Picking right partners is a challenge in startup world too, as they don’t just share the same mission and work load but also need to be each other’s emotional support
Trust is an important component of any partnership, and that’s why many founders look for a co-founder within their social circle
Archit Agarwal was 19 when he launched the feminine hygiene startup Sanfe within the incubator of the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, in 2017. Within a year, he realized he couldn’t manage operations alone, though he knew what product he wanted to create, and so began the hunt for a co-founder.
Finding the ideal partner is always a challenge, and in the startup world, the right co-founder can make or break a business. For the “original founder" who started the venture, bringing in a partner to share the load comes with a fair bit of anxiety: How much control will you allow the new person? Will they have the same passion? Will they face up to the challenges?
Agarwal worked with three classmates, but soon realized the outcomes they wanted were different from his. “They expected a stipend or immediate results," says Agarwal, now 21. “They didn’t see it as solving the problem of urinary tract infection among women." Finally, another classmate ticked all the boxes—Harry Sehrawat, 20, was good with supply chain, campaign launches and finance, and didn’t expect instant money or fame. “Getting the right team is important not only for your business but also when you approach investors," says Agarwal.
A co-founder not only has to have faith in the venture’s mission but also be willing to take the hard knocks that come with starting up, which include foregoing a salary to donning multiple hats and firefighting.
CIRCLE OF TRUST
Trust is an important component of any partnership, and that’s perhaps why many founders look for a co-founder within their social circle. Hitesh Rathi, 29, co-founder of Aadvik Food, which supplies camel and goat milk, met his co-founder Shrey Kumar, 29, through a friend in 2016. Initially, few of his friends, with whom Rathi had thought of the idea, were to join him, but when they backed out, he decided to start Aadvik alone in Delhi, in 2015.
Within four months, he realized it was nearly impossible to single-handedly look after sourcing, packing, delivery, content and marketing. A friend introduced Rathi to Kumar, an Indian School of Business alumnus then working at JK Lakshmi Cement. “Our wavelengths matched and he showed interest in the venture. We have not had major disagreements and allow each other to learn from mistakes," he says.
Both were clear about their roles from the start—Rathi handles production, finance, B2B sales and research and development, and Kumar looks after the e-commerce, operations, HR and marketing. There’s another advantage: Rathi says he’s had more time for himself after Kumar came on board.
Delhi-based Naina Ruhail, 29, found her co-founders within her family. She started her online marketplace for organic beauty products, Vanity Wagon, in April 2018, confident that she could run it herself—after all, she reasoned, she had an MBA and had seven years of work experience. But the lack of expertize in finance and operations and the mounting work load, made her rethink the decision in five months.
Her husband Prateek, 30, a corporate lawyer who had just finished his MBA in finance, joined her. Soon, Ruhail roped in her cousin Sahil Shrestha, 32, to handle operations as he had event management experience. “You can’t do everything alone. They’d been my sounding board, so I asked them to join me," she says.
Sharing control of one’s venture isn’t easy. Ruhail admits she found it hard not to intervene in her co-founders’ work. “It took time to trust their decisions. We then had a conversation and assigned roles. Now, we have weekly reports of what each person is doing," says Ruhail.
Sehrawat says having a co-founder is about two strong minds working for the same purpose. “You can depend on the other to give you pep talk when you’ve had a hard day," he says.
Having complementary skills helps shape the roles of co-founders. Noida-based Kundan Shahi, co-founder of GoAyu, which provides litigation finance, understood this after he set up his venture in 2015. Since his knowledge of technology was limited, he asked vendor Himanshu Kesari to join as a co-founder. Syed Asif Iqbal, an advocate and friend, and Mahendra Singh, who’d worked with Shahi earlier, joined as co-founders soon after.
“Our execution speed has increased. With them around, I feel business continuity is assured," says Shahi. “Being a solo founder is difficult, you need emotional support. It’s not about control but objectives need to be achieved."
Bala Vissa, professor of entrepreneurship, INSEAD Singapore, says entrepreneurship is a lonely journey and it’s good to have co-founders, assuming there is expertize relevant to the venture and sufficient trust and chemistry between the founders.
Sharing a goal, load and risks doesn’t mean co-founders agree on everything. At GoAyu, disagreements are encouraged. “How else would we learn from each other and get varied perspectives," asks Shahi. To ensure the disagreements don’t hinder business, they have a rule book of sorts. The CEO—currently, Shahi—has controlling power and accountability. “But if I don’t perform, I can be replaced. A co-founder can question another’s performance provided it’s backed by data. We have taken a process-driven approach than a personality-driven one," he explains. No employee can match the commitment of a co-founder, believes supply chain startup Acuver’s Sunny Nandwani, 37, adding that “skin in the game" as stake is described in the startup world, is crucial. He and Satyajit Jena started the company in 2013, but in five months they began looking for a person who could build and manage large teams. That’s how Mayank Gupta, a former colleague from the startup they had all worked at, came on-board. Since it was Nandwani’s idea and initial investment, he holds 60% stake, Jena 30%, and the rest, Gupta.
WORKING WITH STRANGERS
At TurboHire, a two-and-a-half year old recruitment technology firm, where the co-founders were strangers, Deepak Agrawal (47), who calls himself the sutradhar of the venture, was clear he needed to be generous with stake to attract the best talent as co-founders. “Having 50% equity is worth more if the venture is successful rather than having 90% of a company that’s failing," he says. He has a few rules for co-founders too: Never talk about having more authority just because you’ve put in money, don’t bring seniority into the picture, and question each other as co-founders.
Agrawal says it took him six months and meeting 270 people to pick the four co-founders. He only wanted people from premier educational institutes, who had graduated after 2013 as he needed co-founders with hands-on knowledge of artificial intelligence. “I picked total strangers on the basis of their capabilities. Only if I respect them for who they are and give them freedom to solve the problem, will I create value in this partnership," he says.
Teaming up with strangers is not unusual. In more developed entrepreneurial ecosystems, potential co-founders can be found at venture meet-ups, hackathons or even co-founder dating sites, says Vissa.
Sanfe’s Archit Agarwal believes dedicating time to find a co-founder was the best decision he made. “I’m glad I didn’t rush and legally commit to those three friends as co-founders. Else, I would have been stuck. It’s important to understand why the other person wants to work with you."