The other type of technical co-founder
Startups often need more than one core competency to be successful.
For example, an online pharmacy may need expertise with systems integrations and knowing how to run a pharmacy, a consumer app requires UI and backend skills, and a direct to consumer goods company needs to excel at branding and distribution.
In some cases, like Uber or Airbnb, no prior industry experience was required to build huge businesses. In others, Like PillPack or Glossier, the prior experience was essential. Yet, in PillPack, the industry experience was split (one founder had a tech background, the other had a background in Pharmacies) and, in the case of Glossier, all the key elements where inside Emily Weiss’s head (product, brand, distribution).
If you are starting a company, and are thinking about getting a cofounder to supplement some of the core needs of your startup, what can you learn from these disparate examples? Here are 3 ways to think about it.
One vs. a few brains
In the case of PillPack, I would think the partnerships, regulations, and logistics of an online pharmacy can be separated from the software requirements of running it. It is not a clean separation (otherwise it would be both online and a pharmacy), but strong enough that functional roles can be set up. In this case, you benefit from the parallelization and collaboration of two brains.
In the case of Glossier, it is really hard to separate brand, product, and distribution. If you have a vision for the brand than you must be able to articulate it in some form of content. Otherwise, it will be hard to build a business. And if you can articulate it, it will be for specific mediums: you will think of blog posts or Instagram posts. If you can only think of a 500-page book, then it likely won’t work either.
For Glossier, part of the magic is that all key elements are inside Emily’s brain. And they need to be because there is no real separation between the idea, the positioning of the idea, and the marketing of the idea.
Using the tool vs. inventing it
If Uber’s goal was to build a business on top of the taxi network or if Airbnb’s goal was to build a business on top of the hotel network, having co-founder expertise in the domain might have been relevant. For example, Atrium clearly needed a lawyer full time from day 1.
However, if you are trying to think about this space from the ground up, that prior experience may become a liability. That’s why, when you are inventing something new, the newcomer often has the advantage.
So, if prior experience is somewhat of a constant (that is: a given you have to work with), having someone with the right experience early on might be beneficial. But, if you are deliberately trying to ignore it, then it can be detrimental.
Advisor vs. team member
Do you need to talk to someone with specific expertise for almost every decision you make at the company? If you are early enough, a person with that expertise should likely be a co-founder. But, if you can do an hour a week and be ok, and if you need the expertise in only one brain, that perhaps an advisory role would work best.
In many cases, those 1-hour a week conversations can help you do two things: (1) get the needed mental model in one brain (your brain) and (2) meet the right person to do the full-time job at the company, when the time to bring them on board is right.
Do you need a cofounder?
There are way more effective ways to get moral support than sharing a big chunk of your company to a cofounder.
You should only have a co-founder of the business wouldn’t work without someone of their ability to augmenting the team from day 1. They know something you don’t, that knowledge and expertise are needed on a day to day basis, and it is OK if it is not your core competency.