How important are complementary co-founders?


Im a technical founder thats on the look out for a business minded co-founder. I am interested in the business side (I want to build a real business around my product) but I recognise that this is currently not a strength of mine. E.g. Sales, Marketing, Business admin etc...

It definitely seems that complementary skill sets amongst the founding team would be advantageous but because I generally don’t yet socialise or operate in the same circles as these business minded people im having trouble finding the right person.

I meet alot of interesting technical people in my circles, some of who are business inclined like myself. So for me it would seem much easier to get another technical founder onboard and then perhaps contract the skills of a "business" person (perhaps on commission?), or maybe switch focus myself and learn the business side.

Im wondering what your thoughts might be on what is reasonable in terms of a founding teams skill sets and what could perhaps be sourced externally? You can crowd source technical skills, but has anyone out there ever successfully crowd sourced business skills?

How important are complementary co-founders?



asked May 23 '11 at 14:30
404 points

5 Answers


It depends, but in general it's important for founders to have complementary skills. Someone has to nurture the business side of your business, otherwise it will likely fail. Startups are hard enough as it is, and even when things seem to line up perfectly, you have a high chance of failure.

Our startup faced the same situation you describe. It is just myself and my co-founder, who I also happen to be engaged to. We both have technical backgrounds, I’m a computer engineer and he’s a computer scientist, and no business experience. But we both knew that we needed someone to handle the business side if we wanted a reasonable chance of success. So, as you already noted, the options were for one of us to take that task on, or to find someone else to do it for us. In our case it was an easy choice, and I took on the responsibility of learning business development.

But this doesn’t mean that this is the right choice for everyone. Just because it has worked for us so far doesn’t mean it will work for everyone.

Some words of caution

You must enjoy it. In general, learning business development is a lot easier than learning a technical skill. I think it is much easier for a technical person to pick up business skills than it is for a business person to pick up technical skills (there are exceptions). But just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should do. Don’t do it because you can, do it because you enjoy it. In the short term it’s fine to take on a task you don’t enjoy because they need to get done, and in fact startup founders will encounter this a lot. However, in the long run, you must work on something you enjoy. Passion is very important in a startup. In our case, it worked out nicely because I enjoy business more than the technical stuff.

Trust is key. Your co-founder should be someone you trust, not simply someone who can complement your skills. Ideally you want to find a co-founder you have worked with in the past, or have some kind of relationship with. If you know a lot of technical folks, and you think you can learn the business side, as well as enjoy doing it, then it might work if you do the business stuff and bring on a technical co-founder. Who better to trust than yourself with business development and your company’s finances. But only you can answer that.

Learn basic business skills anyways. Even if you decide that you want to be the technical guy, and outsource the business side, it will be to your benefit to learn basic business skills. Especially in the legal, tax, and accounting areas. You don’t have to be an expert, but you should know enough to:

  1. catch obvious mistakes,
  2. know if someone is cheating you,
  3. know what questions to ask, so you are better prepared and can make better decisions.
Know when to ask for help. No matter how good you are, there will be times when you'll need help. Be it because of lack of time, or lack of knowledge. If you do decide to take on the business development role, realize that "the business side" is a very broad category that encompasses a lot of competencies, and you won't be able to do it all. Part of being the business guy is having the discipline to know when you need to bring in a professional.

Other ways to complement each other. Business vs. technical isn’t the only way two founders can complement each other. Before choosing a co-founder, evaluate the individual’s other skills and personality traits. Choosing a co-founder is almost as crucial as choosing a spouse - you need to make sure you can live with this person for many years to come. To continue with my example, in our case we complement each other in other ways as well. I’m extremely detail oriented, whereas my co-founder is a big picture guy. I am a lot more outgoing than he is, so networking is a lot easier for me. Note, there is no right or wrong here.

Also, these other questions may help you:

What skills to look for in a technical cofounder? How do I find a technical co-founder? How to find the right co-founder? What's the best way to find/evaluate a Marketing co-founder? Questions tagged with co-founder

answered May 24 '11 at 01:02
Zuly Gonzalez
9,194 points


It really just depends on your own skill set and the type of problem you are solving.

  • Viral products probably don't need a sales guy.
  • Enterprise b2b products probably do need a rock star sales guy, and not a designer.
  • Consumer facing products need to look and function beautifully, so a designer might be more important.

