Ask Mike: How Do I Find a Foil?

Posted by | November 01, 2012 | Ask Mike, Entrepreneurship, People, Podcasts | No Comments

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Marks & Spencer, Goldman Sachs, Hewlett Packard: all hugely successful organisations we are used to buying from, or reading about. We forget that these are the real names of real people; start-ups which were originally founded by two ambitious entrepreneurs.  All achieved success in different eras and sectors; taking different routes to success, but all did so as a double act.

The reason it works is that we are all different. We bring different skills to the party. Nobody (even though many entrepreneurs think they are invincible) is good at everything. The secret for the lone entrepreneur is to find a ‘foil’: someone who assists by bringing skills to the company which are complementary to your own.

The classic business double act is the ‘one builds, one sells’ model: one person does the inventing, designing, perfecting, building, delivering, and installing. The other does the talking, marketing, pricing, selling, and billing. It is a typical model which means everyone does what they are best at, and it is a model I have used myself. As a salesperson, I always ask: “Who will be interested? – And who do they know who might also be interested?”; “How can I get to meet them and move things forward?”. My long-time friend and business partner, best-selling author Chris West, meanwhile, would immediately question what exactly it is we are offering.  Is it good enough? How can it be better? When must it be ready to meet Mike’s (likely over-optimistic) promises?

Finding and exploiting these differences in character, skills and experience, means that, rather than exposing one person’s weaknesses, your business benefits from two individuals’ strengths.

There is a price to pay, though. Opposites may attract but they are not always going to get on. Regardless of how well you prepare, arguments will happen, so choose someone that you like and who likes you; you need to be able to resolve any conflicts quickly and move on.  More important still, choose someone you can trust. Furthermore, while difference is at the heart of the partnership dynamic, there are some areas you simply have to agree on for the whole thing to work. You must share a vision: your efforts must be directed towards a common goal.

You will also need equal (or at least fair) input of money, time, responsibility and risk. If it is a genuine partnership, these should be evenly contributed – after all, if one of you is retaining a full-time job and the other working full-time on the business, your ‘partnership’ soon starts to look rather one-sided.

On the other hand, you may be the sole owner of your business and make the wise move of recruiting a foil as your first employee. That, of course, will not cost you equity in the business; but be sure not to underestimate the value of your foil. This first recruit will be worth bonuses and incentives in spades if they get their job right.

So, where do you find this diametrically opposite yet likeable and trustworthy, kindred spirit? As any good entrepreneur will know; you should always start with your own personal network. Is is a rich well of trustworthy, professional people with whom you have an existing relationship and who know what you are all about. If this reaps no rewards (and nine times out of ten it should), try growing your network before recruiting professionally or searching the many online repositories.  Read sector-specific trade magazines and message boards and attend networking events. My own monthly event, ‘Beermat Monday’ exists precisely for this purpose; to bring together like-minded entrepreneurs and start-ups to meet, share ideas and expand their networks.

Regardless of how you find your foil, my top tip is to find them before you start your business if at all possible. It is even more important than your ‘great’ business idea. I have lost count of the number of entrepreneurs I have met with a brilliant idea. Yet I can remember every partnership that made for a great double act. It is very difficult for a late arrival to take on the role of equal partner – at least for a while. All the important decisions that underpin the business – long-term goals, vision etc. – have already been decided, meaning you have to relinquish responsibilities and decision-making to someone with a significant amount of ‘catching up’ to do. It will feel wrong to you, and alienating to your new partner; who will often feel more like a new shareholder, manager or trouble-shooter.

Whatever your plans, put the relationship to the test, first. A good foil is, by definition, different. You may never be the best of friends. Equally, if (as so many do), you do choose to go into business with a friend, it may also end up testing your friendship to the limit. So, before registering your business and picking up the branded stationery, make the time to ‘date’ your new partner first. Work together on a low risk business collaboration – this could be a scaled-down version of your ‘real’ business or just knocking ideas around in the pub.  You both need to feel comfortable working together; trusting in each other’s judgements, and confident in your shared abilities.

Ultimately, the more the partnership can develop organically, the better. Define the company vision and individual responsibilities at the start, and then take pleasure in the differing contributions you can each make. With a little tolerance and trust (and yes, you will need both!), a good foil will rapidly become an invaluable partner.

About Mike Southon

Mike Southon is a serially successful entrepreneur, best-selling business author, mentor and one of the world’s top business speakers on entrepreneurship, intrapreneurship and sales.

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