The virtual space is now flooded with people labeling themselves with the hashtag #speaksabout and #keynotespeaker. Everybody is an expert seeking to share views, experience, expertise, even if these don’t amount to much. There are a plethora of books out there teaching you the secrets to becoming a “Highly Paid Expert” (actual title of one such books) even if you have no prior expertise or relevant experience; short YouTube or TikTok videos are also available for the reading-impaired. But speak we can(!) about anything(!) because having an audience, having others listening to what we have to say seems to be an end in itself: Narcissus drowning in the beauty of his own reflection. This phenomenon is notably frequent in the world of startups, where people establishing new businesses, even if they only exist in their imagination, love to speak about themselves and how their view, their idea, their gadget, their app, their anything is brilliant, an earth shattering orgasms in the fabric of reality: be it a dedicated delivery service for disposable handkerchiefs to address any sneezing need, or an app to guide how frequently you should wash your hands, or any other equally ‘pressing need’ of our society. But what I notice is that it is always about… themselves. They, alone, individually, achieved brilliance levels hitherto unseen on this planet and beyond. How often do you meet humble entrepreneurs?
I believe that this self-centred geniuses will find it hard to ever bring an idea to fruition, because they have not discovered a basic lesson: building an enterprise, and I mean here a business with aspirations to have some impact, regional or global, demands a team of dedicated people, that have complementary skills, be them technical, social or emotional. I draw from my own experience to illustrate this point. I built a successful research group over more than a decade through an array of collaborative work with other scientists, that included my own students and post-docs, but also scientists from other laboratories, institutions and countries, as should be obvious from my publication list on this site. Building a national biological data infrastructure was initially the joint dream of myself and a friend, to which many have joined to bring it to a present day distributed network over multiple institutions, embedded into an European-wide biological data infrastructure: they made it possible and much more impactful than I could ever dream to accomplish on my own. I dared to start my first innovation project, aiming to bring to market a new class of antibiotics derived from my group’s scientific research, only possible because a(nother) friend was there to think of all the aspects that poor scientific me didn’t even imagine were important, including bringing onboard another couple of people that turned a simple scientific idea into a company developing an almost-new-antibiotic (such a pity the science failed in the end…). Setting up an innovative clinical testing laboratory focused on oncogenomics was an adventure possible because my former post-doc Joana Cardoso Vaz shared my vision of bringing genomics to the bed-side in Portugal as early as 2014, and brought to the table genomic skills that complemented my own bioinformatics competencies. Together we joined the largest clinical pathology group in Portugal, where their experience, expertise, infrastructure, investment and friendship (!) were instrumental in turning an idea into a successful business. And together with Joana, we pivoted our business model and become developers of medical devices, where we now play very different roles, me no longer doing the “bioinformatics”, but now becoming a “shepherd of cats” and “marketer of dreams”, whereas my co-founder focuses on transforming scientific dreams into things, real things – different roles coming together to build a company. At different times and development stages of these and other projects, many people played roles that mine, filling the gaps left by my incompetence. Sometimes, they took over from me, doing that job better than I did and ensuring that the project moved forward. Was I somehow diminished because they did the job better than I could? NO!
But it goes further than hard skills. Personalities matter and we all bring different things to the table. If you ever meet me and Joana, you will wonder how we work together at all: we are really very different! But if it wasn’t for these two different people working together, none of us would ever have set up Ophiomics or brought our first product to the market. Complementary may mean that sometimes you need someone to just say: “it’s ok, you are doing a good job”. People who did not experience the process of trying to disrupt a given market do not understand the intensity of the imposter syndrome that assaults you. Having someone by your side who is invested in the same end goal you are, who reassures you that s/he trusts you, means the world! And for all the self-centred entrepreneurs facing audiences and expecting to be adored, in particular by investors: not everyone will like you, some may even think you are full of sh#t. If you surround yourself with people that are truly different from you, your audience will trust the team, even if they think you are a moron.
I hate clichés, in particular one that is oh-so-common in American teen movies where an a—hole teacher/coach reprimands a troubled junior hero with a: “There is no ‘I’ in Team”. I guess I cannot make it any worse with my new version: “There is no I in entrepreneur”. The funny thing is that I don’t even like working as part of a team. I am a loner that likes to do “my own thing”, but I learnt a while back a lesson captured well in another cliché: If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.
Are you an aspiring entrepreneur or already walking this path? Do you already have the right people on your side? How would you know? I wish it was simple. I share below some ideas, my personal checklist for choosing a co-founder.
– Do they have skin in the game? As much as you? You are going to commit horrendous amounts of work to this dream of yours. Initially at the expense of your personal life, rest, having fun, on top of your daytime job. When you invest so much, when you sacrifice so much, and it fails: it hurts. A lot! Do they stand to suffer as much as you if things go south? Does this mean the world to them as it means to you? Or are they along for the ride, ready to leave if a prettier project comes by? Consider the adage of the bacon and eggs: the chicken is involved, but the pig commits! You hire the chickens but aim to have pigs as your co-founders.
– Do they produce any work that advances the project (sweat equity)? You need people that actually work alongside you and produce visible advances. It is very easy to take part in brain-storming sessions and to talk about the dream. But do they go home and get things done, coming back to the next meeting with a list of achievements that make your idea of a startup a step closer to making it big? No? Ditch them!
– Eventually you need to spend money. This happens before you get “investors” on board. You need to buy your perfectdomain.com and its web hosting; to acquire raw materials; pay access to data; printing business cards or flyers. Bottom line: you need to spend money way earlier than investors’ time. Are they willing to chip in? Or is the sacrifice one sided? If you pay for everything, are they truly on your side?
– Are they part of your company’s future or just a historical note? For research-derived ideas, your “professor”, the supervisor, the “senior post-doc that made the initial observation” etc. are to be recognised, if at all, through IP authorship, or as advisory board members, but never through co-ownership. Please remember that ideas are worthless, that execution means everything (aren’t we going over board on clichés today?). Dead weight in your CAP table will be a major problem with investors down the line.
– Do you feel they support you? You will, more often than not, feel a complete failure, or that there is no hope in sight, despairing that you don’t really know what you are doing. Are they there to build you up? Or to bring you down? Do they seek to find the best solution to your the project together or are they the “I’m always right” type? If you build a business together, you are going to spend an awfully large amount of time together. Probably more than with your spouse/love interest. Do you actually want them in your life?
So… where do you find these perfect matches, the ideal co-founder? I don’t really know. Maybe it’s not that different from finding a soul mate. Some people find them early, some people need to try different partnerships. Some people try to find them in their church, others go to singles bars, other through happenchance. Speak of your dream, efforts, and aspirations, and the ideal connections will emerge; maybe your colleagues in academia, maybe through an acceleration program, or even through the “friend of a fried”. But you need to put yourself out there. No one will know about ‘YourGreatBusinessIdea Inc’ otherwise.