Thanks to likes of Uber, Craigslist, and Tinder, we rely on the internet to find and fetch almost everything in our lives, whether we’re looking for love or lunch. Professional relationships are no exception. Whether you found your mentor/employer/coworker through LinkedIn, Facebook, or Instagram, working relationships are increasingly formed and maintained online. There’s a good chance you’ve applied or hired for a job using the internet, too. But should you start a business with someone you met online? Should you trust a potential business partner you meet online?
The short answers to both: Yes, if you use good judgment. The internet offers an unparalleled opportunity to engage and network with people from all over the business world, but online communication always warrants caution. Finding the right person to start a business with is a challenge. But if you follow a few best practices, you can find a legit cofounder virtually.
To find out how to safely find your potential cofounder online, we spoke to small business owners with direct experience in the world of online (business) dating.
How to Kickstart the Cofounder Search
Regardless of where you’re looking for your cofounder, you’ll need to lay some groundwork to hone and focus your search. Start with these three steps.
Step 1: Be Clear About Your Business Idea
Before you bring a cofounder on board, whether you meet them at a networking event or on Reddit, you’ll need to crystalize your business idea. And if you’re still working out details, and are hoping to meet a partner who can help develop a business plan, make this clear upfront in your search. Wherever you are in the development process, put your most updated plan in writing so you can present a snapshot to serious cofounder candidates.
Step 2: Define Your Needs
The kind of cofounder you’re looking for largely depends on the kind of founder you are, in addition to your anticipated business needs. For instance, a veteran business owner might seek a technical wiz to take charge of product development for their new company; a first-time entrepreneur may have the expertise to start a business but need a cofounder with management and operational experience.
Take stock of both your strengths and your shortcomings as a future small business owner. Seek a cofounder whose experience, skills, and general demeanor complements the first and bolsters the second.
Step 3: Leverage Your Network
Ask any entrepreneurs in your network about how they found their business partners; that might give you some ideas about approaching people you already know, or utilizing the resources you have access to. For instance, college or university alumni networks often include professional outlets, events, and even mentoring programs (you can find out more about your college’s offerings from the alumni office). If this doesn’t apply for you, check your chamber of commerce for programming for local business owners.
6 Best Practices for Finding a Business Partner Online
We spoke to a few business owners who’ve met their cofounders online—both successfully and otherwise. Here, we’ve boiled down their advice to a few best practices to follow as you’re conducting your virtual search, so you can find more of the former and less of the latter.
1. Update Your Online Presence
What’s the first thing you do when someone friends you on Facebook, connects with you on LinkedIn, or follows you on Twitter? You probably Google them. You can expect that any prospective cofounders you reach out to online will do the same to you.
For that reason, you want to make sure that you’re discoverable by search, and that the results are work-appropriate and up-to-date. Try searching your name in private browsing (Incognito) mode. If you’re difficult to find via search, consider creating a personal website—it’s a great way to put yourself out there and post content under your name. And even if your social media profiles are personal, they might be the highest-ranking results for you, so consider linking to your business or website while you’re searching for a business partner.
You don’t need to use every networking or social media platform available. But you should have a page on the professional platforms, like LinkedIn or AngelList, so people can message you directly (and verify your identity).
2. Scour Online Communities
Although business owners in any industry can find cofounders online, it comes as no surprise that it’s extra common for business relationships in the tech industry to start online. Outlets for tech partnerships range from business partner matching services, to the active /r/cofounder subreddit. Dedicated resources like CoFoundersLab provide a range of services aimed at professional development for startup founders.
If you’re hesitant to have extended discussions online with potential partners, use virtual forums that connect you to in-person meetings. MeetUp, for example, directs you to gatherings of like-minded professionals in your area.
Really, any online communities you’re a part of can be a good place to start searching for the right business match. If you’re active on a social or community-based site, you might already have an idea of the kind of professional networking channels available, and you can start exploring discussions and groups dedicated to business. Large, global platforms can be a great way to connect with professionals from around the world—who knows, the best person to start your business with may be on another continent.
That said, keep in mind that distance will impact the logistics of your business partnership. Richard Shaw started LogbookLoan with a partner he met through the /r/entrepreneur subreddit, and although the business relationship was positive, there were some drawbacks of working with a remote cofounder. He says:
It was more the distance that meant the partnership didn’t work, my morning was my partner’s evening, and it was hard to schedule Skype calls or get answers to emails the same day. This caused the business to slow down. We both realized it wasn’t working and parted ways amicably.
3. Keep an Open Mind
The best person for you to start a business with might not seem like an obvious choice. Not every cofounder success story begins with a positive interaction—just ask David Mata, the cofounder of Block Bits Capital, who met his business partner via Facebook. Mata says:
It’s actually a bit funny. I was a senior product manager for a mobile gaming company, and he was the cofounder of a video game-focused tech accelerator in San Francisco. There was a small video game industry kerfuffle, and I sent a message of support to his cofounder. It eventually made its way to him, and we started talking.
[This] built some significant rapport, so we decided to get together while I was in San Francisco January of 2017. We hit it off to the point that if we looked similar we could pass for brothers; we see things similarly in a lot of ways—politics, finance, tech, politics, and humor. Come June of 2017, we started Block Bits together. Here we are July of 2018, and we’re closing a round of investment into the company that values us at $38M.
Great chemistry between cofounders is often encouraged by mutual enthusiasm and competitiveness, which you might not find on a professional message board.
Think about people from previous jobs or your wider professional network, and consider reaching out to individuals whose shared passion sparked great discussions and ideas (or arguments). As long as you work out a clear management plan with your partner and practice mutual respect, there’s no reason you have to agree about everything.
