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When to Bring In a Sales Co-Founder

HOW TO LAUNCH A TECH STARTUP IN 2016

Part 9: When to Bring In a Sales Co-Founder


If you’re a tech guy (or girl), and you’ve built a great web/software product with your own two hands (and frontal lobes), you have a couple of options for how to bring your product to market. You can try to do it yourself, or you can partner up with a sales/marketing/business oriented co-founder.

BRINGING IN A SALES CO-FOUNDER vs DOING IT YOURSELF

Partners can add a lot of value to your startup, and help you grow to a level you wouldn’t necessarily have achieved on your own. Technical founders often find “sales & marketing” people to be good complementary co-founders. Steve Wozniak was a technical genius — indeed, a true pioneer of the early computer age — but Apple would never have been Apple without Steve Jobs. Adding the right non-technical co-founder to your team can truly transform your startup, from a great product that nobody uses to a thriving business that improves the lives of millions (or billions) of people.

On the other hand, suboptimal partners can often be more of a liability than an asset. If a partner doesn’t contribute enough to your company’s success, he or she will end up causing you a net loss. Even if you partner up with a world-class marketer, personality conflicts, ownership disputes, and disagreements about the direction of the company can hamper your productivity, and ultimately impede the success of your company. Therefore, you’d be well advised to carefully consider the decision to bring in a sales co-founder, and only partner up if you’re sure he or she represents a net positive for your startup.

WHAT COULD GO WRONG?

People often think that the biggest downside to taking on a partner is that you’ll need to share ownership/equity/profits with another person. Indeed, in some cases, working with a partner may cut into your profits and you’ll end up taking home less money than you would have on your own. HOWEVER, this will only happen if you choose a bad partner. A good partner, who adds more value than she takes, will almost always increase the success of your company by a large enough margin that you’ll end up taking home far more money (not to mention making a bigger impact in the world) than you would have if you had tried to go it alone.

There are, however, other significant downsides to working with a partner (aside from having to share your profits) that many people don’t even think about before bringing someone in. Are you enjoying the autonomy you have right now, in regard to developing your product and running your own business? Well enjoy it while it lasts, because working with a partner (even a really good one) means:

  • inevitable disagreements (of both minor and major varieties, about things that you would never have expected to be controversial), arguments, and compromises,
  • having to give up some creative control, and even
  • power dynamics that can lead to conflict, selfishness, stress, resentment, and worse.

For all these reasons and more, many coders choose to bring their products to market on their own. With the growing popularity of technically-oriented growth hacks, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to market your product on your own, to a level of at least reasonable success… at which point you can hire a marketing team if you want, or bring in a world-class sales co-founder.

SUGGESTION: TRY IT ON YOUR OWN FIRST

Trying to bring your product to market on your own first, before offering to give away part of your company to a marketing partner, gives you the best of both worlds. Succeed or fail, you’ll still be able to bring in a sales co-founder later in the game, and, having started the marketing process yourself, you’ll be in a much better position to do so.

If, for example, you fail in your efforts at marketing your product, you will have gained some vital insights into the sales & marketing challenges your startup will be facing. These insights will be invaluable in helping you find a sales & marketing co-founder who can actually help you overcome those challenges, rather than taking an unnecessary gamble on someone who may have been unable to get past the very obstacles you’d have discovered in your own DIY marketing experiment.

If you succeed at bringing in customers, on the other hand, you retain full ownership in your now-successful company. At this point, you can either continue along on your own and build upon your DIY success, or you can bring in a world-class sales co-founder (many of whom will likely be knocking on your door and filling your inbox with offers to partner up). Moreover, in negotiating with these eager partnership prospects, you’ll be in a much better position to keep a larger share of the company for yourself. When it comes to apportioning ownership stakes, a nerd with a successful startup has far more leverage than a nerd with a beautiful piece of code.

Either way — whether you succeed or fail in your attempts to bring your product to market on your own — the “try it yourself first” strategy allows you to retain the right to seek out a sales co-founder at any point in the process. The reverse is not true if you seek out a co-founder before trying to market your product yourself; once you sign away a portion of your ownership stake to another person, you do not retain the right to “take the other path” at your own whim and leisure. Essentially, one path gives you the flexibility to switch at any time, while the other keeps you locked in to your decision, no matter what.

For these reasons, you may be wise to at least try to bring your product to market on your own, before going out in search of a sales co-founder. You can use the following articles (from earlier in this “How to Launch a Tech Startup in 2016” series) to guide your DIY marketing process:

SALES IS SIMPLER THAN IT LOOKS

Unlike coding, being effective at sales doesn’t require spending many years learning intricate techniques. Being effective at sales really just comes down to transcending social anxiety and communicating directly with other human beings. It’s very simple. It’s not necessarily easy, but at its core it is really that simple. This simplicity makes it possible for technical founders to launch tech startups on their own, without having to rely on sales co-founders (conversely, it’s far more difficult for a marketer to launch a tech startup without a technical co-founder).

If you’re willing to face your fears, publicize your work, communicate with people, and brave the possible rejection & criticism that comes with bringing your product to market, then take those first few steps into the market on your own. If you fail to gain traction on your own, you’ll have gained a great deal of valuable insight to bring into your meetings with potential marketing partners, which will help you screen for people who can actually overcome the specific obstacles you encountered. And if you succeed, that’s just gravy; you’ll have potential partners clamboring to work with you, giving you a much better talent pool to select from, and a much better position to negotiate from.

Either way, if and when you are ready to partner up with a world-class non-technical co-founder to bring your startup to the next level, check out our next article in the How to Launch a Tech Startup in 2016 series: How to Find a Non-Technical Co-Founder.