How to Find & Things to Avoid when Recruiting Co-founder

The Chicken Seller. How to find a co-founder

Don’t be this guy

Since shutting down, I’ve found myself for the first time on the other side of the co-founder equation, getting recruited. While all of those offers have been very kind and very flattering, some have tended towards the bizarre.

Here are just a few tips on how to find a co-founder and things to avoid when trying to pitch someone. (Names redacted.)

Don’t Bullshit Me

I know about the famous “reality distortion field.” Unless your name is Mesmero the Magnificent, it’s probably not going to work on me.

Saying things like, “You’ll earn a salary, as soon as we close our funding round,” make me throw up slightly in my mouth. I know you think you’ll have funding in three months, “as soon as you finish the prototype.”

The most clever thing you can possibly say to me is, “I don’t know.”

Q: “When will you have funding secured?”
A: “I don’t know, I’m targeting a six month schedule.”

Q: “What will be your best channel for customer acquisition?”
A: “I don’t know. We’re testing a viral loop, direct sales, and affiliate marketing.”

Those are answers I respect, because you don’t know everything and neither do I. That’s why it’s a startup.

“I’m an idea guy”

I don’t really care if you’re an idea guy. Ideas are a dime a dozen. Why should I work on your idea instead of my idea?

Along the same lines, don’t try to convince me your idea is unique. It’s not.

If it is unique, it’s probably uniquely bad. Competition is a good thing. It means there actually might be a market for your idea.

Don’t Even Ask for an NDA

This just makes me laugh. If I can steal your idea by just hearing it, there is no defensible business model there.

[UPDATE: It is of course perfectly reasonable to ask for an NDA before giving away the super secret sauce. But starting a conversation with, “Just sign here” is simply unrealistic.

In a year and a half and hundreds of cusdev interviews, I’ve never heard of any success stories with this technique. It simply limits the number of people you can talk to.

As a corollary, cold call a VC and try and get them to sign an NDA before your first meeting. Then please email me with the number of meetings you manage to get. I’ll offer a bounty of $100 for every meeting you get from a cold call to a VC.

As another corollary, try to get a date with a girl and get her to sign an NDA before the date so she doesn’t tell anyone else your super secret pickup lines.]

Be Clear

If I’m going to take orders from someone else, I’d like to know that you can actually give clear orders. If you can’t describe how we’d work together, maybe you should join my startup and I’ll be the CEO.

Show Value

What have you done so far to start company? How many customers have you spoken to? Do you have a website up?

If you’re waiting for a technical co-founder to put up a landing page with signup form, you’re lazy.

If you’re waiting for a marketing guy to talk to customers, you’ll never understand the target market.

Show Metrics

If you ask me to be a co-founder or even just a consultant, you’re essentially asking me to invest in your company with my time. As an investor, I will expect the same metrics an investor would get. Don’t tell me your metrics are a secret and please don’t tell me you have to “look them up.”

If you don’t know your metrics off the top of your head (at least the important ones), I don’t want you as my CEO. If you’re not willing to share them with me, then why would I invest in your company? Would you ever say to an investor, “I don’t trust you with my signup conversion rate?”

Don’t Make Up Words

Please don’t invent your own language for your startup methodology. Unless your name is Eric Ries and it’s called “lean startup.”

(Seriously, you’d be surprised how often this comes up.)

…and lastly

Don’t Negotiate with Me

I’m sure that there are a lot of people who will disagree with me on this because it’s largely a question of the corporate culture.

I want to work with someone who has faith in me and values my contribution. If you’re negotiating my equity percentage by nickels and dimes, I probably don’t want to work with you.

If you offer me 1% of the equity, I’ll do 1% of the work. If you offer me 25% percent, I’ll do 25%. If you offer me 60%, I’ll insist on only taking 25% and I’ll work 24/7 for you. That’s my philosophy of finding the perfect co-founder!

Discussion (16 comments)

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  2. Josh Strike says:

    Tristan, the only thing I disagree with on an emotional level is the NDA business. Obviously if the only thing they’re “protecting” is a business model, then you’re right. But on the other hand — and I’m not sure how often this applies to web startups, probably not that often — there may be real inventions (patent-pending or not) that you’d be privy to the inner workings of, whose success or failure doesn’t hinge on any particular model. Moreover, it’s a show of good faith to sign something that says you won’t disclose what you don’t already know.