I don't think it's all that important to have a "hacker-type "and a "hustler-type". What's more important is that everything that is absolutely crucial gets done extraordinarily well.

If you're CEO can't code a line, but is technical minded and outsources just fine, then does it really matter that he can't hack as long as the programming gets done?

DropBox, Apple, and Google all started as two tech-types because it was a challenging problem and eventually one of them moved into the CEO role. AirBnB stated as one designer, one hustler, and one hacker because they needed PR, a working product, and great design to succeed. Your founding team should be able to solve the problem at hand with their skills.

I have to agree with Joseph that basic compatibility is very important in the early days. Your idea will probably change, so you need people who can morph and grow with the business.

And here's two articles by Dharmesh Shah on cofounders:

answered May 23 '11 at 23:46
Andy Cook
2,309 points


You seem to be aware that you have not just a desire but a need for a business-minded co-founder. If there was ever an intuition to trust, this is it. While it is fine that you are "business inclined" yourself, do not underestimate the value of experience. Think of how it would be if the opposite were true: you and your peers are business people who are technically inclined. Do you think in those circumstances that you would be likely to succeed by just leaping in to coding? You would be much better off to find a professional.

The blunt answer is it is time for you to expand your circle of friends. Get outside of your comfort zone and your peer group. Go to meetups, shows and conferences that are not solely drawing tech people. If you don't have the flexibility to get in to shows and conferences during the work week/work day, meetups are great. They often happen after work hours. Check out Meetup, there are likely many possibilities near you.

I am not discouraging you from learning the "business side". There was a time when you didn't know anything technical either. You have to start from where you are. But in this case, you need someone who is already there. Find them, get involved in the business side, and grow.

answered May 24 '11 at 01:41
Kenneth Vogt
2,917 points
  • "it is time for you to expand your circle of friends" yep, so true. I am becoming acutely aware of this and I am actually becoming paranoid that this could be a real problem for me. E.g. networking. As you have said its time for me to get outside of my comfort zone – Tinny 13 years ago


You CANNOT build your "dream company" or startup, by yourself alone. You need the expertise of different people with different skills.

Sun Microsystems and Borland are examples of good companies that where too much technical, and less business and sales related, and ended being absorbed ot sold to other companies.

"...technical founder onboard and then perhaps contract the skills of a "business" person (perhaps on commission?), or maybe switch focus myself and learn the business side...."

Why not BOTH. You do need a "business" person, but its important that person does have a little knowledge of the technical stuff, and viceversa, you or other technical individual must have some knowledge of the "business" stuff, otherwise, won't work.

Some companies fail because:

(1) they have directed by only technical people or,

(2) they have directed by only business people or,

(3) they do have both technical people and business people, but doesnt' work well togheter

Good luck with your startup !!!

answered May 24 '11 at 02:29
141 points
  • +1 for noting that you can't do it all yourself. – Kenneth Vogt 13 years ago


Tinny, it's the most important thing you can do.

Note - complementary isn't a synonym for "opposite". It's important that you have common language and can relate, and it's important that you shore up eachother's weaknesses. For example - my cofounder (@jrodgers ) and I have technical experience, but complement eachother really well.

Here are some of the things I look for when thinking "co-founder":

  1. Do we push each other to perform better then when we're on our own?
  2. Would you trust your co-founder to accurately represent your ideas if you couldn't be at an important meeting?
  3. Do you enjoy their company?
  4. Can you have a high-speed conversation, without having to pause to explain the terminology you're using?
  5. Can you assign responsibilities to each other, with out second-guessing their ability to deliver?
  6. Are they as much as a hustler as you are?

Good luck!

P.S. Whether you believe in the book or not, I'd recommend reading up on the "dynamic duo" chapters in Blueprint to a Billion as it gives another good perspective on the topic of co-founders/leaders.

answered May 23 '11 at 21:06
Joseph Fung
1,542 points
  • Yeah, relationships are probably the most important aspect of business. My question was more directed at the getting things done angle of startups. E.g. I have trouble figuring out how to do proper market research, does this mean I need to be looking for a co-founder who understands this? Or can these holes in my skills be filled externally? (Contractor) Or maybe the relationship is king and every other consideration is a distant second? – Tinny 13 years ago
  • The relationship and dynamic is important. There will always be things you don't know how to do, that you and your co-founder need to try and complete even without experience. Finding a co-founder that is willing to work with you to do that is critical. – Joseph Fung 13 years ago

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