Date Your Co-Founders Before You Marry Them
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
There’s nothing quite like that magical moment when two people decide to create a beautiful life together - butterflies in the stomach, loss of appetite, happily sleepless nights, and that unmistakable bounce in your step as imaginations of what the future might look like populate your dreams.
Of course, I’m not talking about love. I’m talking about starting a business.
Just like modern marriage, the budding relationship between startup co-founders is a delicate dance that should be handled carefully lest the courtship turn from a happily-ever-after to a divorce-court nightmare.
The unfortunate reality for most startup entrepreneurs (including this one - until I took my lumps and learned my lesson) is that this new business venture you’re so excited about today will collapse into a fiery mass of twisted metal and broken hearts. Which begs the question:
Why bother with co-founders?
Strange as it may sound, I’m a big fan of having co-founders. As John C. Maxwell observed, "Nothing of significance was ever achieved by an individual acting alone." Think about the ‘greats’ in any field, and you, too, will easily see this pattern. Steve Jobs had Steve Wozniak to help turn his vision into reality, Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in history, had Bob Bowman coaching him to victory, and when Martin Luther King Jr. marched on Washington, he didn’t come alone.
The right founding team can be the difference between a strap succeeding or failing, as having a partner in your corner to spur you on during the long, hard days of starting up is invaluable. Ideally, your co-founders will bring strengths, resources, and characteristics that you do not possess but are necessary to the future success of your enterprise. Together, we can become more than the sum of your individual parts.
People are the reason startups succeed. Or fail.
Don’t get me wrong, having co-founders is not without its challenges, for as soon as you invite a co-founder into the mix, you must now go about the difficult work of finding consensus between two or more perspectives, values, and belief systems. What makes this work particularly challenging is that these things are largely intangible, difficult to put into language, and not easily observed.
To make your work a little bit easier, here are three proven principles to help ensure that you and your co-founders find your way to success.
Focus on the relationship. The business is secondary.
It’s amazing to me how many times I hear founders and founding teams lament the challenges in their team dynamics. Yet when asked how they decided to get into business, the story starts with “an idea.”
Excitement is contagious, and typically when a founder meets a prospective co-founder, there are sparks. The founder speaks emphatically with wild hand gestures about how their big idea will change the world. The co-founder-to-be sits there wide-eyed, heart racing as visions of fame and fortune dance through their head. Right then and there, in that minute, a decision to move forward together is made.
I’ve been on both sides of that conversation many times and understand the intoxicating effect of ‘startup energy completely.’ It’s a Siren’s song and the death of many a startup.
Deciding to get into business like this, however alluring it may be, is akin to waking up the morning after a one-night stand and proposing to still hungover stranger in the bed next to you. It’s insane.
Success is built on relationships, and you need to put a little more time into yours.
Align values and priorities in advance
I know that things feel really good right now, but if you’re still in the early stages of your startup, you’re viewing the world through rose-colored glasses. However enjoyable the ‘new car smell,’ you must begin the work of building the business if you want your business to succeed.
Business building in its simplest form is the act of making decisions. Decisions about how resources are allocated, time is invested, and decisions about roles and responsibilities. You’ll have plenty of choices to make about who you serve, how you deliver value, and with a little luck, lots to decide about who to hire as you grow.
Make more good decisions than bad, and your business grows. Of course, the inverse is also true. Make more bad decisions than good… and well.
The trouble is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are relative terms, and co-founders don’t always view decisions or the outcomes of those decisions the same way. What one founder views as good, the other may see in a less favorable light.
An easy way to anchor this idea is in an example. Imagine your new startup is approached to be the exclusive provider of some product of a large national retailer - like being the company that provides straws to a chain like McDonalds. It’s a huge once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for your tiny shop and one that could not only put you on the map but also position you as a market leader.
The catch in this imaginary scenario is that your new prospective partner has been in the news lately with some unflattering headlines that have caused something of an uproar as social justice warriors take to Twitter and Facebook to show their support or disdain.
Your co-founder is willing to look past the indiscretion and take the money to grow the business. You feel less comfortable with the idea. Cue conflict.
The more clarity you can gain with your soon-to-be business partner the better. Invest some time sharing your values and talking about how you might handle various situations that arise in your business, from hiring to handling setbacks to measuring success. The more you know upfront the better.
So you’ve talked with your potential co-founders and discovered that you’re in perfect harmony with your values. Now we’re off to the races, right? Not so fast.
It’s no secret that people don’t often say what they really believe. Sometimes it’s because they are trying to conceal information that might mar their reputation. Other times, and I would suspect more often, it’s simply because they don’t actually know what they believe.
Just because you and your co-founders say you value the same things is as of yet an unproven hypothesis. Now it’s time to test it.
Savvy entrepreneurs realized that the only way to see what a person really values is to see how they behave. I’ve always said that we all live with our values on full display… all the time. If you want to know what your co-founders value, you must put yourselves in a situation that forces those values into play. And the more stressful the better.
If at all possible, engineer an opportunity for your budding team to collaborate to see what each of you is really made of. Maybe it’s a special project, or maybe you roll up your sleeves and just get started on whatever needs doing. Watch how your co-founders respond and invite them to observe your behavior as well. Then take some time to evaluate the experience, identify problem spots and iron out the conflicts.
Ideally, you do this before the business is formally incorporated and certainly before there’s any money coming through the front door. The last time you want to be iron out the wrinkles is after you’ve landed a huge contract, as it becomes a costly and emotionally exhausting ordeal to sort out after the fact. If you’ve already filed, talk to your co-founders about hitting the reset button and enacting a vesting schedule with a cliff to protect your new venture.
Having a co-founder can be an incredible blessing to any growing organization. But only if you’re the right co-founders for each other. The wrong fit spells strife and unending conflict sure to result in inevitable disaster. Go slow, choose wisely, and good luck.