Start a company with a stranger

Posted 01 May 2017
Branded image representing two men speaking

Don’t start a company alone. It’s obvious why not: share the stress, double the productivity, and have someone to celebrate the big wins with. Picking the right person is as important as getting to the right idea, and, in fact, is an essential part of doing so. Many will advise that you should pick a friend you trust to take the ride with you, and there are dozens of examples in the friends-to-co founders pipeline.

Except it’s bad advice.

Don’t settle for a cofounder of convenience

Just because it’s convenient, doesn’t mean it’s meant to be. Imagine making the biggest career decision of your life based on the same principle as “if we’re still single at 30, let’s get married”. It feels like scraping the bottom of the barrel. Picking your friend who’s conveniently also just finished college, or been made redundant, to be your cofounder just because you’re both available and in the “same place” is unlikely to be successful. 

It might go well, in which case you’re an exception to the rule. But if it doesn’t work out, it can be so painful that you can’t help but resent your cofounder. They might start off as your best friend, but if you fail, they won’t stay that way. 

Being friends won’t improve your chances. Don’t settle for a friend because it’s easy – you could end up a statistic in the 14% of companies that fail because of a weak founding team. 

You’re not dating your cofounder, so don’t act like it

Don’t test the relationship by having deep, meaningful conversations over a glass of wine at a nearby bar. While it’s important to make sure that you have the same ideas about things like which roles you’ll have, the equity split, and what your working culture will be like, you won’t learn anything about how far you could go by sharing your dreams and values with each other. The only real test of a strong cofounding team is productivity. 

Productive teams are successful teams. The right person is whoever you can get the farthest with, fastest. You might not click on a personal level straight away, but you drive each other to generate ideas quickly and prove or disprove hypotheses at pace. The best teams that form at EF are highly productive from day one. We say ‘productivity is traction for teams’, where each individual feels more productive because they’re working alongside the other person.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t use some speed dating tactics to get where you want

Fast tracking the process of finding the right person means relying on some tried and tested methods. At EF, our first priority is making sure that everyone in the room is committed to the outcome, and worthy of it. The people we select to join the programme need to want to found a startup now. They’re impatient, ambitious, and exceptional. 

It makes a big difference. Even if you’re trying to find a cofounder organically, sifting through dozens of people who may not be the outliers you’re looking for is a huge drain on your most precious resource: time. 

We select only the people we believe have the highest chance of success, because they have an edge either in a specific market, or with a technology, or there’s something else about them that is so exceptional they almost refuse to fail. At the same time, we make sure that they are prepared for what it really takes to found a startup, and ask them to commit full-time to building to maximize their chances of success. 

Prepare to break up, a lot

You won’t find the right person straight out of the gate. At EF, we create an environment that allows teams to ‘break up’ and then reform quickly with other potential founders. Most founders on our platform go through ~2.5 teams in 8 weeks. 

Often when finding a cofounder in the wild, the opportunity cost of breaking up seems huge because you have no other person lined up. Breaking up at EF means you still have access to a pool of other active, exceptional people that you can lean into testing and having hard conversations with the very next day. 

It still may feel deeply weird

It still seems weird to start a company with someone you met at EF, just like it used to seem weird to date someone you met online.

But now online dating exists, it’s impossible to believe people relied on trying to find a partner in a club or a bar. And now EF exists, it’s already hard to believe people try to find a cofounder, aimlessly, in online forums and meetup groups.

This has some interesting long run effects. Over time, what’s weird will change. Once there are good ways of meeting and filtering through people, partnering with someone the old way stops making sense. Why would you expect to meet your perfect partner randomly, ‘in real life’? It’s absurd to think that the best possible match is someone you just happened to have bumped into already.

Starting a startup with a stranger used to mean you didn’t have many options. But, in the long run, starting a startup with your friend will be the last resort.

So, should you start a company with your friend? Well, only if you have to.

Groundbreaking ideas don’t come about on their own. Here’s how to make sure you’re creating them.

