Finding the Right Partner to Build a Startup Together

It almost goes without saying, but starting a company is tough. For a lot of founders, myself included, it’ll be the hardest thing we ever do. The hours are long and the odds of failure are high, especially in your first few years of running a company. But for all the work and all the hours, nothing is tougher and more important than finding the right start-up partner.

PJ and I have been extremely fortunate. Showpad is now completing its fifth year of existence, with 100% growth in annual recurring revenue for each year we’ve been around. Our clients continue to renew with us, and our client base continues to grow. This spring, we closed our third round of venture capital funding, securing a $50 million investment.

A huge part of that success is the partnership PJ and I have cultivated over our careers and work across several companies. At Showpad, we’re not just co-founders, but co-CEOs, jointly overseeing the operations of our organizations – four offices and more than 200 people globally.

Recent data shows that startups created by more than one sole founder can raise up to 30 percent more capital, can grow a customer base three times as fast, and are less likely to scale too fast. Steve Hogan, a long-time consultant in Silicon Valley and co-founder of consulting firm Tech-Rx, has gone as far as to say that sole founders are the top cause of failure in tech startups. From our perspective, nothing is better than having someone to partner with and rely upon in those scary early days of building a company from scratch. But it’s also a balance. In my experience, more than three co-founders is an active red-flag to investors looking at early-stage companies, as companies with multiple co-founders tend to shed them in the first few years of their existence.

So what do you need to find in that ideal startup partner?

Complementary skills

PJ and I first met at Netlog, known at the time as the Facebook of Europe. Our skills complemented one another. Unlike a lot of co-founders, we have a lot of overlap, and I think that’s critical, particularly if you have aspirations to grow a global startup. Both PJ and I were well-versed in sales, marketing, and general business operations when we started In the Pocket and Showpad. PJ had more corporate experience, but we both had a similar knowledge base. Rather than being duplicative, I see it as a strength. It enabled us to quickly expand Showpad as a global organization from nearly day one and as co-CEOs, we can trust the decision making of the other even as we operate two offices on separate continents.

Similar goals

Like a lot of entrepreneurs, Showpad isn’t our first company. We first founded In the Pocket, a digital agency that built mobile apps for a variety of corporate clients. When we founded In the Pocket, we could have run the business comfortably for years. It would have been the safe route, the easy route. It was at In the Pocket that a client came to us, asking for a software platform that enabled his sales teams to present and share content with prospects in the field. That development immediately snowballed into demand from other clients for this seemingly one-off request. At that point, PJ and I knew we’d discovered something that could have a bigger impact than In the Pocket. But with that acknowledgment came risk — a lot of it. Creating a new company from scratch — albeit one with a lot of growth potential — could spoil what we’d already created at In the Pocket.

But we had bigger dreams and similar goals. We jointly made the decision to step away from what could have been a very straightforward career and business path to take another chance. Both PJ and I had grander goals in mind and a recognition that potentially even larger success existed out there. That wouldn’t have happened without both of us being on the same page about that next step.

Personality fit

This is probably the most nebulous of the three, but the most important. Outside the office, PJ and I are also close friends. His mother once called me PJ’s second wife. While the stories of friends who create startups, only to fall out over some business dispute, are common, there has to be some personal connection beforehand. I believe you cannot have this kind of partnership survive any rough patches in growing a business if you’re simply business partners.

It’s also the part that can be the toughest to figure out. PJ and I became friends and partners at Netlog, driving back and forth weekly from Ghent to Brussels to client meetings we were both assigned to. For those who don’t know the drive, traffic is terrible, so once a week we’d spend up to two hours in the car getting to know each other, our goals and where we wanted to go. We’re both risk takers. Ask PJ about how after school he drove a Lada sedan across the Western Sahara with some friends. For me, I started my own karaoke company in college. We’re both the kind of personalities who wanted to have ownership of our own ideas and work, and to build something of our own.

In the coming months we’re going to share our perspectives on startup culture as we’ve built a global company from a small apartment in Ghent, Belgium, along with some of the lessons learned along the way. We look forward to telling our story.

Louis Jonckheere and Pieterjan (PJ) Bouten are co-founders and co-CEOs of Showpad, a sales enablement platform and enterprise software company with offices in San Francisco, Ghent, Belgium, Portland and London, and more than 1,000 customers worldwide. The company has raised $60 million in venture capital funding through three funding rounds and is one of the largest enterprise SaaS companies to be started in Europe over the last decade. Bouten and Jonckheere were also co-founder of digital agency In the Pocket where they still serve on the board of directors.

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