problem: the business world – especially in tech – is dynamic and filled with surprises.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that entrepreneurship is a lot about flexibility and compromise. This starts with your cofounder(s), and continues with your investors, employees, contractors, customers, potential acquires and more. Everything is a negotiation and nearly everything is in constant state of change.
As women, we tend to take on too much and think we can “do it all.” Know that teammates are critical to your lasting success more than your idea. Great companies are built by teams of people, and most start-ups pivot or evolve their ideas as they grow. The trajectory of your company (sadly) is not something you’ll ever be able to control 100%. The path of entrepreneurship is in essence a koan: constant, unwavering uncertainty.
You’ll never have full control over whether your start-up succeeds or fails. But you can set yourself up for success by picking one or more partners to walk beside you on the exhilarating, exhausting path of uncertainty.
Put Yourself Out There
Get yourself on FounderDating and talk to friends who have connections. Attend meetups and events where your potential co-founder might hang out. Check out both entrepreneurial groups as well as industry-specific ones.
Treat the co-founder process as seriously as you would interviewing for jobs or finding someone to marry. You cannot be shy. If this feels out of your comfort zone, think of it as good practice for the many presentations, pitches and fundraising you’ll inevitably be doing later on in your journey as an entrepreneur.
A short list of things I did in my search in getting “hitched”:
- Joined FounderDating.com immediately (I went so far as to email someone I knew was a member since it’s invite-only)
- Cold emailed potential co-founders on LinkedIn to see if they were interested or might be willing to introduce me to someone who is (note: end every email and message with “or maybe you know someone who’d be interested” so people pass on your message)
- After I was invited to join, I messaged anyone on FounderDating I thought might be a good fit according to their profile then had phone calls and coffee with with a good number of them
- Attended Women 2.0 events
- Attended or crashed incubator and accelerator events (some are open to the public, some you can sneak into)
- Talked to people I didn’t know at meetups and conferences bi-weekly
- Emailed TAs I barely knew at Stanford asking if they were interested or if they’d post my message on internal university list serves for others to see
- Emailed smart friends from high school and college trying to convince them to move to San Francisco and be my cofounder
- Asked every investor I met with (work I was doing anyway) if they had ideas of where I could find a CTO or could make introductions
I eventually met my dream cofounder on FounderDating, only to realize after meeting online that we’d been to many of the same events and had common friends. We just had no idea that each other were both ready to start a company and interested in healthcare.
Similar to the analogy earlier, we then began “dating more seriously” - working on projects together, divvying responsibilities, and talking a lot about our strengths and weaknesses as people and our vision for the company in terms of trajectory, fundraising, work-life balance and more. We collaborated together for well over a month before deciding to take the plunge and making it legal.
Increase Your Value
If you’re having no luck or feel like you’re being passed over, get creative about how you could make yourself more attractive to fellow entrepreneurs.
If you’re a designer or coder, build something impressive that will make potential co-founders look twice (it doesn’t have to be related to your business, it could be a cool project that showcases your skill set). I was looking for a technical co-founder, so I worked on raising capital so I’d have money for the business that I could bring to the table.
If all else fails and you do end up going as it alone for a period of time, I highly suggest hiring a coach to keep you on track (accountability) and to help you from getting depressed (moral support).
Tell the coach you have the goal of finding a co-founder and want to be held accountable to it. Only work with coaches who specialize in coaching entrepreneurs and have been through the entrepreneurial journey themselves. I recommend Taylor Jacobson at TeamPossible.co since he meets all these criteria and I’ve used him myself.
Setting up a support structure for yourself is essential as you walk the path of uncertainty. As women we’re tempted to think we can (or must) do it all by ourselves, and then often burn out a few months in. You and your company will likely have a healthier, happy and more sustainable future if you prioritize finding teammates early on.
Yes, all this is hugely labor-intensive, but profoundly worth it. Getting “hitched” to the right cofounder creates more business opportunity, reshapes and strengthens your vision, and provides the psychic support that you’ll both need on the rollercoaster entrepreneurial journey.
To all those female co-founders out there: how did you find your 'other half'?
About the blogger: Brett Elizabeth Larkin is CEO and co-founder of Referbright, the only digital listings solution for healthcare and wellness. She was the only woman in Blueprint Health Accelerator’s fourth class, assists in running AOL’s First Floor Labs, and teaches yoga at Google and on Youtube.