Carlyle’s ‘Great Man’ — the individual and lone genius, creator and inventor is an illusion. The individual’s light bulb moment, eureka effect and sole journey towards an invention are also illusions.

Ideas are not formed in a vacuum. They are the product of a series of incremental, complex influences available only within a given network or paradigm.

Contrary to popular belief, great ideas are not formed within the confines of an individual isolated mind — instead great ideas are formed between minds.

EF is where great people and great ideas meet. In Innovation in the collective brain, Muthukrishna and Henrich, Professors in psychological and cultural evolutionary processes at LSE and Harvard respectively, write that “new ideas are born at the social nexus where previously isolated ideas meet”.

There’s another name for this ‘social nexus’; we call it Entrepreneur First — where extraordinary people form extraordinary ideas.

The origins of extraordinary ideas

Context is paramount in how new ideas come about. There is a popular narrative of the individual genius who, alone, discovers or invents something new and then passes their knowledge onto the masses. This is sometimes called a ‘He-paradigm’ understanding of innovation, as opposed to a ‘We-paradigm’ understanding that sees innovations as a result of a combination of the individual, converging ideas, social context and relationships.

This lone inventor narrative is not accurate. It’s a common misconception and here’s why.

Muthukrishna and Henrich, write about the ‘collective brain’ and how new ideas come about. The collective brain, they suggest, is a way of understanding how innovations gradually develop and evolve within societies or networks.

Within a given network, people collaborate, communicate, share ideas and arrive at ideas they would otherwise not have been able to.

Consider some of the world’s most revolutionary discoveries and inventions — the theory of evolution by natural selection, oxygen, calculus and the light bulb — there is debate surrounding the ‘inventor’ of all of these because they were all popularized by multiple people at similar times.

For example, evolutionary theory by both Darwin and Wallace, oxygen by Scheele, Priestley and Lavoisier, calculus by Newton and Liebniz, and, although Edison and Swan are popularly credited with inventing the lightbulb, there were at least 22 other inventors before their commercial success.

My personal favourite, and final, example of this is that the world’s leading tech giants, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Tim Berners-Lee were all born in the same year — 1955.

Whilst this might seem coincidental and shocking, it actually isn’t.

It’s a result of what Muthukrishna and Henrich call the ‘cultural recombination’ and ‘incremental improvement’ of ideas.

People immersed in the same network are likely to arrive upon the same ideas, and, within the collective brain, these ideas will sooner converge and blossom in this environment.

Innovations often are either the result of different ideas being recombined in new ways to produce new things, or are improved versions of already existing things. Both of these rely on collaboration and sharing of ideas.

So, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Tim Berners-Lee all enjoyed their individual interest in software engineering in a larger environment — in the great computer revolution — and with similar influences, experiences and triggers, this environment allowed their interests to accelerate and scale into the world’s most important companies and technologies.

EF's 'collective brain', and why you should join it

Individual creativity thrives off exposure to other people’s thoughts and beliefs.

Einstein was exposed to a variety of different ideas working at a patent office and gradually developed a wide network of connections and ideas with the leading scientists of the time, such as Niels Bohr, before publishing his world-changing work.

In a similar way, before he developed the world wide web with his peers, Berners-Lee worked at CERN and credits his new ideas to the ‘connected diversity’ that CERN’s ‘microcosm’ offered.

EF has nurtured a unique and diverse ecosystem of extraordinary individuals to achieve a similar ‘connected diversity’ and ‘microcosm’ effect. In doing so, there now exists a dynamic network of some of the smartest people, experienced investors and successful advisors.

This is why EF is unique.

Because, within this vibrant network of ambition and expertise, there are world changing ideas floating around and waiting to coalesce. EF gives individuals the capability to exploit their capacity.

Berners-Lee said that ‘things just came along at the right time’ when explaining how he considered it a lucky time to be interested in electronics and engineering because it was easy for children to get hold of basic equipment.

But why leave it to luck?

Why not ensure you’re in the right place at the right time to build a globally important company?

You can — because the right place is EF and the right time is now.