Looking for a co-founder? These entrepreneurs have advice for you

March 9, 2017

Building a startup can be a tough journey alone — which is why many successful companies are the result of a strong co-founding team. We talked with some of Chicago tech’s top co-founders about how they met, why they went into business together and their advice to entrepreneurs for finding co-founders.

 

Answer from Sprout Social co-founders CEO Justyn Howard, Chief Creative Officer Gil Lara, CTO Aaron Rankin and Director of Web and Mobile Engineering Peter Soung. Their platform allows companies to have a unified social engagement strategy while also providing analytics solutions and other tools to social media users. 

How did you all meet?

GL: Justyn and I had a long history as friends, with wildly different but complementary backgrounds (event design and enterprise software sales). We’d been tinkering on a few things before meeting our technical counterparts. Aaron and Peter got to know each other as engineering colleagues at a previous company and kept in touch through a bowling league.

In the spring of 2009, Justyn and Aaron’s wives brought them together on a double date at Violet Hour. They bonded over whisky and software and agreed to talk more the following day. From those initial conversations it was pretty obvious we should find a way to work together, and Sprout took shape shortly after. We’re all forever indebted to the original ladies of Sprout who created the original sparks between the two groups.

Why did you decide to create the company together?

JH: We identified a need for business tools on top of the fast-growing social networks and felt this new business-to-consumer communication channel would be transformative. We all rallied around the idea and continued to build in our spare time until we had something tangible that was providing real value to our early users. Things snowballed from there.

What advice would you give entrepreneurs and co-founders just starting out?

JH: We got incredibly lucky with our founding team. It’s rare that two, let alone four, co-founders would still be together after six and a half years with everyone contributing at a high level. The four of us have a lot of respect for one another and very complementary skills, which have provided a pretty strong foundation to build from. If you find yourself clashing often with co-founders, there’s a misalignment in the vision somewhere that should be talked about openly and promptly.

AR: It’s really important that the founders are aligned on what drives success. I’m talking about the essence of your business, not the revenue; that’s a byproduct. We’re a product company and we sell it as a subscription. We make something and customers buy it, month after month, because they find it valuable. Sprout’s success is driven by continuously providing a great product and customer experience. A lot goes into that, from the actual form and function, to the care we put into customer interactions, to the balance of what we say yes or no to, and so on. That stuff matters from day one. Get everyone on the same page, understanding and respecting how you contribute toward those goals.

GL: Once you have some funding and the means to do so, prioritize hiring people who can do the things that you aren’t good at and/or cannot seem to focus on. Giving up some of these things may feel unnatural because you’re used to doing it all, but you have to fill those gaps quickly and embrace the growth phase.

PS: Be open to having a discussion of done vs. perfect. Shipping something is better than tinkering to make something that you think is perfect — it never will be. Along the same lines, it’s important to iterate quickly upon that first MVP and to have high levels of communication with the early group.

 

Answers from UrbanBound co-founders Jeff Ellman and Michael Krasman. The company helps employers offer relocation benefits to employees with software that optimizes the process. 

How did you meet?

Jeff and Michael met in 2000 — Jeff had just started a recruiting business that he wanted to scale across college campuses, and Michael recently sold his company that already had this college campus presence Jeff was seeking to find. Hoping to leverage Michael’s knowledge in the space, Jeff brought him on as a consultant. As you can imagine, one 22-year-old hiring another 22-year-old created quite the learning experience. However, one of the greatest things they learned had little to do with recruiting, and more to do with the passion they both shared for working together and building businesses to solve complex problems. Four companies later, and they are still continuing to live that passion.

Why did you decide to create the company together?

Once Jeff and Michael recognized their shared passion for building businesses, they quickly recognized another shared goal — one that’s been carried through to each and every company they’ve built: solving meaningful problems that everyone can relate to. Problems such as helping people find jobs (Humatal), helping people find a new home (Homescout), or helping businesses grow by hiring top talent (Hireology). UrbanBound is a fusion of each one of these passions woven into one company, as it continues to fill the void caused by antiqued HR processes and brings relocation online and into the digital world.

What advice would you give to entrepreneurs and co-founders just starting out?

Entrepreneurship is a 24/7 job, and you have to be able to fill many different roles while simultaneously keeping many those many different sectors happy and challenged. We have employees who rely on us, investors to answer to and clients with expectations that need to be met. Put another way, if you’re in it solely for the money, being an entrepreneur is not the right path to take. You need to have a strong passion for the problem you’re solving — it’s the only way to make a business succeed. As an entrepreneur, you'll go to bed thinking about work and you'll wake up thinking about work, but as long as you've got the best team behind you that is dedicated to turning your idea into a reality, it'll be worth it.

 

Answers from Yuri Malina, VP of product and co-founder of SwipeSense, which aims to eliminate hospital-acquired infections by closely tracking hand hygiene. Their network of sensors and software lets doctors focus on providing care.   

How did you two meet?

Mert [Iseri] and I met in our first year at Northwestern University, when we were randomly assigned to neighboring dorm rooms. We pretty much avoided each other for the first several months of school, until we both joined the crew team and were forced to get to know each other when we were assigned to row in the same boat.

Why did you decide to create the company together?

Prior to starting our company, Mert and I had spent several years working together on the growth of Design for America (DFA), a national network of students using design to solve social challenges founded at Northwestern. We were motivated to start our company out of a joint belief that people dying from preventable infections in hospitals is a moral wrong and that the ideas we developed during our time at DFA, if commercialized effectively, could eliminate this problem once and for all.

What advice would you give entrepreneurs and co-founders just starting out?

For co-founders to form an effective partnership, by far the most important thing is for you to share a common goal. By starting a business together, you are signing up for long hours and dark nights spent tackling a stream of problems that will challenge, stretch and frustrate you. You will disagree, you will argue. If, on top of all this, you cannot agree on a shared vision of success, your mission is doomed from the start.

 

Answers from Learncore co-founder Ethan Linkner. Learncore offers cloud-based training software to improve employee performance and productivity. 

How did you meet?

Vishal [Shah] and Ethan met in Spanish class during their junior year of high school. You could say the this was their first stab at collaboration because neither were any good, but their teamwork earned them both As. The two met their third co-founder, Ryan [Leavitt], at the University of Michigan.

Why did you decide to create the company together?

Education has always been a topic that both Vishal and Ethan have been passionate about. Frankly we were frustrated by the status quo of outdated and ineffective learning systems. The only way to learn was the same way our grandparents would have done it, yet the whole world around has changed. So we decided to do something about it.

What advice would you give entrepreneurs and co-founders just starting out?

Both people need to be brutally honest with each other and 100-percent ego free. If someone's title begins to win rather the best idea, the end is near.

Expect 10-plus intense years with a lot of ups and downs. You will end up leaning on this person even more than your wife or husband.

We like to say, "As a co-founder, you have be really good at being really good." Your role expands far beyond industry expertise. Your hands cross every department. It is critical to be executing on the things that will move the needle for your business.

 

Images via featured companies. Responses have been edited for length and clarity. 

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