How to interview a co-founderHow to interview a co-founder

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If you’re looking for a cofounder for your startup, it’s important that you ask the right questions during an interview to find the ideal match. Finding someone with complementary skills and similar values who has the experience and energy to weather startups’ stormy seas will set you on a course for success.

Likewise, joining forces with a cofounder whose values don’t match yours and who doesn’t have the maturity or skills to navigate through bad weather may end up sinking your startup’s ship.

Of course, each industry has its peculiarities, so there may be other important questions that will help you make the right decision depending on your business and business setting. But, for general purposes, the following are a curated list of questions that are safe to be applied to all cofounder interviews.

How do you handle conflict?

Startups are volatile, bustling roller-coaster rides rife with uncertainty and risk. In such an environment, conflicts are bound to arise. It’s important to know how someone deals with conflict. Do they know how to communicate responsibly without escalating the conflict? Are they patient and skilled enough to be able to diffuse the situation? Or are they hot-tempered and likely to have a yelling session in front of the staff? Or do they bear grudges and would they rather quit than patch things up?

How do you handle stress?

Startups are famous for the 100-hour work week. Even if you don’t clock that many hours, you will likely be working a lot and the work will likely be stressful, at least at times. When interviewing your cofounder, find out if they’re good at delegating tasks or if they need to do everything themselves. Also, do they have experience optimizing their workflows by figuring out ways to do things more efficiently in order to cut down on workload? Or do they just accept that something takes forever, put their head down and slog through? Some people demonstrate a lot of energy in the beginning and then burn out quickly. You definitely don’t want your cofounder to burn out, so seek a clear answer to this question so you aren’t left shouldering all the work because your cofounder needs time off after burning out.

How long can you financially support yourself with no salary?

We live in a culture where you’re not supposed to ask about someone’s personal finances, but in this case, they’re highly relevant. It may not be the deciding factor of your decision-making process, but it’s important to know if your cofounder is solvent enough to withstand the months it might take for the startup to grow to the point that it can start paying salaries. If they can’t they’ll need to take on other work and their efforts won’t be on the startup you’re running together, it will be on paying their bills. Also, are they comfortable with having a low salary in order to divert money back into the startup? If they have financial worries, they may push to have the money go to them, further delaying your startups’ progress.

What are your values?

This question basically asks: Are you doing this because you want to make the world a better place or because you want to make money? The answer will affect a lot of things from how things are run, to willingness to sacrifice their salary when things are rocky to what they consider success. Someone who is doing it because they want to make the world a better place will feel satisfied if the business and its proposal is successful, even if they’re not rich from it. Someone who wants to make money will work hard for that success but abandon things if they feel it’s not going to make them rich. It’s important you know which one you’re dealing with. It’s best if you’re both idealistic or both looking to make money. Cofounders on opposite poles of the values spectrum is a formula for conflict.

How will decisions get made?

This can be answered in a variety of ways, but basically you want to know if the cofounders make all the decisions or if decision-making will be more democratic and include other key startup contributors. A lot of startup activities depend on solid decision-making practices, so it’s important that you and your cofounder are aligned on how this should be done. Do they favor hierarchy or collaboration? Or do they believe some decisions should be made by the cofounders while others could be brought to the rest of the team for their contribution. If you each have totally different ideas about how to decide things, you’re going to start running into trouble on Day 1.

Are our skills complementary?

It may seem like a good idea to bring on a co-founder who has a lot in common with you. You could bond over your shared likes and talents. However, this is not an ideal match for a couple of reasons. First, while it might seem like friendly compatibility, having skills that are too similar sets you up to be competitors. Startups are small companies and there is only room for one person to hold each major role. One captain to help the ship sail. Two captains, and you’re asking for mutiny. It’s best to look for someone with different experiences and skills so that you don’t get in each other’s way. If you’re great at leadership, they might be great at coding. If you’re great at financial planning, they might be great at leading meetings and networking. Save yourself from competing with your cofounder and find someone who can fill in important gaps that you can’t.

What experience do you have?

There can tend to be a lot of cowboy mentality in startups where anything goes and as long as someone is up for the adventure, they qualify to work with you. But when you’re talking about a role as significant as being a cofounder, it’s important to know their background. Have they ever founded or worked in a startup before? What was their experience? Was it successful or did it fail? If so, why? What did they learn from it? Don’t just listen to their answers, look for clues to some very important qualities such as:

  • Resilience - do they have what it takes to weather the lean times with you and have they demonstrated this in their past work experiences?
  • Ownership- do they own their experiences, including their mistakes, or was everything always someone else’s fault?
  • Wisdom - what has their experience taught them that they can use to benefit your startup?

What’s your end game?

This question gauges ambition. How far do they want to go? Are they looking to dawdle in a startup for fun or are they looking to create Fortune 500 company? How seriously are they taking all of this? What are they willing to sacrifice in order to achieve success? At what point will they feel they have achieved success? When they pay their rent with their startup salary? When they make their first million? Their first billion? It’s important that you and your cofounder have similar ambitions. Otherwise, one of you will feel like the other one isn’t working enough or, conversely, is pushing too hard. Cofounders who move forward at a steady and compatible pace stand a greater chance of experiencing mutual success.

Let them interview you

This is likely the part that most people will skip over or forget about entirely. But, making this a two-way interview sets the right tone for respectful collaboration. It shows you care about their questions and concerns and that you believe in transparency and are forthcoming with your answers. By letting them ask you some questions, there’s a higher chance to find a good match. By opening up about each of your experiences, expectations and values, you can assess if this is a good fit or not. Including this step in the interview process could save you from having regrets about your choices later.

Conclusion

The interview for your cofounder is a vital step toward your startup’s success. Make sure to ask the right questions to find the cofounder who will build a successful company with you and not work against your efforts due to incompatibility. Dig deep during the interviews and discover the candidate’s core values. Do they match yours? If not, don’t stop interviewing until the right person comes along.