By Tim Houghten
What really makes for an effective, and lasting co-founder relationship?
Is the magical pixie dust that gives co-founder relationships wings really all about eHarmony style data matching? Or like a successful, and long-lived “celebrity marriage,” is it the result of a strong pre-nup, regular date nights, and a lot of patience and willingness to forgive?
From curating the wisdom of leading entrepreneurs with decades of serial startup experience, and new partnerships; a successful co-founder relationship can really be broken down to 4 factors…
1. Finding the Right Match
Via a podcast with bestselling author Tim Ferriss, PayPal co-founder and Venture Capitalist Peter Thiel recently described his initial team building explorations as finding people you could actually enjoy having a beer with.
At a social entrepreneurship conference last fall, Ben Cohen of the fabled Ben & Jerry’s ice cream brand told Entrepreneur that their success really stemmed from choosing to “make our friendship the most important thing.”
Jordan Wan, co-founder and CEO of CloserIQ, which helps startups find the best fitting talent, suggests to "Take your time when looking for a co-founder. Get to know one another's core values and strengths & weaknesses. Let the relationship develop organically and see if you can share a common mission and passion for building a company together.”
Catherine, co-founder of Pomello told 1000 Angels, the private investor network that connects startups with investors, “taking your time is important. Once you've established mutual interest you have to try working on something together.”
TEDx speaker, and founder of mobile dating app Cheek’d, Lori Cheek (@loricheeknyc) spoke out in G-Code Magazine saying that it is important to select co-founders which bring value to the table with different skill sets than your own. For example; having three technical co-founders can eat up a lot of margin, and still leave a gaping hole to be filled.
So leverage platforms for spotting and connecting with potential co-founders. Look at the data and get a feel for the practical value each prospective co-founder can bring to the mix, and the culture and personality fit, but don’t stop there.
Consider doing a little reconnaissance too. Those that don’t bother to Google their new partners or ask questions, are setting themselves up to fail. How have previous working relationships ended for them? What patterns are there? Do they have crazy family members living with them that may become detrimental to a co-founder being able to function?
If it looks like a great match - invest time to get to know each other. Then test, and perhaps even split test.
2. Define the Relationship
A solid co-founder relationship that lasts, or is even capable of winding down amicably and cleanly comes from clearly identifying roles.
It is critical to make sure all co-founders are on the same page when it comes to who will do what, and who will take responsibility for which aspects of the business, and have the overriding decision making authority for them.
Ownership, responsibilities, and a clear path for exiting the relationship should all be documented and committed to paper. No one expects relationships or their startups to go sour. They often do, even, or especially when things are going well.
3. Addressing Issues
Richard Branson says to “remember that there is no better way of sorting out a difference of opinion than with a good-humored, strong debate -- and maybe a stiff drink or two together!”
Sometimes co-founders will reach points of impasse when they really can’t agree. All will eventually run into some disagreements. The keys to longevity, and pushing your startup through to its full potential is knowing how to communicate well, remembering the big goal, and effective conflict resolution skills.
Spending a good amount of time in ‘founder dating’ before launch can help minimize the chances of being stuck with a completely dysfunctional relationship and partner you just can’t reason with. This is also the time that intelligent entrepreneurs will investigate and work on learning their co-founder’s communication style so that issues can be championed quickly. Are they quick to erupt, but equally as quick to cool down and apologize? Or will they hold it in for months with a smile while secretly plotting to take the best talent off to launch a rival startup? Will they listen? Think before they speak? Can you agree to disagree?
4. Nurturing the Relationship
Consciously nurturing founder relationships is equally, if not more important than finding a good match in the beginning.
Just as with lasting marriages, and lifetime friendships, the new relationship high can wear off and dull over time. Success, and being able to get from launch, through 3 pivots, to IPO, and beyond requires a proactive approach to staying in your sweet spot. Otherwise ego, money, fear, and those with other agendas trying to shove in a wedge, can drive you apart.
If you are serious about the success of your startup, you will be just as serious about proactively planning to strengthen the bond. You can ditch the blindfold and practicing falling backwards; today there are endless options to pick from. Sending a random thank you card or cutting out early to hit the video arcade can be inexpensive and fun. Or how about an annual getaway to backpack a foreign city, tackle an obstacle course, experience a new watersport, or volunteer together. Find an adventure that will reignite your inspiration and innovative spirit, increase your team problem solving capabilities, and which reminds you how great life is when you are experiencing taking on challenges together.
Starting a startup is always more fun with a co-founder or two. In order to source and grow an effective, profitable, and enjoyable co-founding relationship, do the following…
Check your data, find a match that can make as great a friendship as a business team, define your roles, work on your communication skills and patience, get serious about proactively nurturing the bond and keeping it fresh, and make sure you’ve packed your sense of humor!