The Traction vs Trust Equation of Cofounder Dating

One of the most common problems in the beginning stage of a founder journey is establishing the cofounder group. I thought I would jot down some notes from my own experience + that of friends in similar situations.

Some lucky people get to bypass this completely due to prior working relationships with the right life stage + complementary attributes in cofounders, but many others often have the strongest networks in the exact thing they are good at, which happens to be the thing they don’t need (so for example, a well known designer would be well known in design circles, but have trouble recruiting a developer cofounder, or vice versa).

The extra difficulty in a hot domain is that every cofounder date is constantly eyeing other options and other coupling configurations, because anything with a pulse and halfway decent CV is getting funded, so just securing funding is not enough.

Traction vs Trust

I’ve come to analogize two anchor points which form the basis of an early company:


When both are in harmony, the company can charge forward unencumbered.

Word Choice

  • I choose the word “company” instead of “startup” because a startup is one that hasn’t figured this out yet, and because the traditional sense of “company” involves multiple people all organized toward a singular goal.
  • Product traction: a large community, or of course, revenue/customers
  • Pairwise trust: “ride or die” cofounders/engineers, people who you are happy to continue working with through this idea, the next idea, through the dark times.

So a very early stage startup, definitionally, doesn’t have stuff figured out yet. But I think you need one of the two anchors going at least.

Anchor variants

If you’re a strong IC/developer, it’s possible to power through by sheer force:


The strong product traction pulls the pair along until it catches up - holding the pair strong because the traction is so powerful.

I’ve also seen many cofounder pairs who have a strong bond but no product:


In both cases, the imbalance works until it doesn’t work, and eventually the startup topples over due to unstable foundations.

The point

Both above scenarios might seem relatively straightforward. But what my strong opinion is now for a founding team is that they must have one of two anchors, not zero. If you have zero anchors (flexible on product, flexible on cofounder) you are going to constantly spin your wheels solving for too many variables with too few constraints.


Solo Founders

For all that YCombinator insists on cofounder pairs, I have anecdotally seen a rise in solo founders (yes, venture backed ones) in my friend group. I’ve asked a top tier seed stage VC about this and they acknowledge that about 30% of their investments are in solo founders. This seems to be a relatively underdiscussed and under-supported phenomenon, that perhaps deserves its own “YC” or at least solo founder support group.

I also think encouraging solo founding is especially warranted under:

  • fast moving domains (e.g. AI today - waiting 2 months for a cofounder pair to form sets you back significantly, of course with the offsetting benefit if the complement becomes more than the sum of its parts)
  • temporary solo founding - surprisingly many companies that are well known today eventually added late cofounders. Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger are often presented as the cofounders of Instagram, but it is less well known that Kevin started working on Burbn, and got a seed from Steve Anderson + a16z as a solo founder, before eventually bringing on Mike 6 months in.

Tagged in: #startups

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