This Founder Says To Think Long Term When Selecting Your Cofounder
Voice-enabled smart speakers continue to revolutionize the way we obtain products and services. These smart speaker capabilities make ordering new clothes from Amazon or adjusting the volume of your music effortless, but these programs are not easy to build. Vasili Shynkarenka and Maksim Abramchuk started Storyline, the startup that allows you to create these capabilities for Amazon’s voice service, Alexa, without having to write code. Alexa Skills, which are the capabilities that will enable Amazon’s smart speakers to execute your commands, is what Storyline assists you in creating. The startup powers 2,700 Alexa skills, which is roughly 7% of the whole Skill marketplace. The two cofounders have recently closed a seed round from Y Combinator (YC), Adam Draper (the first investor in Coinbase and Amplitude), and MSQRD co-founders Eugene Nevgen and Sergey Gonchar (sold to Facebook two years ago).
Frederick Daso: How did you go about picking your cofounder?
Vasili Shynkarenka: The way I think about picking a cofounder is almost like picking your wife. It’s critical not to mess this up, because if you choose the wrong cofounder, it may be worse than having no cofounder. Things will get worse over time. I have had that experience before. We did three startups before starting Storyline. We started a company together — me and Maksim [Abramchuk] and then we picked another guy as a cofounder too, which was a really bad decision.
Looking back, the cause of that poor choice in cofounder was that we had different goals in life. He was focused on making money, while Max and I cared more about making an impact. When you have different goals than your cofounder, it’s really important to sit down and talk about your objectives and vision for the company.
If you don’t do that, then you have a pretty solid chance to screw things up later on.
First, you have to negotiate your goals and your vision for the company. Next, it’s also essential to have experience working together before starting a company together. Also, I would not recommend starting a company with a friend, because in that case, you will not be able to decide whether your friend is performing well or not professionally.
Daso: I see. You hear so many stories of startups started by close friends and creates the impression that it’s an excellent choice to work with someone you’ve known personally for a long time.
Shynkarenka: Don’t get me wrong; it is a good choice. I remember when Drew Houston came to Y Combinator to talk about how he started Dropbox. He shared the story of finding his cofounder. When he got accepted into Y Combinator, he didn’t have a cofounder. Paul Graham, one of the cofounders of YC, told Houston to ‘find a cofounder or you won’t be accepted into the accelerator.’ Houston had to find a cofounder in a short period, but he was able to find one.
Daso: Since you’ve have emphasized how important it is to pick the right cofounder, how has your choice impacted Storyline’s development?
Shynkarenka: We both committed to working hard for the next five to ten years to make this company to succeed. It’s essential to have that level of commitment and that level of passion for building companies to achieve anything. If you don’t have that, it’s going to be hard.
Shynkarenka: Another thing that matters is that you and your cofounder have different areas of expertise. I am the non-technical founder, while my cofounder is technical. When we started this company, we had two different areas of expertise. I was taking care of all the non-technical work regarding design, product marketing and business. My cofounder is the responsible party for everything related to the tech of our product.
It’s easier when your cofounder brings something different to the table.
Daso: Great, you chose someone who complements you.
Shynkarenka: There’s one more thing here. Picking a cofounder is establishing a relationship. As I said, it’s like picking your wife. It’s going to be one of the most important relationships in your life. Having some chemistry, in the beginning, is imperative. If there is no chemistry, things are going to be hard. When we started, we had this chemistry from day one. We were interested in working and exploring ideas together to bring them to life.
Daso: Absolutely, you can’t work with someone that you don’t naturally get along with well.
Shynkarenka: One of the main things I also considered was whether I could work successfully with this person, in this case, my cofounder, for the next ten years.
Daso: You were thinking about a ten-year timescale instead of one to two years out.
Shynkarenka: Young entrepreneurs starting companies only think about the next one, two, three years to sell the company and do something else. In my mind, this is the wrong approach. One of our investors, Adam Draper, said an overnight success takes five years. If you’re thinking on the scale of five to ten years, then you’re going to prioritize things in the right way. I believe it’s crucial not to optimize to sell your company, even if you know you’ll be proposed to sell the company at some time. If you prioritize around selling your company, you’ll be making wrong decisions along the way. Finally, no one will propose to buy your company because you will have most likely failed to build a successful business.
Daso: Absolutely. My final question for you is at what state of the company should you pick a cofounder?
Shynkarenka: From what I’ve seen, most people select a cofounder before starting, which I think is wrong. You don’t need, or you don’t have to start a startup for the sake of starting one. You have to have the right motivation inside of you first. Once you’ve solidified an idea, then you can pick a cofounder.
Most people go ahead and pick a cofounder, then start thinking hard about an idea, which I believe is the wrong approach.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
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This work was first published on Forbes.