Serial Entrepreneur Joana Picq: How to Find a Co-Founder

The NextWomen ‘How-to’ Theme

When we asked you, our community, which topics you’d like us to cover in this month’s ‘how-to’ theme, the subject you most wanted advice on was “how to find a co-founder”. Who better to ask than serial entrepreneur Joana Picq, previously COO at The NextWomen?

Joana is a civil engineer turned serial entrepreneur and tech fanatic. She worked for 8 years as an International Business Manager; at IBM in Rio, Microsoft in Paris & Munich (incubating acquired software companies across Europe, Middle East and Africa), then VMware in London (running OEM Alliances at EMEA level), before moving to the web industry and becoming an entrepreneur.

Now based between Rio, NYC, Europe and Cape Town, Joana is currently a partner at Jampp, leading the new digital advertising era of mobile. She also acts as a Global Ambassador for startup accelerator Papaya Ventures and is an active mentor/advisor to over 10 accelerators globally, including Dreamit (NYC), LeCamping (Paris) and 21212 (Rio).

We spoke to Joana about whether an entrepreneur should always seek a co-founder; the successful partnerships she admires; and whether gut feeling, complementary skills or the business idea is most important when choosing someone to found a business with.

TNW: Tell us a little about what you’re currently up to with Jampp. How did you come to work with the founders?

JP: I joined my partners at Jampp just over a year ago, following their pivot from social gaming to mobile app advertising.

I already knew one of the founders as we’d been following each other’s steps as two of the few Latin American tech entrepreneurs in Europe. After setting up Voyage Privé in Brazil, I decided to go back to building my own start-up, but promised myself I would only be allowed new mistakes, so I took on coding (codecademy followed by an ObjectiveC course in NYC) and decided I would only start ONE business this time around, and would therefore give myself time to pick the right idea and the right partners.

Following my iOS app development course I had an idea for a mobile app, and thought I would try a different approach this time – instead of buying domain names and setting up LTDs I would try building a product first, and only set the engines in motion if I actually saw traction. Then one evening I was staring at the ceiling trying to sleep but obsessing with my idea, when Diego came to mind: “Diego would be perfect to help me with the design and gamification of this app!”

The next morning we jumped on Skype, and he was instantly keen, only with one requisite: “Jo, I’ll act as angel and help you with the product, but every investment I make I must offer as a co-investment to my partner Martín in Argentina”. OK then, let’s meet Martín! 

Martín was also instantly keen and said he’d act as angel and help with the development from Buenos Aires. 

One month and 200 wireframes later, I’d started getting more familiar with the pivot they were undertaking with Jampp. One day at a conference we attended together with one of their staff, who highly impressed me, the bulb went on: “I would have killed to buy this service at this price at Voyage Privé, nobody is offering quality user acquisition on performance at competitive prices in Brazil. I could sell this to most of the entrepreneurs I know around here…” 

And so Diego, Martín and I quickly set up a deal in which I’d try developing their business in Brazil and we’d later assess whether to partner.

Four months later we’d “fallen in love”, not hot passion, slow steady growing love, the one that ends up in marriage.

Their team in Argentina astounded me – in a region where talent combined with commitment, reliability and accountability is extremely scarce, they had managed to pull an all-star team who’d been working with them for many years (since their previous startup, which they’d successfully sold to a major global player). The first customers I had pulled in, whom I trusted as friends to be sincere and straightforward, had validated the technology and the quality of the mobile users Jampp had been able to bring them, proving so by continuously increasing their budgets with us.

And above all, Martín and Diego had both proven to me in their interactions with me, the team and our clients, to have the same priorities and ethics as me: we grow our business on merit and technology, not on BS; the team should be empowered, with responsibility and equity, not micromanaged; and being healthy and happy to ensure the business’ success.

If you don’t sleep, don’t exercise or don’t spend enough time with friends/family, you will never have the energy and sanity to endure the path to success – it is no sprint, it’s a triple marathon at best. 

TNW: Is it always best for an entrepreneur to have a co-founder or are there situations when it’s best to go it alone?

JP: I don’t think there are any rules in entrepreneurship, or life for that matter, that fit all. Just as entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone, having co-founders might also not be the best alternative to all entrepreneurs.

I can only truly speak for myself, so I’ll give this bit of advice to all the aspiring founders who, like me, are far from knowing everything about everything; know they are not always right, love to learn from other people, and above all, always enjoy the best moments in life even more when they can share them with someone. 

Just think about it this way – nobody is going to argue enough with your stubborn self when you are (potentially) wrong about something unless they have as much to lose as you. Not your friends, not your partner, not your parents, and not even your investors. Nor will you listen to anyone who’s not as familiar and concerned with your business as yourself. So if you go at it alone, odds are you won’t be challenged enough when you start heading the wrong (or long) way, or when you are about to miss an opportunity. 