    I never heard of startupSquare, but I do feel like this post is kind of a dickish way of saying you’ve already done yours, you know more than the puppies, and that (while you’re available) you’re not (that) available. Eh? I think you could probably come out and say in all honesty that underneath it all, that’s what this post was about.

    Well, just because the hyped-up world of web 2/3/456789 startups hasn’t had much worth protecting with an NDA in the past few years, doesn’t mean that a guy who’s looking for work ought not sign one just to show a measure of grace. But then, that’s just my opinion.

    1. Tristan says:

      Josh, I totally agree with you.

      There are certainly secret sauce recipes that are worth protecting and I am certainly being dickish about it. (So thanks for calling me on that.) I think the only misunderstanding here is the scope of that first conversation.

      There no reason to disclose your secret google busting search algorithm on the first date. I would argue that there is NO circumstance where you can’t have a frank discussion about your business model, your competitors, and your future business that requires an NDA right off the bat.

      I think it all boils down to the investor analogy. No VC is going to take a meeting with an entrepreneur who requires an NDA first unless that entrepreneur is Jobs, Zuck, etc. A co-founder is investing in the business, they should get the same pitch if not more information.

      After all, a VC invests someone else’s money. A co-founder is risking their entire future on your vision.

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  4. trevelyan says:

    > Don’t tell me your metrics are a secret and please
    > don’t tell me you have to “look them up.”

    Just to chip in, while I think team openness with metrics is important as a measure of trust, it’s perfectly fine for someone not to know all of their numbers off the top of their head. There are plenty of things that everyone agrees are *good* to do that fall by the wayside when you are a single founder.

    1. Tristan says:

      Yes, very true. Totally agree. Thanks for pointing that out. No one can memorize all metrics. But knowing the number of uniques for a website and the conversion % is a no brainer.

      I really like focusing on a couple key metrics at a time (I like McClure’s AARRR metrics system.) Prevents focusing on too many numbers at once.

  5. Tom Crowl says:

    Thanks for this… Looks like I’m needing a co-founder. I don’t think I’ll be able to avoid coming across like an idiot unfortunately… despite the advice! I’m completely faking it… and have been from the start.


    1) I do have a functional demo and FAQ at !!!

    2) And a patent just issued on core method: USPTO Patent #7,870,067 issued 1/11/’11

    3) And a bunch of erudite crapola on my blog getting some serious egghead interest recently.

    4) And a now recognized connection to the concept in some pretty good circles.

    What I DON’T have is any experience in this process…

    The Commons-dedicated Account Network

    A self-supporting , FOR PROFIT, Commons-owned neutral network of accounts for both political and charitable monetary contribution… which for fundamental reasons of scale must allow a viable micro-transaction. Such a network ideally should maintain its own cloud and bank. Accounts may be created and/or maintained with zero balances and/or only momentary balances during a pass-through transfer (monetization model requires no burden on the actual transaction.)

    What CAN form a root function for a STABLE peer-to-peer network with broad-based persistant utility? (pssst… something Facebook lacks!)

    A very abbreviated logic chain:

    1. There’s potential in the political and speech-related micro-transaction (networked citizen lobbing, news, journalism, etc.) if it can be harnessed.
    2. Problem is the practicality, cost and hassle of the microtransaction.
    3. This problem is solved by system similar to x-box points (which is how they handle microtransaction issue for certain system content).
    4. Additional problem is catalyzing the network
    5. Addition of charitable potentials solves this for a variety of reasons related to system monetization and a more general user-utility
    6. Patent has just been granted for this mechanism: Patent #7,870,067
    7. Establishment of this useful network opens up new fields for empowered association
    8. There are theoretical cultural/political reasons for need for such a system but points 1-7 above are about a PRAGMATIC implementation.
    9. Should any of the points above be in doubt (which is reasonable) ask a question.


    Social Networks & The Social Organism: Healing the Breach

    Empowering the Commons: The Dedicated Account (Part I)

    Capability ENABLES Responsibility

    Fixing the Political Relationship

    P.S. While essentially a simple financial innovation… To see how it may relate to privacy and Online ID see the following article by Nancy Scola at TechPresident as well as my comment:

    What’s to Actually Like About “Obama’s Online ID”? CDT’s Aaron Brauer-Rieke Explains…

    Inquiries welcome… investment and assistance even more so.

