… you have to work with the right co-founder for you and your startup. That means two things; you have the right chemistry as founders and you are both excited about the startup vision. It is a tremendous challenge but not impossible finding the right co-founder. In my experience many people with the right aptitude are already working on their own startups and this leaves the pool of people to collaborate with really small.
So, as my Co-founder decided to leave last week, just short of a two month stint what have I learnt? I learnt loads about myself, about working with other people and about where I want to take this startup in terms of team. Rather than sharing a detailed list of every single lesson learnt, I’ve distilled it down to the three that really stuck out:
You could have the ideal skills and experience, you can be ambitious and driven but if two founders can’t communicate well with each other then all of that doesn’t matter. This should really be the first filter of whether you can work together.
In any relationship, communication is the factor that will determine success or failure, from family to marriage, to friendships to business partners. Going into business with someone is a big commitment to each other and if as founders you can’t communicate well then that is a problematic relationship.
However, is it possible to truly gauge if you can effectively communicate with your co-founders without first working together? I don’t think so. While you can put in some tools and processes in place, you really have to take your time to get to know each other and let the process unfold organically. The real communication test comes when disagreements happen or as a reaction to feedback from an investor, user or another team member. You can’t simulate this situation, it will arise and when it does you’ll learn how well you can both communicate.
Having been a sole founder for a year and a half before having a co-founder I have learnt that the transition requires some prep work. I should have put in better processes for communicating well once I did have a co-founder. Weekly in-depth retrospectives, more time working alongside each other, rather than working remotely, and creating a culture of transparency would have all helped. The culture of transparency should allow founders to share their views without letting them build up and lead to resentment. Some of these will be tough conversations but should constructively progress things forwards.
In order to communicate better on my day to day work I realise I need to be better at documenting progress. As I’m meeting up to 10 people a day I need a good way of relaying the information from these meetings to the rest of the team. Setting up some shared notes from these meetings would allow everyone else to see the progress. Like a GitHub for product, business and strategy efforts.
2. Unearthing Core Values
Having aligned values is great but also being respectful of differing values is important. Sometimes the differing values will clearly eliminate potential co-founders. For example if one founder wants to start and grow a company to sell within two years and another is in it for at least ten years then it’s probably not a good match. If one founder wants to lead and hang on to a large part of the equity while the other wants an equal stake then it might not be a good match.
I’ve found that there are some conversations and questions that can unearth another persons core values. Questions such as ‘what happens if things go badly with the startup?’ ‘what happens if the startup is a raging success?’ ‘why do they want to do a startup?’ These are not trick questions but can be really useful to find a good match.
3. Making Momentum
How quickly are you making and breaking things? How comfortably do you both work with changing, iterating, starting again, re-evaluating and still progressing in addition to all of that. The early days of a startup are all about this and it’s at the most opposite end of the spectrum to having a paid secure desk job. Picking up patterns in feedback and reacting to them or equally taking a decision not to switch gear are crucial to momentum. One founder shouldn’t be dragging the other founder along but both should have a focused and positive energy to create momentum greater than the sum of their efforts.
It is so, so easy to go down a rabbit hole of coding, strategy or social media marketing for example. Days, weeks and months can be lost and all at a critical stage where things should be changing, shifting and evolving for product / market fit quickly. This can be unsettling. I certainly found the pace overwhelming when I was working on my first startup. Time is the only real constant in an early stage startup so the more time you lose, the more likely the startup is to fail.
Lastly, without too much over analysis, on a most fundamental level if you’re not super excited to be working with your co-founder then it’s just not the right fit. It’s a process finding the right co-founder and part of that process is letting go of the relationships that don’t work.
So I’m back to growing a team with the right people and am open to opportunities that allow that to happen, while building this third (and final) startup ;)
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