Big Red Car here in the depths of winter in the ATX. Brrr, it is cold. It is 24F with a forecast high of 44F. That is frigid.
Sometimes the hot times of founding a startup can go from hot to frigid when co-founders evolve and life intrudes as it always does.
Today, we chat about that reality. Go get a cup of coffee and settle in.
In the beginning
Many companies are founded by a small group of co-founders with complementary skills. In the beginning, they are quite close, very egalitarian and democratic.
The realities of their comparative skills begins to assert itself and typically one becomes the leader of the pack, one becomes the tech guy and maybe another becomes the marketing, product, finance guy.
In the beginning, it is a wonderful way to conduct business. Everyone is happy, busy, challenged and productive. Channels of communication are short–sitting side by side at a coffee shop, as an example.
The first ripple on the otherwise happy pond comes when it becomes necessary or useful to define the business and the “leader” has the whip hand on the creation of the Vision, Mission, Strategy, Tactics, Objectives, Values and the budding, nascent culture. Even when this is not done — it IS supposed to be done, y’all — one amongst the founders becomes the practical leader. Perfectly natural and advisable, don’t fight it.
Many times this happens even before the group of co-founders gels. The leader is the guy who got things rolling in the first place, the guy who identified the world’s pain point to be relieved or the unmet need to be met. The guy who recruited the other co-founders.
The instant the leader emerges — and this is a very good thing — then the other co-founders are not the leader which is the first scratch at which the Devil begins his work. [Just kidding about the Devil, he’s too busy on other things right now to be worried about your startup but you get the idea.]
The second you have a bit of hierarchy, either formal or informal, the potential for trouble has arrived. It is even more pronounced when the team was assembled amongst folks who really did not know each other. There is some period of courtship which is useful and there is some which is too much. Short courtships are always a problem when you find out your new business partner is a Tarheels fan and you favor Duke. This is life.
As your startup evolves there is the necessity to define roles and the use of job descriptions is always a useful exercise. Many misunderstandings among founders have been created by ignoring the advisability of committing to writing what each will do and comparing that to what has to be done.
The leader always gets to do the fun stuff like meeting with the venture capitalists and competitors and the guys at the accelerator.
Lots of tension is created by reading the job descriptions — “Hey, Joe gets to do all the fun stuff and I’ve got to stand up the freakin’ website. Not fair. I want to do fun stuff.”
The co-founders get busy and the enterprise is on its way and maybe there are even some employees but the bottom line is there is so much work to be done that the fun days of whiteboarding everything are gone and the days of pontificating and dreaming in the coffee shop are also a thing of the past.
What is not a thing of the past is the desire of the co-founders to know everything that the leader knows. This requires recognition first and effort secondarily.
While drinking from the fire hose, it is difficult to serve up carafes of information and, of course, it is time consuming. One thing nobody has at this instant in time is extra time. Time is the greatest asset and the most precious asset. The only real equality in the world is that you and President Obama each get twenty four hours. The rest of the notion of equality is a bit suspect but that’s a different topic.
In any relationship the quality of the relationship is defined by the amount of energy that is invested by the participants.
“How was you meal?”
“Great, thanks for asking.”
The reality of the situation is that you just had a perfectly wretched meal and have absolutely no intention of ever returning and tonight you will go on Yelp and tear this restaurant up. But you will NOT invest any energy in that relationship because you really don’t care.
The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference.
Conversely, you care deeply about the startup which is going to change the world, make you rich and scratch your personal creative itch. In this relationship — both leader and non-leader — you must invest incredible energy.
Life is messy. No sooner do you go forward on a startup than things happen.
The idea is not really as unique and clean as you thought. It needs some work.
May be a pivot — inflection point — somewhere along the way.
Wife decides she wants some warmth in her bed and you’re MIA.
Those greedy kids want three meals a day and clothes. Monsters. [Pro tip: Consider not waiting until you have a wife, kids, a mortgage and bills before starting a company.]
Your partners decide they want to be the CEO or the co-CEO. Trust me, this will happen.
Someone says you’re not working hard enough and resents your studying Mandarin.
Turns out one of the lean and hungry founders has a trust fund spitting out a million dollars a year and he doesn’t have the bit jammed into his mouth as tightly as others. Who knew?
The marketing guy is great on B2C but you’re B2B — oops.
One of the venture guys turns out to be unable to comprehend the notion that you are a startup and your financial projections aren’t accurate because nobody had any freakin’ idea. It’s a freakin’ startup.
You get the idea.
In life, you never get what you expect, you get what you inspect.
Inspect the quality of your relationship with your co-founders regularly. Schedule a periodic bit of barbecue, some TexMex — do not go out and get wasted. Bit of beer may loosen a tongue but it also is hard to remember what was said and who said it and whether they really meant it.
Schedule these meetings regularly
Make one half of the meeting inbound — “How we doing on the co-founder relationship?”
This is the emotional conversational gambit and you are looking to identify problems when they are lizards and before they have grown into Godzilla. Kill the lizards before they become Godzilla.
Make the other half of the meeting outbound — “Let me tell you everything I’ve been working on and doing since last we met.”
This is the rational conversational gambit and you are trying to ensure that no petty jealousies have been created by compartmentalizing information. You want your co-founders to ask: “Why are you doing that?” [Pro tip: You cannot ever over communicate. You cannot over dose on communication. Keep talking until there are no more questions. And, then ask for questions.]
Last thing is to have a candid minute about the real risks of the company, the product, the market and the risk of failure. Make sure everyone is connected to the reality of the situation. [Being in the Infantry in the Army is a lot of fun. Lots of outdoors life, great camaraderie, camping, shooting guns, jumping out of airplanes, sliding down ropes, beer drinking — and then you find out other people want to kill you. Wow, buzz kill.] Know the risks.
Know how I say that your generation didn’t invent sex or business? The solution is neither unique nor secret — like a lot of things about success, it is just hard work and a pain in the butt.
And, you thought there was a secret or some secret sauce? Sorry.
The dividend of working the relationship with your co-founders is the alignment of your mutual efforts with no misalignment and no friction. Misalignment and friction steal progress from effort — makes sense, no? Resultant vector analysis and friction loss.
When you work your co-founder relationship, you maintain that special startup mojo, the feeling of sacrifice and being in it together. That Ramen noodle thing.
You solve personal issues when they are lizards and not Godzilla. Godzilla is always an expensive beastie, the son of a bitch is always wrecking something. Don’t let it be your company.
When life intrudes, you see the skid marks and you can make adjustments before the car goes over the cliff, Thelma. You can work with your co-founders to accommodate the reality of life rather than letting it knock you off alignment. You adjust before there is jealousy or blood on the floor. It is much easier that way.
In the end, your co-founders want your time. Sorry, they really just want your time.
You can do it. Work your co-founder relationships.