CEO Shoptalk — Fragility

In the early days of a startup, when you are running on pure adrenalin, co-founders are in constant contact. Every new development is shared completely, you are likely to be in close physical proximity, and the novelty of it all creates a glue that binds the co-founders together thereby provoking a level of communication that ensures the founding team is fully informed.

At the beginning you are giddy with communication.

This chaotic time builds trust and generates confidence. It is a heady and energetic time. It is the camaraderie that soldiers create on the battlefield. Co-founders are at war against the market, so that comparison is not a great leap.

But, then the company raises money or gets traction or screams, “We have product-market fit, y’all!” and the closeness that was there at the crib side of the new baby begins to change.

Roles are more distinct, there are spheres of responsibility, employees are hired, parts of jobs are delegated, board members begin to deploy their wisdom, and the pace begins to quicken.

The ability for the co-founders to attain full communication and full knowledge of what is going on is tested by the actual progress.

It is at this junction in time — almost verifiable by a watch — that the strength of a co-founding team is tested.

And, the test is this — Is the organization robust (as it relates to co-founder communication) or is it fragile?

The answer, dear reader, 104% of the time is that the relationship is hopelessly fragile. It is the normal state of affairs because it requires specific work, organization, and that most precious of all commodities in the universe — time, to beat the fragility out of your fledgling company.

A few thoughts to flavor the conversation:

 1. If you are going to solicit venture capital, you WILL have a team of co-founders. The VCs will demand it. It could be two co-founders, but VCs want to spread the risk of one of y’all getting run over by a car.

It is called “pragmatic reality.”

At every turn in the process, the VCs will say, “We are investing in the team.”

Juxtapose this with a similar reality: there is less than a 20% chance that the co-founding team will still be there in five years.  That is if you are successful. Tough environment.

 2. All the easy deals got done 20 years ago. Today if you want to start a company, you are going to have to have world class complementary skills. No single founder can possibly have the skill package to start a company alone (see also #1. above).

Part of the allure of Startup World is the chaos, the making of order from chaos, the invention of either an aspirin (relieves mankind’s pain) or a vitamin (delivers a healthier life), the learning of new skills, and learning how to operate as a team of individuals focused on a common vision.

You are going to have skills that require the co-founders to work along parallel paths that will be simultaneously moving quickly. One of y’all is going to focus on product, another may be fashioning the go-to-market strategy, while another is the public face of the company. If it is tech driven beyond the website — everybody has a little tech even if it is just a smoking fast website — you will have tech folks who are particularly difficult to weave into the tapestry.

 3. One of y’all has to be the leader of the company, and the public face of the company. One of the best bits of CEO coaching I ever did was helping a quartet of co-founders sort out their relative roles while anointing one of them as the LEADER.

It was a painful transformation because there was not an obvious choice and consensus, but when I asked them to catalog their strengths on an index card, asked them to catalog their co-founders’ strengths, the overlap was obvious and apparent in a Venn Diagram sort of way. [From the second I met the Four Musketeers, I knew who should run the business, but I didn’t tell them. They had to arrive at that decision by themselves.]

The co-founder who took on the leadership role as the CEO grew into the job and was a critical  element in the company’s successful trip to the pay window. That’s a pretty story, no?

Here’s the scar tissue — one of the co-founders ran out of his talent shadow and was replaced (not as a co-founder, but as a skill player).

All of them recognized that in becoming the face of the company, the CEO got more than his fair share of the glory. They had senses of humor (Good God, Mabel, make sure your co-founders have a working sense of humor), so they dealt with this in a jovial manner, but it was real.

After they sold the company one of them stayed with the acquiring entity. I doubt they would do another company together because of the  comparative role development. That is very sad to me as they were a great team and they made a lot of money.

 4. The failure to defeat the normal level of fragility can kill a company like cancer. It starts small, it grows slowly, and then it chokes the ability to perform which generates heat, resentment, and failure.

With that framework, what can we learn?

What do we do, Big Red Car?

Remembering that warfare can be reduced to: “Shoot, move, communicate,” focus on the communication.

Rules for Co-founders About Communication

 1. Sit down — early in the process — and buy into the idea that co-founder communication is like Gorilla Glue. If you don’t do this, the rest of what I suggest is meaningless. Go read a book.

 2. Define roles so there is no role misunderstanding. Write it down. Initial it. Look at the role definition every six months.

 3. Copy your co-founder on everything. EVERYTHING. When a co-founder doesn’t know something, they immediately suspect it’s nefarious. Most of the time it’s just overlooked, but the cumulative impact of being “out of the loop” is as bad as bad intentions.

 4. Find an hour a week to confer with your co-founders. Make it formal. Follow an agenda. Be patient. Be thorough.

 5. At the end of every such weekly session, ask, “Is there anything going on that is vexing you?”

This is important because anything  that is irritating someone that is allowed to fester begins to grow and grow until it can only be alleviated by an explosion. Explosions are not good for a fragile organization.

A digression:

Everything starts out as either urgent or important;

Then something becomes either urgent or important;

Then it becomes both urgent and important.

Effective communication allows problems to be dealt with when they are either urgent or important. Left until they become both urgent and important creates unnecessary friction and friction creates heat and heat melts down goodwill.

 6. It is really that easy and it has everything to do with ensuring that every co-founder knows what is going on at all times.

So, what is the cost, Big Red Car?

The cost, dear co-founder, will be time. Time is the most precious commodity entrusted to us mortals, but the cost will be time.

The other cost is: what happens if you don’t do it?

Taken to the extreme the cost may be that a co-founder leaves. They still own their equity, but they no longer are on the team. When co-founders leave, the culture takes a hit.

At its lowest limit, the CEO/leader is trying to run an organization that does not deploy all its brainpower at the nexus of the problems. If you don’t keep the co-founders informed, then when real problems — may be “good” problems like growth or scale — appear, you don’t have access to all of the company’s talent.

When CEO co-founders internalize everything, they tend to whip out a hair shirt, suit up, and grind themselves down.

Part of being a co-founder is burden sharing.

Not only is it important to access the entire talent pool of the company, it is important that the CEO doesn’t feel like they are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders. It is like eating your peas — it is good for the CEO’s efficiency and mental state of mind.

Bottom line it, Big Red Car

Communication amongst or between co-founders is a critical element in the maturing of a scrappy startup into a BIG DEAL.

If you don’t do it, you may pay a huge price and you may make yourself a little nuts. It happens.

If you do do it, you are laying the foundation for huge future success.

This tree, the Angel Oak north of Charleston, SC,  was grown from a single acorn about 500 years old, but look at it today. That is your company, right?

But, hey, what the Hell do I really know anyway? I’m just a Big Red Car. Be good to yourself. You deserve it.