4. Vet Your Candidate
Just like you would search a job candidate before hiring them, find out as much as you can about a potential business partner before signing on with them. This helps ensure that, first of all, the person is in fact who they say they are; and, secondly, provides some background information about their career.
If you’re unable to find the person online—either through a platform like LinkedIn, an industry network like AngelList, or a Google search—find another way to verify their identity.
Check Their Work
Learning more about a potential partner’s professional background prior to meeting with them will help you make sure their skills and experience align with what you’re looking for. Check out their LinkedIn, personal website or portfolio, and any relevant content online they can provide. For industries or businesses that are difficult to represent online, consider asking for a reference from a previous client or business partner.
Cristian Rennella is the CEO and founder of elMejorTrato. Rennella started his initial business with previous connections, but is currently working on a project with a connection he made online.
The most important thing to know about a partner you meet online is the quality of their work. For example, I work with tech startups, so I search and analyze their open source contributions. This allows me to know, with a great degree of certainty, this person’s capacity to generate work. I can also analyze what their contribution to the new project will be. From what I learned, I assure you that it is absolutely possible to know your partner through the internet.
Having started companies with both old friends and new partners, Rennella says finding a great partner online (or off) is all about their quality of work. If someone has the right track record—and can prove their work—it really doesn’t matter how you initially came into contact.
Treat Your Conversation Like an Interview
Before you pitch someone on the business you want to start, look beyond their CV and figure out what excites them professionally. Remember, as much as you are interviewing a candidate, you’re also trying to recruit them. In your first meeting, whether it’s in person or over the phone, don’t forget to market yourself as a great business partner, too. Try treating the person like a potential hire. Approaching a meeting as if you’re the interviewer and interviewee will prepare you to pitch them on your business.
When you’re considering starting a business with someone, don’t underestimate the importance of aligning on more than objective business goals. If you don’t value the same things, you’ll butt heads on what matters down the line.
5. Test the Waters
Once you’ve found a prospective cofounder you’re excited about, verified their identity, shared your business plan, and ideally met in person or over a video call, you might be tempted to launch full-force into your partnership.
But don’t. A trial period can be informative for both you and your potential partner, and help you determine if there is a good fit, before taking on the risks of starting a business together.
Dave Hermansen, a veteran ecommerce entrepreneur, recommends starting incrementally with a potential business partner by hiring them for a project at an existing business:
I’ve certainly started businesses with people I have met online with mixed results. In the worst cases, they just didn’t have the skill set I thought they did, they weren’t good businessmen, they employed unethical methods that I did not condone, or we just had personality clashes.
Practically all of my solid partnerships have started with getting to know the other person by hiring them first to do different things for our already existing companies. Later, after I can see how well we really mesh, I have been able to offer partnerships in either existing or new business ventures with the person.
Think of this trial period as the dates before the marriage: If you find that you and your potential partner don’t get along now, you can both get out of the arrangement (relatively) painlessly.
6. Protect Your Ideas
Depending on your stage of business development, you should take care to protect any sensitive information that comes up in discussions with potential partners. If you find the right person to cofound a business with, clearly outline the terms of proprietary information and intellectual property involved.
Hermansen suggests outlining each step of the founding process, and laying a legal framework for the company.
No matter how you decide to get into a partnership, be sure that you have a very solid legal agreement that spells out monetary and time contributions, penalties for not fulfilling those obligations, compensation amounts and time frames and, (very important) an exit plan so that it is clear what will happen if the business or the partnership ceases to exist in the future.
Obtaining legal documentation protects you in the unlikely event of fraud, business failure, or if the partnership falls through.
Yes, You Should Start a Business With Someone You Met Online—If You Do it Safely
If you’re having trouble meeting new professional connections IRL, it might be time to take your search online. Platforms like AngelList, CoFoundersLab, and even LinkedIn and Facebook are rife with potential cofounders, and the internet makes it easy to stay in touch even if you live on opposite sides of the country (or world).
That said, starting a business with someone you met online requires extra precautions.
Hassan Syed is the founder of IdeaGist.com, the largest digital incubation platform for early stage ideas. He forms successful business relationships online by conducting thorough background research, and learning as much as possible about a potential partner. “I suggest everyone to keep an open mind but be cautious,” Syed says. “Just like online dating, meeting a cofounder online first is very common. The goal is to correctly understand other person’s expectations, their strengths, and their willingness to partner with you.”
Syed outlines nine rules for keeping yourself safe in online business partnerships:
- Do your research. Learn about the other person by looking at their LinkedIn profile, their employers, and search for their name online.
- Meet with them on Skype or some other video conference method. When you talk to them, try to understand their motivations for wanting to be in business with you.
- Learn about their work. Know what they can do for you, and what you can offer them back.
- Verify their legal identity before making any deals. Make sure that they can prove who they are.
- Don’t send any money in a partnership unless you have done your due diligence.
- Consider an NDA. If you are sharing information about your business, make sure that you have at least a decent non-disclosure agreement in place.
- If it’s possible for you to meet them in person before signing a contract, do so. It’s a good investment of your time and money.
- Follow best practices in accepting cofounders in your startup with clear deliverables, milestones, and vesting schedule.
- Understand your international risks. If the other party lives in another country, you chances of enforcing any contract are fairly limited.
After you’ve connected with a potential business partner online, approach the process like you would any other professional meeting. While it’s completely understandable to request someone you meet online to verify their identity and work experience, recognize that they deserve the same courtesy. A good rule is to at least offer to provide the same information that you’re requesting from a person—for example, if you ask a potential partner for a reference, provide them one, too.
Like most aspects of starting your first business, finding the right cofounder might involve some trial and error. In this case, try to embrace the opportunity, and talk to multiple candidates before making a decision. At the end of the day, the top priority in finding the right cofounder is your compatibility as business partners—not where you find them.