And going at it alone can give you a dangerous fake sense of wisdom – it’s important to have people around you challenging you and teaching you a few lessons when they turned out right.

It makes you a lot more humble and helps you truly appreciate it when you’re the one teaching them something.

And if you get lucky enough to hit milestones of success, then nobody will be able to share that feeling of accomplishment with you unless they are as deep in the business as you, and have given as much of their blood as you.

No matter how much your friends, boyfriend or parents love you, their pride in you does not ever compare to a high-five with your co-founder.

(It’s a metaphor, you don’t need to actually high-five your co-founders – I only physically see my partners/co-founders a few times a year, but you get the point). Just as a mother can only truly share the love for her child with its father, with only the two of them finding it fascinating and wonderful that the baby took its first steps, only your co-founder will understand how big of a deal it is when you close your first customer. 

And two minds always think better than one, especially when they don’t agree.

TNW: Do you believe it’s best to found a company with someone you already have a relationship with, or someone previously unknown to you?

JP: Someone previously unknown to you is dangerous, just like getting married after 3 months of seeing someone, for the simple fact that you are not sure about their ethics or how compatible you both truly are. That said, building a business with your best friends tends to be even more dangerous, as there are very high expectations and things get a lot more “personal” and emotional very quickly. If your business partner (whom you met through work, and later became your business partner) does something unexpected or something you find selfish (in their best interest), you might be understanding despite being upset, and deal with it rationally. If your best friend thinks it’s OK to make a move that is not in your best interest but benefits them, you could get extremely hurt and have a massive fall out. And given co-founders don’t always agree on strategy, it could easily escalate. 

Ultimately, it is not so much about how long you have known someone, but about how much you trust that the relationship you have with that person is open and honest.

You must be able to communicate freely with your business partner, and you must be able to argue when you don’t agree whilst not taking it too personal.

The more complementary you are, the better – if your partner is more of a CTO and you are more of a business development head, odds are she’ll end up trusting your judgement on sales strategy and you’ll trust her on product development. You must be able to argue, but also be able to make decisions so you don’t get stuck when you don’t quite agree. Whether you’ve know that person 10 years or one month doesn’t change the fact that your co-founder will surprise you, sometimes in a positive way, others in a negative way, so it’s always a risk. Just like marriage. Still worth it!

TNW: What criteria should entrepreneurs use for choosing a co-founder? Do you go with your gut feeling; a more detached assessment of complementary skills; or is it all about the business idea?

JP: It is NEVER, EVER, EVER about the business idea. A business idea is worth as much as a peanut.

A business will make or break based on execution, so you should always pick a co-founder that can help you execute more and better. A co-founder with complementary skills can help you where you’re weak, which is ideal, but don’t over-sweat it. Just like you shouldn’t drop a boyfriend you’re mad about just because he doesn’t check all the boxes, you shouldn’t push away good business partners because you are not fully complementary. 

In my experience it has been more important to have co-founders that share my work ethics and that are always open to change (even, or especially, their “great” idea) than to connect with more technical co-founders (that would be more complementary) or people with seemingly great ideas. After you’ve worked for a few years, in corporate or start-up environment, you can trust that gut feeling – most often it’s not really gut feeling, it’s your brain unconsciously being able to identify patterns in people’s behaviour that show you they mean business and can make things happen. Just make sure you are clear from day one about what happens if one of you wants out, and how much you are willing to invest, both time and money-wise, in the business. Setting expectations is the number one priority to avoid disappointment. 

TNW: As a serial entrepreneur, how do you tend to find your co-founders? Which method has worked best for you?

JP: I have never actually actively looked for a co-founder – just like the men in my life, they just kind of fell on my lap (or knocked me on the head).

I am a power-networker, not for any other reason than my infinite curiosity for people and technology, and the pleasure I take in helping people connect. That means I meet a lot of people, and follow a few of them, who often follow me back. And sometimes they come and ask me to join them on their new venture. And when I know they have a lot to teach me, value being kind and happy over being rich and famous, and are great at something I’m crap at – I say yes. Which led me to having 4 businesses running simultaneously – a big mistake but a very valuable lesson, amongst many others I learned from each of them.

Focus is paramount for execution, so one must commit to one team and one business. You can hardly build a long lasting marriage by having multiple flings on the go…

But having those flings can help you assess what you want in a partner, so the more startups you build, the better you should get at knowing yourself and picking your co-founders. 

TNW: What are the various avenues for entrepreneurs seeking a co-founder?

JP: There are currently events and groups that aim at connecting people looking for co-founders, and just like Internet dating, they have shown success stories, so we can’t dismiss them – they are valid and might work for some people. 

