“Thirty-something executive with great plans for a startup business would like to meet similar. Must possess relevant experience and have gsoh (graduated from Stanford or Harvard).”

Romance-seekers place adverts like this on the internet all the time. So why not entrepreneurs? People who want to start a business may be aware they do not have all the skills required to make the operation a success. If that is the case, they need to find a co-founder.

That is how Kim Atherton and Erinn Collier ended up running Just3Things, a software company, together. The firm offers a platform designed for companies that want to be “agile”, a popular model in recent years. Agile companies organise themselves in small interdisciplinary teams designed to complete a single project, rather than with a more formal hierarchical structure. The software keeps the team members both informed and connected.

The system was developed by a group at ovo Energy, a British energy-supply firm, where Ms Atherton worked. She had dreamed up the idea when working as chief people officer. There was nothing available on the market, so she hired developers to create it. When she spoke about it at a conference in 2017, a delegate asked if the platform was available for other organisations.

That inquiry made Ms Atherton see an opportunity to spin the business out from ovo. But she had trained as an occupational psychologist and had spent seven years working in human relations. She therefore had no idea how to sell a software platform to potential customers. She needed a partner. Her answer was to ask a recruitment business, Stanton House, for help. This led to an exhaustive process, involving interviews with 35 to 40 candidates.

Ms Collier had previously worked for both Salesforce and Uber on the sales side. She first met Ms Atherton in November 2017. Like many romantic couples, they started their corporate courtship slowly. It took four or five meetings, including a dinner, before Ms Collier joined the company in May this year.

It makes sense that it will take a while to see if two executives can work together. A good relationship is essential given the number of hours that they will spend in each other’s company. When starting a business, executives are likely to spend more time with their colleagues at work than with their families at home.

Ms Atherton says that she wanted “someone in the trenches with me”, so finding the right person was essential. Ms Collier says the main reason for her change of career was that she wanted to be a co-founder rather than just a sales leader. But it had to be with the right person. “The further you get in your career, the more critical it is that you like the people you work with,” she says.

In such instances of “executive dating”, the most important element is to ensure that the philosophies of the potential partners match. Ms Atherton said that many of the people she interviewed talked about money or contracts, but she was impressed that Ms Collier asked: “Tell me what kind of company you want to build.” The answer, according to Ms Atherton, was to create a business that she could be proud of, and which had good working conditions. That turned out to be the reply Ms Collier was hoping to hear.

It may not work out, of course, but nor do plenty of relationships. In this case, the partnership might not last if the outcome is “for poorer” rather than “for richer”. But at least the co-founders have started out on corporate life together with their eyes open.

David Fleming of Stanton House, the recruiter who brought the women together, says this was an unusual assignment. Normally a business will be founded by a small team who already work together. Ms Atherton was unusual in realising that she needed someone with complementary skills. There were a lot of people actively looking for someone new. But finding someone who had the same values and principles was much more difficult.

This kind of executive link-up will probably never become the norm. But if the key to generating more economic growth is the creation of more startup companies, then there is the need for a way to bring entrepreneurs together. Instead of eHarmony, there could be eEquity; instead of Tinder, Turnover. Now there’s an idea. Anyone want to invest? 


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We will fight for a world where everyone feels safe, valued, able to grow, and be inspired by their role and the organisation that they work for. And that starts with us…