10 Essential Traits of Later-Stage Co-Founders

OCTOBER 30th, 2020

Later-stage co-founders are skilled, hungry and curious people who turbocharge growth. These are the people I often wish I knew before I establish a company. But they don’t always appear at a journeys start. 

As I talked about in Do I Need A Co-Founder, entrepreneurs will either remain part of a founding team, find themselves down a co-founder due to disagreement or be hunting for later-stage co-founders after starting solo. 

If you find yourself in the latter two camps, this blog post is for you. 

I have tried, failed and succeeded in finding later-stage co-founders, and throughout those attempts, I have found the best ones share ten essential traits on paper. 

Of course, ‘on paper’ is one thing. How they operate is quite another. 

When I look back on my military career, I had, like most, a mix of outstanding and mediocre leaders. What you might not know is that in the military and most first responder organisations, there is a defined set of course-driven accreditations that anyone occupying a particular role must successfully negotiate. Every rifleman (an infantry soldier) must successfully pass courses to be considered proficient. The same is true for every occupation, from engineers to snipers to medics to pilots. And then to lead within those functions, specific leadership courses must also be completed. It’s how standards are maintained. With that in mind, if you consider your leader(s) mediocre, you can rest assured that they have met the required high standard to occupy their role. 

This assurance rarely exists elsewhere. 

As hiring managers and leaders, we need to take what we see on paper and hear through a series of conversations and then go one step further. 

We need to determine if they fit

And the only way you can test for fit is via a ‘paid audition’. 

Suppose the term ‘paid audition’ is new to you, head over here to download my free guide to paid auditions called Higher Help. This will help you road test talent and build powerful alliances before you hire them. It will also help you avoid making hiring mistakes which can bring culture, momentum and growing ventures to their knees.

Now, these ten characteristics of later-stage co-founders we’re about to discuss come from a broad range of business, government, humanitarian and military leaders. Before we dive into the traits, I would like to share how I approach the recruitment of these people.

I look for later-stage co-founders in two places…

The first is via relationships and my network. I talk to investors and entrepreneurs who understand how pivotal this role is. I also look for people (on LinkedIn) whose previous title was Founder or Co-Founder. If they appear to possess the traits we’re about to explore below, I find a way to connect and open a conversation. For the most part, though, the people I end up engaging with come from trusted relationships. 

The other tactic I employ is a little more out there. 

When I take the stage at events as a speaker, I always open with, ‘I’m hiring!’

For anyone who expresses an interest in joining our team or applies to one of our job ads at Drop Bio, I use the same framework to them too. While I’m not always looking for later-stage co-founders, this framework has taught me that if people score well on each of these traits, and they pass their paid audition, there is a good chance that they will act like an owner when I’m not in the room. And that, in my view, is one of the key ingredients required to scale a business. 

The 10 essential traits 

1. Right skills

Tertiary qualifications and work experience provide some insight about a candidates skillset, but I find deep diving into their recent work very insightful. For example, talking to: 

  1. Scientists about their most recent published paper, research interest or focus of their postdoctoral studies
  2. Marketers about a recent successful campaign and one that tanked
  3. Product managers about a recent feature they helped develop and how it was unexpectedly used after launch
  4. Team assistants about the systems they use
  5. Software engineers about the side project they’re working on 

Although the details are interesting, it’s what they attempted and learned and how they fell short of their ambition where the real value lies.

2. Brings a network

When you’re building a movement, you need all the help you can get! And while I’m less concerned about the size of a person’s network, I do emphasise how people develop and nurture their relationships because when you introduce a new product or service, the people with whom you have a trusted relationship become the amplifiers of your message. People with large, but distant or disengaged followings tend to have limited impact. One of the proxies I tend to use for this is the extent to which someone publicly congratulates a friend or colleague on LinkedIn. 

3. Right intelligence

There are many ways to grade intelligence. I’ve come to learn that people who display their curiosity by asking compelling questions and match their curiosity with an action orientation are likely to be a good fit. People like this often make me feel, quite quickly, that I’m not the smartest guy in the room, and that’s a good thing. 

4. Right product sensibilities

I learned this from Jeff Weiner at LinkedIn, and it’s easier said than done. In Drop Bio’s world, where we combine signals from customers and doctors with evidence-based science and advanced statistics and marketing, we must understand how to help people today and into the future with the capital we have available. Candidates with the right product sensibilities understand that their skillset and role must link into those of the other scientists, engineers or marketers in support of our customer commitment. In my experience, those with limited product sensibilities prefer to operate in silos and focus on their discrete part of the puzzle, which is often counter-productive.      

5. Right Character

Will they achieve the mission while helping the person standing next to them succeed and do so with good humour? I ask this question when I’m trying to assess character. While you can get a glimpse of this during initial conversations and interviews, the real test comes just after the honeymoon phase comes to an end during a paid audition.  

6. Depth of commitment

Some view commitment through a tactical lens, e.g. working 80 hours weeks. I look at commitment more holistically. I try to understand the steps that a candidate has taken in their career and life that led to them considering Drop Bio as a place where they can do their life’s best work. I do this by asking each candidate to help me understand what comes next after their time at Drop Bio. Rarely can people answer this question immediately. However, the subsequent interview and the answer to this question makes for a fascinating conversation.  

7. Belief in the mission

I look for powerful personal stories that connect a candidate’s experience and passion for the opportunity we plan to capture. It’s often not enough for a candidate to be inspired by the size of the opportunity because this issue often tied to a large focus on financial incentives.   

8. Explicit teacher

A candidate who can translate their craft and explain why and how they do what they do, regardless of function or seniority, stands head and shoulders above other candidates. I find this necessary for two reasons. First, it encourages teammates to do the same and second, at least in my experience, it’s a lead indicator of their capacity to mentor and where necessary, confidently represent the company.

9. Develops trust

Trust is forged through adversity. In the context of looking for later-stage co-founders, I look for candidates who are prepared to have difficult conversations early in the relationship. This is a two-way street and at its core, relies on radical candour. In other words, if I can care personally while challenging the candidate directly, and they can do the same with me, we can start building a trust base from which good things can happen.  

10. Understands time

I take particular interest in this characteristic. A person who understands time grapples with the tradeoffs that come with balancing urgency and patience. On the one hand, they want to run as fast as possible. On the other, they understand that some things take time, but that doesn’t stop them from trying to find a way to accelerate progress. The strongest signal that someone values time its that they are quick to construct a clear, specific, time-bound and measurable plan to achieve their objective.

What traits do you look for in co-founders?

One last thing…

Whether it’s your first, 50th or 100th hire, deciding to onboard a new team member, particularly in a surplus talent environment, is a big decision. I strongly encourage you to kick the tires of each new candidate and where possible, reduce your reliance on resume scanning and interviews alone. This also means giving candidates a chance to kick your tires too. 

Paid auditions can help you dodge a massive hiring mistake. They can also help you build strong bonds with new team members before you hire them. 

Bottom line: You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.