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.