I talk to people all the time who are just starting businesses or are considering it, and one of my top pieces of advice is always to find a great co-founder. I can say with 100% certainty that if I were not working with Foram and Katie and had to build ALV all on my own I would have given up by now. It’s not because I’m not a smart enough or capable enough individual; it’s because starting a business is freaking hard. It requires such a wide variety of skills, but most importantly, it requires unrelenting stamina, both physical and emotional.
It’s unfair of me, however, to just say, “Find a great co-founder, and you’ll be fine!” It’s a gross oversimplification of the work that goes into making a healthy co-founding team function (keep in mind, that most of this is applicable to any senior leadership team). Just like a marriage, we work at it. We constantly evolve it. As icky as it may feel (for me anyway) we talk about our feelings.
Here are some of my tips for maintaining a high-functioning, highly supportive co-founding team:
- Have the tough conversations. Let’s just get this one right out in the open because it’s obvious but also something so many people avoid. It is incredibly rare that major issues just work themselves out. I dare you to find one co-founder who swept a significant issue or disagreement under the rug, and it went away on its own. You spend your life with these people. Your livelihood depends on these people. Issues are amplified, and most of the time if they aren’t addressed they fester. To the point where you can physically feel yourself getting mad when even something tangential to the issue gets brought up. As uncomfortable as it may be, you need to discuss it. At ALV we have quarterly partner meetings where we force ourselves to take a step back from the day-to-day operations and discuss, you guessed it, our partnership. We also talk strategy and goal-setting, but a core objective, one that we never allow to fall off the agenda is to talk about our relationship, what’s working and what’s not. Some things we always discuss:
- What’s happening in our personal lives which may be relevant to the business (e.g., family planning, financial considerations, moves, health considerations with us or our families). It may feel unnecessary to discuss this stuff, but the reality is these things do impact your energy, your work and your availability. They are things which, if not out in the open, can lead to false assumptions and bitterness. If I know you’re out every Friday because you’re taking care of a sick parent versus throwing back champagne at brunch (though I personally have respect for both), my response to you being out of office will be quite different.
- We go around in a circle and share what we think each co-founder is doing really well. This is not only a feel-good exercise, but it helps us to identify things we didn’t necessarily know we were strong at or were contributing to the team. It helps us reprioritize for the future.
- We also share what we think each co-founder can improve upon. When this is offered in this safe, supportive space versus a piece of feedback fired off in the heat of the moment, it is always so much more well-received.
- Separate from skills and leadership, we also discuss opportunities for improvement from a strictly “what am I doing that’s pissing you off” standpoint. It could be something as simple as “I hate when you misuse this word” to “you’re constantly five minutes late for meetings.” It’s these little things that build into resentment over time. Get ’em out there. Get ’em resolved.
- What new partnership strategies we need to implement. For example, we recently introduced the act of stating our care factor (1 being not that important and 5 being very important) before voicing an opinion about a decision. We found that we could have a passionate debate for a long time only to find out an hour later that no one was actually all that passionate about the thing we were discussing. We were debating because we had an opinion, not because we cared all that much about the outcome. Our new, simple strategy of saying “I’m a one on this” helps us give more time and energy to the things that actually matter to us and helps us resolve disagreements more easily when it’s clear that one founder cares about that particular thing a lot more than the other.
- Treat your business with the same professionalism as any other company. It’s easy to slip into this mentality that because it’s your business, you don’t have to be quite so buttoned up. In some ways it’s true. After all, I wear sweatpants to 90% of my meetings (video conferencing is a beautiful thing). Things like timing and location of work, you have a lot more flexibility on. But things like how you show respect to colleagues should be no different. If we have to cancel a meeting or miss a business trip, we send a formal communication to the relevant parties and help them plan coverage. If we want to take a Tuesday off because our spouse has some time off, we do it, but first we circulate the idea with the team to ensure there is nothing that will fall through the cracks. Sure we could all say, “Well technically I’m my own boss so I don’t have to ask permission,” but that’s not the point. The point is to hold one another with the same regard and show the same respect that we would to any other colleague.
- Find the time and place. You most certainly don’t want to wait for quarterly meetings to provide feedback – timeliness is important for many things. That being said, you always have to remember that your team will pick up on your emotions, so you want to be careful how and when you disagree with or deliver feedback to your co-founders. For example, if you disagree with something one of your co-founders’ direct reports is doing from a strategy standpoint, be careful that you don’t just run over to them and yell at them to shut it down. They are likely acting on direct orders from your co-founder. Take a moment to have a conversation with your co-founder in private and get aligned before directing the activities of the employee. No one feels good watching their parents fight which is how you’re making your employees feel when you disagree about strategic issues in front of them. Transparency and authenticity are important, and healthy conflict can be valuable. The key is to assess what’s healthy and what’s putting your team in the middle of a parental feud.
- Lead with your strengths. In any role, it is easy to get boxed into thinking you can and should only do what is directly related to your job description. But that limits you in the ways you can contribute and the skills you have to offer to the business. If you’re the techy one, but you happen to be great at sales, sell. If you’re the back office one, but you have an eye for design, share your voice. The business loses when you don’t bring your strengths to the table and when you don’t support the strengths of your partners, even when they cross over onto your turf. When the business loses you lose too. Equally important, when it’s not your strength, know when to get out of the way. You may fear you’re losing the chance at glory, but if you focus your energy on the things you do really well, you’ll be recognized much much more.
- Make your own rules. – I have read a lot of entrepreneurship stuff and listen to a lot of podcasts which will tell you that you’re a fool if you’re a startup not in Silicon Valley. And I get it. They present a lot of valid arguments. I know there is a lot we’re missing out on by being somewhat disconnected from the startup community, but I also know there’s a lot we’re avoiding. We don’t feel the pressure to do what everyone else is doing. We aren’t in a race to have the biggest, fanciest office. We make decisions based on what is best for us. Period. Even if you are in Silicon Valley, you can still do this. Take a second to really think through if that’s the way things have to be done both from a strategic and operational standpoint. I see it as an opportunity and get excited about the new paths we can chart. It’s no surprise we are a company full of women in their 30’s and so family planning is a discussion we have a lot. What an opportunity we have to define what maternity/paternity can look like for us. What a modern-day system can be that truly honors both the individual and the company. Forget the rules. Forget what the startup down the street is doing. Do what works for you. Do what aligns with your values. Being a startup doesn’t just mean you’re creating a new product or service – it also means you’re creating a new way to do business. Make it yours.
I truly believe that one of the greatest assets Ama La Vida has is our ability to effectively support one another as co-founders. It has a ripple effect to others, and we see our team supporting each other in the same way as well. You might have the best product in the world, but if the people at the top can’t seem to get along, it will never survive. You don’t have to be best friends. You don’t have to hang out on the weekends. The thing you have to do, above all else, is approach each other with an open mind and unwavering respect.