Ari Saif

@ourarash

11 Tips on Being a Kick-Ass Co-founder

There are a lot of articles and advice on how to find a good co-founder. But chances are you are already involved in a startup as a co-founder, and your company is moving super fast. It is a good practice to evaluate yourself and find out how good of a co-founder you are.

Many of us choose our best friends to start a company with. You then have two options: either you can be two losers who worked together for a few months and then got into fights and hated each other, or you become the two awesome founders who worked it out and built something great. Let’s face it, startups are hard. Stakes are high, and things escalate fast. Below are some practical tips to transform you from “those” guys to awesomeness.

1. Have Daily Progress

Everyday ask yourself if you actually moved the company from point A to point B. Did you get the company closer to it’s milestones? Frankly, if you don’t, your are hurting the company (and hence yourself and your partners). In a startup with a few co-founders, if one person doesn’t contribute, even for one day, that means a high percentage of the company was off that day. The impact is high. You can’t get to your goals unless all of you contribute every single day.

Practical tips:

  • Write a short daily progress report at the end of the day. It will keep you aligned, and will make you take a U-turn if you missed doing your job.
  • Do not get blocked on a single task all day. If you are assigned to do 5 things on a given day, don’t get blocked all day on the hardest task. While some recommend to do the hardest thing first, it is often (and specially for startups) best to have 4 completed easy tasks rather than 5 unfinished ones.
  • Ask for help when you get blocked. If you are stuck on a task for more than two hours, and it doesn't go well, don’t get blocked. Move on to the next task. You can always ask for help or outsource the remaining task it later.

As YC partner Paul Buchheit (PB) always says, when you are bombarded by too many tasks, look for a “90/10 solution”. That is:

look for a way in which you can accomplish 90% of what you want with only 10% of the work/effort/time. If you search hard for it, there is almost always a 90/10 solution available. Most importantly, a 90% solution to a real customer problem which is available right away, is much better than a 100% solution that takes ages to build.

2. Be a Believer, Not A Filibusterer

Photo credit: slate.com

In startups, everything has its own time. In the beginning, you brainstorm and plan, then you get into execution mode. A very common mistake is to go back to brainstorming and keep changing the plans and fundamental features of your product while being in execution mode. Brainstorming doesn’t always work. Once you come up with an idea, stop being skeptical and go back to point zero everyday. You can’t afford to keep going back to your initial idea. Instead, implement you idea as fast as possible, and then test it. If it didn’t work, then you can have another brainstorming session. You should lock into one target and not changing it unless there is really obvious reasons.

Many startup ideas seem to be terrible in the beginning. For example, Airbnb seemed to be a ridiculous idea in the beginning, but the founders believed it, executed it, and didn’t jump from one thing to another on a daily basis.

If you find yourself debating about fundamental ideas of your startup and talking about potential pivot points before even proving your initial assumptions, you are hurting your company, yourself, and your co-founders. At some point you should close your eyes, close your ears to all critics and haters and implement. You can test it once done. Continuous speculation about your goals is only detrimental. For heaven’s sake accept that your gut feeling is right and execute it. As Sharam Fouladgar-Mercer says:

Stay focused on your own projects. Since co-founding a business comes with a multitude of responsibilities, it’s easy to get distracted. There are a million problems you could solve at any given moment; you’re constantly fighting to stay focused. When it comes down to it, there’s only one “most important task” at any time. Funnel your energy and don’t worry about what your partner’s doing — they’ve got it.
You are the best, go do shit — Gary Vaynerchuk

3. Arguments: Your Co-founder’s And Your Time is Your Biggest Asset

Many of us in startups outsource tasks to contractors and freelancers, which often is not cheap. Freelancers can cost you anywhere from $20 to $150 per hour. If their time cost you that much, your time is worth even higher. So understand that every single minute that you waste arguing with your partners is making you lose money.

Practical examples:

  • If you disagree with something, consider to see if you can let it go without arguing. You don’t like the color of the website? Your logo is not aesthetically pleasant? Ask yourself how important it is. Chances are nobody cares about your company yet, much less about your logo or your color pallet. So if you can avoid one hour of heated discussion over an unimportant issue, LET IT GO!
  • Just came up with a new pivot idea? Keep it to yourself! When you are in execution mode, it’s not time to talk about other startup ideas. It will hurt your focus, and it will hurt your partners motivation and confidence. It only shows you don’t believe in your partner and the fundamental goals of your startup. It shows that you don’t value all those time that you spent on market research. Unless you are absolutely sure that your initial idea was wrong, avoid these kind of conversations at all costs. Imagine after weeks of market research you decided to build a hospital on an empty land. Down the road your partner calls you up and say: “hey, screw the hospital, I think we should build a school here”. Next day, he calls you and say: “Hey, how about a restaurant?”. How is your co founder supposed to feel when you jump from one thing to another on a daily basis??

Staying focused is one of the main tips for startups mentioned in Jessica Livingston “How Not To Fail”.

4. Don’t be creative, stick to the plan!

Commit to your plans: please have value for the time that you spend on planning. If you divide and assign tasks, you need to deliver, period. If you are in charge of doing A, but spend time doing B, you are hurting the company. Your partner is under the impression that you are spending your time on what was discussed an agreed upon, while you decided to move on to something else. So why did you guys have a planning meeting to begin with?

