A few weeks ago, a founder I recently met asked to have lunch with me.
Come lunch day, it was the kind of day where I had crammed that one meeting too many in my calendar.
Meaning not only that I was rushing to be 5 minutes late, but also I had a hard stop 55 minutes later for another call with a client.
After receiving our lunch and slurping away our first couple of ramen noodles, I managed to wipe off my sweat and finally started to be able to focus.
My lunch buddy was in a similar phase in life, having worked for many years in his startup and now looking to start something new. Also like me, still owner of his company, but more from a distance.
As we both near the end of our slurping session, he suddenly pauses and a bit nervously says: “so the reason I wanted to have lunch, is that I wanted to say that I eh.. I have a list of potential co-founders in my mind when it comes to my next venture, and you are in the top part of that list”.
I suddenly stop mid ramen slurp, and give him a bewildered look. Now feeling super embarrassed that I need to leave in 5 minutes I wished I would have organized my day differently.
I ramble a bit and tell him I am flattered but that the proposal caught me off guard, as we don’t really know each other very well.
I tell him I need a bit more time to let his proposal sink in and plan a follow up meeting in his office a few weeks later.
I then storm off for my next meeting, with a pit in my stomach about how I left that meeting.
What to me was a casual lunch to just catch up, to him was a potential first encounter with a co-founder for his next adventure.
Looking for a co-founder after startup, is an awkward process..
Meeting in the first startup
Maybe it’s the summer heat that is producing all these analogies between entrepreneurship and romantic relationships, but I just can’t help but compare the two. (See my previous comparison to open relationships).
When I met my first co-founder, we were both studying in a business university. We met through a professor that decided to match us for an e-marketing assignment. He matched us because he thought we were an odd couple, one super analytical the other like a bouncing ball of energy. (Hint, I am not the analytical one..)
We didn’t immediately hit it off as friends, but our assignment process of working was immediately intuitive: he would think about the outline and structure, I would put a twist on it and together we would divide the work and finish.
Once we worked together in this low risk setting we realized that our complementary skills could be applied to a common ambition we both found out we had: to start a company as quickly as possible, “something in online marketing”.
A common mission
That university assignment had given us a very easy and safe way to discover a common mission, and to realize we actually made for a pretty good team.
At the time the mission was not very crystallized, but the ambition and dream behind it, was the same (see article about having a common dream).
Within that same trimester we would both walk into the chamber of commerce and for €30 registered a company that we would spend 11 years working together in.
You cannot force a (business) relationship
To stay with the romantic relationship analogy:
When you are really desperate for love, you will likely not find it.
I guess the reason is that if you are looking too rationally for something that emotional, every date will likely start feeling more like a job interview than a casual date.
Finding a co founder after a startup is equally difficult.
Now that you have worked for many years with one person that you have grown to appreciate for their qualities and common vision, it will be hard to let go of those standards.
Also, as you are likely older, you now have a mortgage, and a better feeling for your value.
This is both a curse and a blessing, since now you will avoid jumping into business relationships that end up leaving you at the losing end, but also make you overly cautious to try anything at all.
Also since you are likely on some kind of deadline (aka, whenever your money runs out), you now need to forge a very strong relationship meant to last for years, under time pressure, which to me, is just never a good idea.
A temptation to jump into a new relationship
The loneliness of building a business by yourself can be hard, especially if you are slowly starting to move faster with your idea.
I therefore understand the temptation to just involve the first person you feel might even be a little bit of a fit.
But a business relationship that is supposed to last for 10 years or more, needs to be built on the same foundation as a romantic relationship: a clear match in every sense of the word.
Back to the ramen buddy
Last week, I had a follow up meeting with my ramen lunch buddy.
I asked him in more detail what he was looking for and shared with him my personal mission, and what gave me most energy.
We had different missions, and it soon became clear that we were not going to be a fit.
Even though we were both at a similar stage in our research process for our next company, this was not the right move right now.
Co-founding a company after the first one that started more organically, feels a lot more like dating. It can be excruciating, awkward but also very educational.
Your first relation taught you what you really care about and what you need, and for the long term that is great.
Now I just need to resist the urge to force a relation where one simply isn’t there. Make low commitments and who knows, maybe a spark will follow someday.