Roughly three and a half years ago, we started working on Tara AI, however the genesis of the story begins much earlier. It all began when I had the good fortune of meeting Syed Ahmed in freshman year of college, our company’s current co-founder and CTO. Everyday, I continue to meet with founders and hopeful entrepreneurs that are starting companies with enormous potential, and I find that the first hurdle they have to cross, is finding a partner-in-crime. I truly believe that going about building a company is an arduous journey, and its nearly impossible to build a lasting high-growth company without a co-founder (kudos to those who have achieved this as single founders). I’ve also come to realize, that if you can convince another human being to invest all of their time and energy in building this “thing” that doesn’t currently exist, then other obstacles start to become easier (even if it’s by a factor of 0.0001%).
It was the year 2006, Facebook had just started rolling out to universities and you needed an invite with a .edu email address to get “in”. Nokia flip-phones were a thing. So was watching movies on your iPod Nano. I was 16 and in freshman year (Finance), and I happened to meet Syed (Mechanical Engineering) through a student extracurriculars club. Over the next few years, we engaged in long discussions about the process of selecting a major and the usefulness of a 4 year degree, along with whether or not we were going to remain in the Middle East.
Eventually, in 2011, I had to cross the hurdle of asking him to join me on an adventure of starting our first company. Now, looking back, I am attempting to build a framework around the process of finding the right co-founder.
1. Start with people you already know, respect and trust- more often than not- they will surprise you
One thing I continue to observe is the rise of founder networking events, and apps that promise “co-founder dating”. I find that some of the best places to look for a partner in crime continue to be in your own existing networks. Going through YCombinator with Tara AI, we’ve found friends and companies that have followed a similar framework. Platzi founders, Christian Van Der Henst and Freddy Vega were competitors when they first decided to join forces. The Equipment share co-founders were part of a faith-based commune in Missouri. There are several examples of companies I continue to observe that have long-lasting meaningful co-founder relationships, and they met years (and years) before starting their companies.
Asking people you know if they are willing to jump ship or drop off their career trajectory, to build something that doesn’t exist, is easier said than done. However, some of the most risk-averse people may end up surprising you by saying yes to embarking on the co-founder journey. The key, is to de-risk the value proposition of your business and set a milestone that can be achieved in a short amount of time. This may include finding a set of target customers, building an MVP or making your first sale.
In my case, after graduation, Syed and I went our separate ways. Syed started a career in big data and mechanical engineering with a postgrad from QUT, and I was in finance and data analysis. He was insistent that I find a set of target customers (and close them) before he would agree to work on Tara AI full-time.
2. Learn to spot the highly intelligent- those that find patterns or anomalies invisible to others
“Companies built on Facebook's open graph will not last”. “It amazes me how enterprise infrastructure continues to be filled with security vulnerabilities.” “So much of software development is a repeatable process and majority of functioning code in applications can be attributed to open-source.” These were a few of Syed’s predictions/observations in 2006, before they became obvious to the technology industry. I’ve now made it a rule in life to seek out individuals that spot anomalies or early patterns invisible to others, as colleagues, investors or co-workers. I’ll admit, early on, I was dismissive to several of Syed’s observations. However, over time, by meeting successful founders I’ve learned that those that predict the future, often end up building it.
3. Find the hustlers and those that do more with less
During undergrad (and immediately after) Syed and I were both struggling to make ends meet in our respective fields. I graduated summa cum laude, and Syed had two postgrad degrees, yet we were both struggling to find jobs that paid livable salaries in 2010 (it was right after the financial crisis and companies were rarely hiring for entry-level roles). Somehow, we found ways to earn on the side. Syed started learning programming and he discovered that with $200 we could test our ideas with customers through simple landing pages. Seeing that every fresh graduate was having issues finding jobs, we decided to launch a quick solution and called it Gradberry. In a few days of launching a landing page, we had 2,000 students from 40 universities signed up on a waitlist to find entry-level jobs. We did a lot more with a lot less.
4. Persistence, persistence, and more persistence
Companies are not built overnight; it is a long and arduous journey through customer development to get to product-market fit. Most companies fail because founders give up. The emotional journey can take an immense toll, which is why I believe conviction is an extremely under-appreciated personality trait.
To continue to have faith in your idea (and pivot as necessary) takes an almost “Marvel-esque” level of effort. It continues to baffle me how individuals with conviction in their beliefs, can move mountains. As a founder, you need to focus on being relentless and continue to prove your market hypotheses. I remember our Y Combinator interview only rolled around after we had unsuccessfully applied twice. After the interview, I was convinced we didn’t get in. We had applied late (several weeks after the deadline) and so our odds were a miniscule 0.5%. Syed, on the other hand, was convinced we were the right founders to tackle the problem, and that our acceptance call was a few hours away. His intuition proved correct, and the rest is history. Of course, getting into YCombinator was only the first hurdle, and we continued to face adversity as we set out on the journey. However, relying on a core set of beliefs and having a deep conviction about our theses, enabled us to keep chugging along.
My thesis: if your potential co-founder displays at least three of the above four traits - 1) there is an existing cordial relationship built on trust, 2) they can spot trends invisible to others, 3) they hustle hard and 4) have conviction in their beliefs, take the leap. Propose and ask if they will quit their day job, quit a degree program or even move to another continent to start the next world-changing company.
The worst they can do is say no!
P.S. Since founding our current company, Syed and I took another giant leap of faith and are now married. He continues to challenge me everyday.
Thank you to David Keith and Nikhil Gopalani for reading through drafts of this (and to Syed Ahmed for adding accuracy to my memory).