Practical tip:

In PlusOne, we operate based on two-week action plan sprints: at the beginning of each sprint, we discuss, brainstorm, and evaluate our priorities and milestones based on various things such as user feedback. We plan new tasks for getting to that milestone, and put them in a spreadsheet. Next is execution: we start the implementation with the understanding that every minute that is spent on tasks that are not on that spreadsheet is wasting companies assets. By doing so, at the end of each sprint, we have moved the company from point A to point B as opposed to being sidetracked.

5. Have an open mind and trust your partner’s judgement

If you don’t trust your partner’s judgement, stop working with them immediately. But if you do, understand where they are coming from and don’t be an annoying brat. If they have a different point of view, consider it with an open mind, and don’t micromanage them like a crazy CEO. Chances are they see something that you don’t. As Jenny Buch says:

That not only leads to the CEO quickly becoming the main bottleneck, also for other teams, but it is also highly demotivating for the people that work for him.
Crazy CEOs pay a lot of money for people whose job they continue doing.

6. Don’t talk out of your back!

Photo credit: pexels.com

Most tech startup founders are educated individuals with technical background. But this means you are supposed to talk based on data, statistics, and research. So don’t just say something because you feel like it has to be that way. Instead, say it only after you truly investigated the subject and can back it with data. Rather than thinking out loud, understand that you need to take an extra step and go deeper before you raise a point. Be clear, specific, and direct to the point. Every suggestion that you make should be practical and doable, otherwise it’s a waste of time.

Don’ts say these things:

  • I have a feeling that our user interface sucks
  • In my opinion the picture on our landing page is ugly

Say these things instead:

  • I studied our analytics and user behaviors. I noticed 90% of them leave our app in the first 2 minutes because they get confused about our message. I have studied several other apps, and came up with this alternative ordering of our menu items that will only take 30 minutes to implement.
  • I interviewed 10 of our users. 80% of them told me our landing page looks tacky. I visited 5 of our competitor landing pages. They all use a simple picture of a hipster guy/girl, and they seem to be very successful. I have talked to this freelancer on Fiverr, and ordered an improved picture so that we follow the same approach.

You see the difference between a random vague suggestion to a comprehensive, practical, and scientific solution, which brings me to the next issue.

7. Provide complete solutions

Chances are something is not right and you have an idea to fix it. Before proposing your idea, you need to think it through. For example, let’s say you want to add a new feature that users can comment under various things on your website. One way is to say this without thinking about anything else in your next meeting and then argue about it (meetings are not for thinking loud!). Another way is to think it through, do your homework, and then say this:

Our analytical result shows that our users don’t mind spending more time on our page and they actually get engage with the posts. Why don’t we add comments? I did some research on implementation and packages that we need to install on our backend. Based on my assessment, we can implement and MVP version of it in less than 10 hours and experiment.

Again, one is just throwing ideas, the other is a comprehensive solution.

8. Be there for your co-founder

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Many of startup co-founders go through a lot of stress and they get burned out. In fact, if you are a co-founder at early stages of your startup, almost everything is against you: your parents think you are crazy for leaving your stable corporate job. Your girlfriend/boyfriend (if you are left with any) nags at you because you don’t spend enough time with them. You don’t get enough sleep. You don’t get enough time to go to the gym. Your freelancer hasn’t done his job correctly, and everything is on the edge. So the least you can do is not to be another nagger to your co-founder. Understand that you are probably the only person in the world that can (and must) support him/her, and failing to do so can have serious consequences.

Just like any other relationships, co-funding relationship requires nurturing as well. As Tim Houghten says:

Consciously nurturing founder relationships is equally, if not more important than finding a good match in the beginning.

10. Try the lead-follow strategy

In dancing, one person leads, and the other one follows, and it’s ok!

When you are in a car with a buddy of yours, only one person should drive. This doesn’t mean that the driver has any superiority, but it is not just possible to consult and make decisions at every turn. Another example is partner dancing: when two people dance, one person must lead, and the other one must follow. That doesn’t necessarily mean the leader is a better dancer, but the nature of the the dance requires one person to drive the wheels and together create a nice picture.

As Gary Vaynerchuk puts it:

In startups co-founders are not only CEO’s but also their own electrician, plumber, and bricklayer. The problem is that everyone wants to be the architect.

If all co-founders want to simultaneously veto everything and be opinionated about every single matter, they will slow down the company. It’s best to agree early on who should lead and who should follow. Many non-critical decisions can be made quickly and don’t require all the co-founders to chime in. These roles can change regularly if need be.

Practical tips:

  • In PlusOne, we experimented with the role-reversing lead-follow strategy from the dancing community. At the beginning of each sprint, we agree that one person is the leader, and the other one is the follower. For smaller matters, the leader makes the decisions, and the follower accepts. Every two weeks, we switch the roles. This prevents a lot of unnecessary arguments and brainstorming sessions.

11. A 6 Is As Good As a 10

Understand that in many cases, a 6 is as good as a 10. So don’t be a control freak and if you can live with your co-founders grade-6 decision, keep calm, and follow. Chances are the time you waste to convince him to go from 6 to 10 can be spent on a more important task.

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