Doctor of Philosophy
As many new ventures are created by teams, not solo founders, choosing a cofounder is an important decision for entrepreneurs. The individuals who mutually select into the founding team not only define and develop the concept, imprint the venture, and influence its chances of success, but also impact each other’s satisfaction and willingness to persevere. Yet despite these relationships’ crucial implications, the literature offers only scattered insights into how and why cofounders come together and succeed together.
With this dissertation, I advance theoretical understanding of what goes into forming and maintaining a quality cofounder relationship—a key resource that can neither be bought nor strategically acquired. The dissertation comprises three essays, including four convergent studies that each mobilize different forms of data, methods, and analysis. Essay 1 offers a systematic review of relevant literature, revealing that cofounder selection is a multilevel, dynamic phenomenon subject to many interrelationships. Drawing on systems theory, I organize findings based on four distinct initiation points, offering propositions about what predicts successful selection within each. Essay 2 examines how entrepreneurs’ selection priorities can influence cofounder satisfaction. After abductively deriving six key cofounder fit criteria, I test the model using fuzzy set qualitative comparative analysis, showing that there is not one necessary criterion, but certain configurations consistently yield high cofounder satisfaction. Finally, Essay 3 develops and tests a multilevel, relational theory of cofounder selection, which highlights that the benefits of choosing a high-familiarity cofounder depend on founders’ perceptions of psychological safety and equity justice with their cofounder over time.
As a cohesive set, these essays offer three overarching theoretical contributions to research on entrepreneurial team formation: i) establishing a systems view, which posits there are various ways in which cofounders come together amid a constellation of interrelated influences, advancing the field beyond assumptions of a linear, one-best-way approach to team formation; ii) developing dyadic reciprocity as a critical driver of selection and satisfaction, and illustrating methodological approaches to account for it; and iii) connecting selection decisions to key relationship dynamics, offering insight into the mechanisms by which cofounder relationships remain successful (or not) over time.
Summary for Lay Audience
Choosing a cofounder is a high-stakes decision for entrepreneurs and their ventures. The individuals who mutually select into the founding team steer the opportunity, deeply imprint the organization, and affect the venture’s chance for success, as well as influencing each other’s satisfaction and willingness to persevere. Despite the importance of these relationships, research offers only a fragmented understanding of their formation and success. This dissertation seeks to address this gap in three essays. First, in Essay 1, I collect and review what is known about cofounder selection. Synthesizing more than 30 years of the literature reveals a complex system of interrelated inputs and starting conditions that influence cofounder selection, which is a two-sided decision between individuals. In Essay 2 I dive deeper into which selection criteria are consistently associated with cofounder satisfaction. Here I find that entrepreneurs prioritize different dimensions of fit—including skills fit, resources, personal fit, familiarity, venture fit, and work fit—and certain tradeoffs emerge in the face of constraints. Further, interviews reveal that entrepreneurs’ perceptions that their cofounder respects and trusts them as much as they respect and trust their cofounder (reciprocity) drives selection decisions and subsequent satisfaction, though these perceptions can limit their ability to choose someone with optimal qualifications and resources. Finally, Essay 3 explores how prioritizing familiarity with a cofounder affects the relationship between cofounders over time. I find that the relationship dynamics between cofounders, specifically their perceptions of psychological safety (safety to admit mistakes and have difficult conversations with a cofounder) and equity justice (feeling their equity allocation is fair), contribute to cofounder satisfaction. I also find support that these dynamics help explain the relationship between seeking a familiar cofounder and satisfaction. Additionally, I find some evidence of reciprocity among cofounders, which suggests that individuals within entrepreneurial teams have mutual influence over each other in important ways previously unaccounted for in entrepreneurial teams research.
Quinn, Audra G., "Cofounder Selection & Satisfaction: How Entrepreneurial Cofounders Come Together and Succeed Together" (2023). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 9417.
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