    P.P.S. People tell me the biz model is extremely viable… that’s good! Though catalyzing the network could be an interesting process. BTW, What do business plans look like? I want one of those things too…

    1. Tristan says:


      I rescued your comment from the spam box. I doubt you’ll get many responses here, but just for writing something that long I think you deserve a medal.

      I would however suggest that you visit and shorten you pitch a wee bit. You’ll probably have better luck if you can explain it more succinctly.

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  7. Erik says:

    Well, in the NDA and negotiation point you should probably change your position, but otherwise I agree.
    NDA’s are basically just a “best practice” to save the growing company against some unknown troubles. It is not a lot of work and helps to protect the company that you want to invest a lot of time in. I would argue that a founder who doesn’t do NDA’s shows signs of carelessness and maybe laziness. Both are attributes you don’t like to see in your CEO, right?
    With negotiation it is the same. If a founder comes to me and offers me (without knowing me absolutely well) 60% of his start-up it can be a guy who is not confident enough, who can not bargain with our future customers, investors, business partners well and altogether doesn’t look like a successful human. Of course he should bargain with me and I should bargain with him. And when I, as the techical guy, end up a little worse then what might feel “fair” to me, it probably shows I have found the CEO I want to work with.

    I very much agree that a founder should know his numbers. Of course he doesn’t need to know everything. But the basic points he should not need to look up. It doesn’t mean that he should not look up his charts, excel sheets and you-name-it. But even when he looks at his charts you can see if he knows what he is talking about. A guy who put in time to create meaningful numbers has stories to tell, because it really used a lot of his energy, time and probably also some luck. Also, the most interesting numbers are most often these, that you can not find easily or maybe even are not allowed to have. And last but not least there should also be numbers he still doesn’t have.

    1. Tristan says:

      Erik, thanks for the detailed response!

      re: negotiating
      If forced, I’d say in comes down to company cultural preference. A team full of savvy negotiators always trying to get the upper hand over each other may execute together as a brilliant team. Could be, I don’t have the data to disprove it. I just find it unlikely.

      End of the day, working with a co-founder shouldn’t be a zero-sum game. That’s just energy spent watching out for individual interests that could’ve gone into building the company.

      re: numbers
      Same opinion here. There are great companies that are super secretive. I just won’t work effectively in them. Others will find it outstanding. Ask Apple employees if they enjoy not knowing what they’re building. It would be an interesting study.

      re: NDA
      As above, I think if you start a conversation with, “sign this NDA” you won’t have much success. In a year and a half and hundreds of cusdev interviews on finding co-founders, I have never heard of anyone having success in this manner. Willing to be proven wrong tho. Send me an email please.

      Before giving away the secret sauce? Ok…that’s certainly reasonable.

      1. Tristan says:

        I’m also editing the post to make it more clear about when an NDA is appropriate. You’re the third person to mentioned that.

  8. Tomo Huynh says:

    Tristan, I’m sorry to hear that StartupSquare has shut down. I was wondering why I hadn’t received any email updates in awhile…

  9. oli wood says:

    No other words needed. Having gone looking for a co-founder 3 months ago, this is spot on.

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  19. Alpheus says:

    I happen to have a desire to create a startup, so reading this is greatly appreciated!

    As it so happens, I’m looking for a cofounder. My idea is to gather a handful of people who would like to learn Common Lisp and mathematics, and see of we could come up with something profitable. While I don’t know what that will be just yet, I suspect that analytics, finite element analysis, and algebraic topology as applied to robotics and sensors, are personal interests. Oh, and analog BEAM robotics, too.

    If I had an NDA to sign, it would be something along the lines of “feel free to take any idea we discuss and run with it; if I decide to run with the same idea, may the best implementation win! Or better yet, may there be enough room in the market for both solutions.” I have mixed feelings about keeping secret sauce secret; secrecy can be a double-edged sword!

    What, you aren’t interested? What are you, sane or something?!?

    (Having said that, I can see one potential reason why my idea just might be worthwhile, even if it doesn’t work as expected: as a mathematician, I can guarantee that anyone involved will come out exposed to interesting mathematical ideas!)

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