While I believe the best way to evaluate potential co-founders is to work together, often times the first steps in the process are quick introductions and elevator pitches. In this part, I outline some tips for looking at idea pitches as starting points to exploring potential long-term working relationships rather than quick filters.
There are many characteristics that can be used to evaluate a potential co-founder but determining whether we think their first idea is a “good one” shouldn’t be the only one. We need to focus on the whole startup process. Ideas should be viewed as ways to start the conversation with the understanding that no startup idea is really “good”. We should be evaluating our common interest, passion for solving problems and our ability to think and work together. Here are some quick tips for reframing the way you think about evaluating co-founders when listening to pitches.
1) Focus on the problem
If the pitch doesn’t outline a problem, ask them to explain it. Failure to describe what problem is being addressed is more common than you might expect (this can be an effect of the curse of knowledge.) Is it a common problem? Is it a problem you’ve encountered personally? Is the problem compelling? Is this a space that you are, or can see yourself being, passionate about? Can you already imagine other ways to potentially attack the same problem? Would it be worth something to gain experience grappling with the problem?
Beware of ideas or pitches that have no clear problem. This is often a sign of a “technology looking for a market”. Startups founded in this way have a difficult time evolving their initial idea because they have no clear way of evaluating their progress.
2) Questions, not blueprints.
Since startups rarely achieve success with their initial ideas, it’s useful to think of the initial idea as an exploratory question. Try rephrasing the idea in a way that allows this exploration. This is an approach proposed by Paul Graham.
There’s a real difference, because an assertion provokes objections in a way a question doesn’t. If you say: I’m going to build a web-based spreadsheet, then critics– the most dangerous of which are in your own head– will immediately reply that you’d be competing with Microsoft, that you couldn’t give people the kind of UI they expect, that users wouldn’t want to have their data on your servers, and so on.
A question doesn’t seem so challenging. It becomes: let’s try making a web-based spreadsheet and see how far we get. And everyone knows that if you tried this you’d be able to make something useful. Maybe what you’d end up with wouldn’t even be a spreadsheet. Maybe it would be some kind of new spreasheet-like collaboration tool that doesn’t even have a name yet. You wouldn’t have thought of something like that except by implementing your way toward it.
Treating a startup idea as a question changes what you’re looking for. If an idea is a blueprint, it has to be right. But if it’s a question, it can be wrong, so long as it’s wrong in a way that leads to more ideas.- Paul Graham ‘Ideas for Startups’
3) Gauge their willingness to explore
One of the most important aspects of being co-founders is being able to evolve ideas together. Offer alternative ideas for attacking the problem. Even if you think the proposed solution is a good one, offer how you might attack the issue differently. How does the person react? Do they seem annoyed that you’re stepping on their idea? Are they defensive? Or do they embrace your suggestions and start building on them? If you get a feeling of collaboration, possibility and exploration, that’s a good sign that this person may be a good potential co-founder.
4) Execution trumps intuition
Lastly, if you’re even remotely interested in the question or the problem space, spend a small amount of time doing something to help out. Think of this time as an investment in learning what kind of working dynamic you might have together. Keep this first set of engagements lightweight and be clear there is little or no commitment from either of you. It can be something as simple as a follow up meeting to give advice based on your particular area of expertise.
You will learn a lot about each other in this way, and equally as important, you’ll will come to more fully understand the problem and idea. The only way to truly understand the opportunities of a problem / solution space is to actually work on it. It has been my experience that some of the problems I became most passionate about were ones that I initially dismissed. My first startup was one such case. I only understood the exciting potential once I started building something.
Next time you’re in a position to evaluate potential co-founders based on quick conversations, dial back the the “good idea” filter. Instead of listening passively to an elevator pitch, think of it as an opportunity to kick-start the startup process. Imagine that you’re already co-founders and view it as a brainstorming session where you engage and explore the problem and possible solutions. You may find that together you will come up with something that transcends the original idea. That’s a first step towards becoming co-founders.