That said, I still believe the best way to find a partner is to get out there, talk to everyone, ask to meet people in your industry to share your idea, or your passion, or your skills, or whatever your priorities surrounding “finding a co-founder” might be. People will connect you to other people, either because they complement you, or share your interests, or anything. Don’t settle until you click with people – if you click with their idea, odds are they have been able to get you excited about it and it’s a lot more about them than about the idea itself (that you can later adjust or completely change as you start executing it and seeing how customers/users/market respond). 

Whatever you decide, remember you will have to share your baby with this person, and you will have to talk to them a lot, if not every day, so make sure you like that person.

You may not agree with everything they think or say, you may have opposite political views, but you must enjoy their company and admire certain things about them. You must feel that person adds value to your business, or to your life/office, or they will feel like a parasite. 

TNW: How has your approach to finding co-founders changed throughout your entrepreneurial journey? What lessons have you learned the hard way?

JP: Luckily I have been able to learn the hardest lessons by watching my friends fall out with their co-founders, not having to experience it myself.

Never get into business with family or your best friend unless you are both aware of the risks (even then…). I have seen couples build very successful businesses and I am in awe of these people. I for one know working with my partner would kill my relationship. I am not that patient of a person… So knowing yourself and your limit is important on that front.

I have built and failed two businesses with two very close friends, but I had picked them because of their skills and ethics and they never failed me on that front. Once I had a big disagreement with one of them about equity, and I flew to Paris and sat in a room with him and our third co-founder for almost 3 hours arguing until we reached a “decision” point that suited us both. I had to understand his arguments to accept them without resenting him for them, talking openly and trying to put myself in his shoes did the trick. He’s still a brother to me.

The one thing I’ve accidentally done for myself is always being physically distant to my co-founders, which I think might have helped keep our relationship very rational and focused on the business when it came to decision making. Not having someone around you all day every day might make you less effective as a team, but it sure makes you a lot more patient and attentive with people. But this only works if you can delegate, truly and fully, which I highly recommend.

Once you trust a partner to make the right decisions and execute the best possible way on a part of your business, it frees your time to focus on another part, and vice-versa. 

TNW: What three golden rules of finding a co-founder should readers take away with them from this interview?

JP: 1. Make sure your co-founder have the same work ethics as you.

2. Before asking yourself the question “can this person help my business succeed?”, ask yourself “would I like to workwith  this person for years?”

3. Do not bother looking for co-founders if you are not going to trust them in their decision and execution. The whole point of having co-founders is having another brain and another two hands doing something instead of you, ideally even better than you would. 

TNW: Please share three useful resources for entrepreneurs seeking a co-founder

JP: 1. meetup.com – Get out there and meet people in your industry. Don’t be the shy one in the corner who only talks to people she already knows.

2. Your existing network. Get out there and tell people what you are looking for and why you mean business. Observe and listen to potential partners, and tell them your ideas and show them what you’re made of (it’s a buy-and-sell situation!)

3. This right moment. Get out there NOW! Don’t wait till you “mature” your idea – your idea is nothing without execution. 

TNW: Can you give us three examples of co-founding teams which you admire as great examples of successful partnerships?

JP: Thibaud Elziere and Quentin Nickmas of eFounders are a close example as I follow them on a regular basis. They were both very successful in other ventures, but seem to have “excelled” in terms of execution on their startup studio. They have very complementary profiles, very similar life priorities, and although they don’t agree on everything, they think of business and success the same way, so they aim at the same targets. And they are not only respectful of their differences, they know it’s their strength as a team. Together they have managed to build very promising and fast growing pan-european B2B startups and attract exceptional talent, from their small office in Belgium.

My partners Martín Anazco and Diego Meller; how many entrepreneurs in their mid-30s have been building companies and making investments together since university? When you meet them you can see they have picked up each-other’s mannerisms. It’s like watching twin brothers, only one is bohemian, coding genius, and doesn’t enjoy public speaking or large gatherings; while the other enjoys design hotels, is a born salesman and the soul of the party. They share a sarcastic sense of humour and live an ocean apart and have succeeded and failed together. 

Brent Hoberman and Martha Lane Fox: they went through practically all stages a start-up could possibly go through, serious ups and downs, all company sizes, and despite the hardships along the way they managed to stay at it until they had a somewhat successful exit.

Not many partnerships can survive that much of a roller-coaster, from IPO to crash to acquisition.

They both became very public profiles and have been very important to the startup community in the UK and Europe; some great entrepreneurs came out of their initial team at LastMinute, and they have funded and mentored a lot of entrepreneurs.

TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you’d like to share with our community?

JP: Nope!

Published with permission The NextWomen

 

 

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