70 First Co-Founder Dates
Lessons learned from 35+ hours of zoom calls in pursuit of my future co-founder.
I’m still planning to co-found a startup, but now I’m on the hunt for the right idea and co-founder(s).
So, I decided to give co-founder dating a shot. It’s exactly what it sounds like. Meeting lots of new people in hopes of finding one you can stand (enjoy🤞) spending most of your time with for the next 5-15 years (till death do us part?).
I’ve been married for almost 8 years, so dating is a distant memory for me (But I made a great choice!).
I set my expectations for co-founder dating pretty low across the board. But, I was blown away. Amazing response rate, extremely qualified people, and promising ideas.
I learned a lot. Here are a few notes about my process.
My experience with cold outreach in technical recruiting taught me that I’d have a low response rate. I assumed less than 10% would convert to a conversation. 15 meetings seemed like a reasonable sample size to figure out if co-founder dating was a good use of my time.
So I drafted a quick intro and sent it out on LinkedIn.
Within 24 hours, 35 people responded and scheduled a meeting. Many were anxious to meet later that day or the next.
I set aside one week for these meetings. I blocked the days on my Calendly link before and after my target week. I did, in fact, have jury duty the following week, which was a great way to keep things compressed.
Within 3 days, I was booked solid for an entire week. 30-minute blocks from 9am to 5pm.
Wow. What a response. Way more than I expected.
What impacted my response rate? It came down to a few key factors:
95% of people I talked to were non-technical. Many were actively searching for a technical co-founder or early engineer. I’m convinced that me being technical is the single biggest contributor to the high response rate.
My most recent role came with a Director title. I was an early employee at a venture-backed startup. This gave people confidence that I could be hands on as a co-founder but also scale a team.
I made it clear that I had just left my job. This made the interchange more urgent.
Rex has done a great job curating the Cambrian community. Members have confidence that others in the group are high caliber and worth their time. I’ve had limited interactions with the YC co-founder matching tool and did not find the same vetting rigor.
I didn’t commit to anything concrete in my initial message. I emphasized that I wanted to connect and see if I can be helpful.
Lush, Thor-like hair in my avatar
I mean, c’mon!
With a full schedule locked in, the real work was just beginning. I started by organizing my note taking setup. I knew there was no way I’d be able to track all of these conversations without detailed notes.
I created a google doc that mirrored my calendar schedule. Each section had the person’s name, LinkedIn, email, and a few lines of notes about their background.
I also added an initial ranking next to each person (scale of 1-5) to show how bullish I was on the person / idea based on the information I had to date. This gave me at-a-glance visibility into the priority of the next call.
Next, I planned out my goals and script for the calls.
The goals were simple:
Create a meaningful connection
Find some way to add value
Get enough information to know whether a second meeting would be worthwhile
30 minutes sounds like a lot of time. In reality, it’s just barely enough time for intros and a brief discussion of one idea. I planned my core questions to make the most of the time.
Here’s the cadence the proved the most fruitful:
Ask them to go first. This gives you the best context to know how to frame your intro. It can also be an indicator to know how much time you want to spend on the call.
“Should we start with intros? Do you want to lead off?”
Make it clear what you are hoping to gain from the relationship, as well as what you can add. Be deliberate to not mislead / give the wrong impression.
“Right now I’m talking to a lot of smart people. Listening & learning. Looking for ways to help. Sometimes that is as a technical advisor or contractor. Sometimes it’s connecting someone who could be helpful. In the end, I’m looking for someone to co-found a business with.”
Dig in on their idea. Flush out if it’s viable. Take notes on the way they talk. The way a person expresses an idea and why they think it’s great tells a lot about their experience in the space and as an entrepreneur.
“What is the elevator pitch?”
“What have you heard from potential customers?”
“Is this similar to XX competitor? What makes it better?”
“How do you think about distribution?”
“What assumptions do you need to validate to make sure this can work?”
Get a sense of where they are at (Idea stage, product, raising money)
“What is the state of your team?”
“Are you planning on raising money?”
“What is your timeline for next steps with this business?”
Understand what they are currently looking for.
“What is needed to unlock the next step for your business?”
“How can I be helpful?”
Reiterate any follow ups from the call. Ideally commit to do something, even as simple as following up via email.
“I’m going to think this over and email you with any questions that come up”
“I thought of 1-2 people that might resonate with this space, are you ok if I reach out and see if they’d be open for a chat?”
“I’m probably not the right person to help with this project, but I love being connected to fellow entrepreneurs. Let’s cheer each other on.”
Monday morning, 9am arrived. Meeting. Meeting. Meeting. I was ready for a break. But, alas, no rest. The entire week I grabbed quick bites of snacks and rushed bathroom breaks in the 2-3 minutes I could sometimes shave off of a less-promising call.
It was completely exhausting. But, this is the way I prefer it. Get in the zone, push myself super hard, emerge quickly with the insight I need to move forward.
I was very surprised by the caliber of people I got to talk with. Serial Entrepreneurs. Harvard/Stanford Business school graduates. PhDs. Genuine people, excited to discuss their passions and plans for the future.
I feel super lucky to have gained new friends in the process.
After 70+ conversations (35+ hours of zoom time!) I amassed 67 pages of notes. I spent several sessions pouring over them. Organizing, categorizing, and ranking in a spreadsheet. Thinking about trends, what I’m drawn to, and next steps.
I’m convinced that there are 8-10 companies in this group that will grow to > $10 million in value. 2-3 That will be unicorns or bigger.
I’ll write more about the process of narrowing the field and eventually choosing a co-founder in separate posts. For now, let me share my core takeaways from co-founder speed dating, as well as some stats about the experience.
Technical co-founders have high leverage
In retrospect, it’s no surprise. The labor market for engineering talent is tighter than my hamstring. As a technical person, for years I’ve over indexed on “I can’t found a company until I have a great idea”.
Coming up with the startup idea is over-romanticized and borderline irrelevant. If I could do it again, I would have allocated more time throughout my career to these sorts of conversations.
Consumer problems are obvious
Over 50% of people I talked with were focused on B2C business models. Most of these followed the path of “I’ve had this problem personally”. It’s even a commonly advised approach to finding startup ideas. But, this approach leads more people down the wrong path than it helps.
Are some wildly successful companies built this way? Of course. But there are also several times as many people failing at solving the same problems. It’s crazy hard to differentiate your “app that’s kinda like Mint.com but better because…”.
A better approach is to put in the work researching, interviewing, and embedding yourself in a large, tech-deficient industry. Listen. Learn. Solve those problems.
Interviewing and sales are crucial skills
During my career, I’ve spent time as a missionary, a door-to-door salesman, and a technical manager in charge of recruiting. Outbound sales positions like this are not always fun, and are far from my ideal job description. But they are so crucial.
Sales teaches you the power of a simple, well-crafted question. The right balance of talk vs. listen. The confidence to ask clearly for what you want.
For technical people, opportunities to build these skills can be hard to find. Lean into these chances. Go to the career fair. Be the recruiting manager. A technical person who can sell unlocks a faster and higher career ladder.
Here are a few stats from my interactions.
178 LinkedIn Connection Requests
140 New LinedIn Connections
79 Intro Conversations
35+ Hours of Zoom Calls
89% Male (Clearly a problem!)
Long tail of “Other”
* Simplified – Many targeting B2B2C or another variation
25% Single Idea
35% Progress toward MVP
15% Product + Funding
90% Raise VC funding
General Problem Space
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