Pull back that label

As the 6am alarm rang out, Harsh stretched out his hand to silence it. He didn’t particularly like getting up early, but he had to. His family had recently moved across town. The daily ride to school was now an hour long through the harsh metro traffic. That wasn’t the only difficulty the move had brought with it. He was now that much further away from his best friend Vikram.

Harsh was definitely the quieter of the two. Vikram on the other hand, was a glib talker and a good athlete. These qualities had helped him earn Harsh’s admiration and respect among the other boys. They both shared the same desk by virtue of roll numbers in sequence and a steady friendship had developed for about two school years now. Harsh enjoyed the new world that Vikram opened up for him. Through Vikram, he’d get invited to some of the exclusive parties thrown by seniors. In return they’d work together on projects and Harsh would liberally help his partner out. The move across town had made it difficult to get together and it was beginning to strain the friendship. Harsh did not have to be reminded about this as it already weighed heavily on his mind.

At school that day Harsh was called out of class by a junior boy. “Harsh Thomas?”, the boy yelled out from the doorway oblivious of the teacher who was still teaching. “Yea, here.” Harsh yelled back. The teacher hurled a chalk as if it were a guided missile seeking out the source of the casual response. “Balakrishnan sir wants to meet you after class” said the boy quickly and ran back out into the corridor clearly embarrassed that he had not noticed the class teacher teaching.

In the 15 minute break Harsh went over to the Physics lab where he knew he would find Balakrishnan. Balakrishnan, or ‘Bala’ was loved by his students for his easy-going nature. Students who were in Bala’s good books always saw great grades on their school year projects and Harsh’s inventive project submissions were a favorite. Last year, Harsh had demo’d a 3-wheel pulley to Bala arguing that even though it was the most efficient of pulley systems one wheel was more practical, especially when the rope kept slipping off. This year the deadline had been short and Harsh had put in his best.

“Harsh – is that you?” Bala emerged from his office. “Good! I have an important question for you – and I want you to think carefully before you answer”. Harsh settled in on a tall stool at a lab table and looked back. “Vikram tells me that he prepared his chart in your presence – is that true?”. “Yes!” Harsh lied impulsively. He would check with Vikram later, but they had not been working together for some time now. Bala weighed Harsh’s reply and a sense of awkwardness hung in the air. “Alright, go on”.

Harsh returned to class and went up to Vikram – “What’s up with Bala man? He wants to know if you prepared and submitted your chart”. Vikram said “Yea, Ameya told Bala that the chart was originally his and that I had just put a fancy border around it. I wanted to kick that geek real hard when I found out, but then I asked Bala to verify with you”. “Did you make sure Bala knows that I did the chart?”. “Yes, of course I did!” said Harsh. He realized he had said that to curry favor with Vikram. Things had gotten incredibly confusing now. Vikram wasn’t known to rip charts off other boys, but Ameya was not known to lie either. In fact, Ameya and Harsh had met up a couple of times after school – he lived closer to Harsh’s new place than any of the other boys.

That same night Ameya cycled over to Harsh’s place to talk some sense into him. “Bala tells me that Vikram prepared his chart with you. I find that strange since I recognize that chart work from my last year’s project. It was left to rot at the lab; Vikram must have picked it up and submitted it. Why are you standing up for him? He’s obviously lying”. Harsh was now beginning to feel very naive for standing up for Vikram. “Are you sure? I mean, why would Vikram lie?”. “I don’t know, but I do know this …” said Ameya emphatically – “If I can prove the chart is mine, Bala is going to take this up with the school board for plagiarism and lying. I suggest you rethink and go back to Bala before things get worse”.

Ameya’s warning had it’s intended effect. Harsh did not sleep much that night and decided that he had to step up to make an effort to clear things. Vikram could not be found but Harsh still had to go up to Bala. Harsh explained that he had lied to cover Vikram unknowingly and regretted it. Bala was not amused and he decided to dock several points off Harsh’s project grade. Back in class, Ameya confronted Vikram. Harsh watched from his desk as Ameya waved the chart in question at Vikram. A torn  label with Vikram’s name on it hung on desperately.

After school had rung out Harsh sat on the corridor stairs and stared away at the football field to mull over the day. The empty expanse seemed to closely reflect how Harsh was feeling inside. “Hey Harsh”, a voice called out. “Come on! Dad will drop you home after dinner at McD’s”. It was Ameya calling out from his car in the parking lot. He walked up to the car and said “You are seriously not mad at me for lying man?”. “Nah, besides you stood up for a friend and that surely counts for something. But you are incredibly lucky to get away with just a warning from Bala. You should’ve seen how he erupted when I peeled back the label to show him my name. I’ve never seen him turn that red”. “That must’ve been funny. Did you hear about the new movie on Asimov’s Foundation series …” Harsh continued on as he got in. As they drove away, a light behind the school’s name sign and motto switched on to illuminate old letters in the descending twilight – ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’.

Related: Reversal of fortunes.

A Summer of Startup Teams

As I look forward to April, I can sense the anticipation of talented individuals who are about to embark on remarkable journeys. This is also is when the foundations for these companies are being laid. Some will be starting out with their friends. As the gears churn away in the minds of the founders, they are carefully going over an important question in their minds – how can I include my co-founder best in what we’re about to do? Founding teams are hard to build, and once built they should be equally hard to pry apart. And yet it happens all too often.

… It was like a breakup scene from a Hollywood movie: it was raining and we were arguing in the street. We couldn’t even agree on where to walk next. And so we parted in anger, heading in opposite directions. As a metaphor for our company’s failure, this image of the two of us, lost in the rain and drifting apart, is perfect.

These words are from Eric Ries’ book ‘The Lean Startup‘. Not very long ago, I had bought into the vision of a couple of ideas and had contributed myself to each one. Along the way, spin-outs were proposed and a decision had to be made. I think I made the right one by letting go, especially considering I personally was not contributing and did not wish to continue contributing in startup mode at the time. Erics’ words closely reflect the ensuing turbulence in my mind at the time. I could not understand my choice as I felt that I was missing deserved attribution.

If one were to think of reality in only this one way, the point of it all would be sadly missed. It would be like trying to guess what an entire Jigsaw puzzle might look like based on just a single piece. When you start off together you know so little about each other except for a gut feeling that you are both going in the same direction and that you would like to share success. Given enough time and pressure, your relationship will develop into something that is closer to family and is less like a purely professional one. Beyond family, a co-founder can enrich your venture in a way that resonates with the spirit of your team and complement your own skills and mindset.

If we look at those who work with us in this way, we might be slightly embarrassed about holding back on many things. For instance, you may have thought your idea and existing work is worth a great deal of equity, or you might have missed out on attributing someone else in the past. That’s alright. It happens to the best of them. Perhaps you were just not ready for it at the time. Founders can choose to auto-adjust to each other to make these deviations irrelevant. It is also ok to find out that things are not going to work out after all. If that is where you are, the best piece of advice you can get would be to accept it and continue to move forward.

Building a founding team is hard work and in contrast it might be better to focus on a challenge that comes before that – how to get started. Success is an irresistible magnet that will help you attract the best talent. From that point, finding a right co-founder is as simple as looking for the right vibes.

If you do have the opportunity to start out with someone I suggest that you err on the side of family and not on the side of being professional. It will lay the foundation to what I believe is necessary for a great company. It might sound absurd but not much more than common wisdom that great companies are especially so because of great founders – not limited by an exact sense of ownership, or propriety.