Good cofounder partnerships can create synergy; a bad one can end startups.
Whenever I get some free time, I often surf the internet for articles on running startups.
It’s no secret. I’ve heard it in-person, seen it online. Cofounder partnerships are like marriages.
Sharing in triumphs and defeats, struggling through adversity together, and even feeling jealous—the similarities between cofounder partnerships and marriages abound. Romance, for one, is a glaring difference, and somehow, in startup terms, a 50% success rate sounds like a guarantee.
Marriage analogy aside, any relationship (high stakes or not) takes effort for it to be healthy and successful.
Ultimately, people, not products, run businesses. That’s why cofounders—the leaders of a startup—must build and continually maintain a strong working relationship. This is the foundation of the business. The structure will likely crumble if it’s weak.
In this post, I’m going to discuss methods I’ve found to effectively cultivate cofounder partnerships. I hope this will help you achieve professional bliss.
This post rounds out my series on startup cofounders. Check out earlier entries :
↪ How To Find A Co-Founder For Your Startup
↪ How to Find a Technical Co-founder for your Startup
↪ What I (A Startup CTO) Look For In A Non-Technical Cofounder
As I said in the introduction, the cofounder partnership serves as the foundation of your startup. While the significance of finding the right partner(s) seems self-evident, some entrepreneurs ruin their chances of success right from the start by being impulsive when selecting their cofounder.
Here’s the thing: Ms. Right or Mr. Right exists. Just not in the way romantics would have it.
An ideal cofounder partner probably won’t live up to all of your expectations (you won’t live up to all of theirs either), and there’s probably more than one of them somewhere on Earth.
In other words, there will be multiple viable cofounders out there. You have to find at least one of them, of course. Expand your network if you can’t think of anyone, work on your pitch deck and iterate on it with mentors/experts, and possible candidates.
Your first order of business is developing and validating your ideas anyway. Keep in mind, though: as your thoughts start to crystallize, narrow down your candidate list and continue to collaborate with them. There are no guarantees, but the closest you’ll get to work with them is through these initial meetings.
A few useful questions to ask yourself after meeting with a cofounder candidate:
Of course, to some degree, the gut feeling will be involved, as well as personality preferences you may have. Just don’t live under the illusion that there’s only one person who can help you build your startup.
Take your time. You’ve got to get this decision right, otherwise, you’ll be setting your business up for failure.
Cofounder partnerships work best when each accepts and excels in their unique role.
The CEO must:
Side note: I’ve written a post that might help you rethink your approach to raising capital during the seed round.
The CTO must:
Side note: Interested in the CTO in a corporate setting? Learn more about the role and responsibilities of a CTO and CTO vs CIO.
Eventually, you might want to bring in ahead of marketing to help you attract and multiply your customer base. The basic idea remains, though. You need to spend as much time as possible delivering on what you do best.
CEOs should definitely not be choosing the technologies the development team uses, for instance. CTOs should not be focusing on tracking down investors. Together, though, they must decide the future of the business.
While you and the rest of your c-suite should play to your strengths, it actually helps everyone if you put effort into educating yourself about what your partners do on a daily basis.
If you’re a CEO, for example, start learning how to code. Learning just a bit more about someone else’s job and its pain points can help you empathize with them. Also communication becomes easier, as less time needs to be spent explaining basic concepts.
I know what I said in the previous section: know your role!
Nevertheless, startups begin as miniature operations early on. This means everybody has to be flexible and supportive, helping out whenever and wherever they can.
This isn’t necessarily disputed about big picture matters. Cofounder partnerships, just like any relationship, can sour due to many minor or even major grievances piling up without being addressed.
Again, your cofounder is your partner. Not just another employee, or robot servant.
You may be so focused on reaching the next milestone that you don’t notice your cofounder has been sulking for weeks. Maybe a family member’s sick, or they broke up with their significant other. Asking (not prying) about their health and happiness, at the very least, shows that you care.
Set out a chunk of time or two every week where you can spend quality time with your cofounder. No business (or as little as possible), just focus on your relationship. Whether it’s over a meal or coffee, hash out any differences and interact with them like the human they presumably are.
A strong cofounder partnership and startup can exist only when there’s honesty.
I’m talking about being open about failures and successes, but especially the former.
If you encounter a problem, bring it up. Immediately.
The startup could seriously suffer if you and your cofounder(s) bury issues without addressing them. This could be malfunctions with your product, or as we discussed before, personal grievances.
Concealing things, even if it’s your fault, is a recipe for disaster. Unresolved problems with your products or your personnel could be the very thing that ruins your startup.
Even after asking, you’ll find some people refuse to open up. This trait isn’t one you’ll probably find out before you spend considerable working with them. I’ve found that I can often coax my more reserved cofounders to open up by articulating my honest thoughts in a mindful way.
But that’s just what’s worked for me. I’m clearly not a relationship counselor, and I don’t know any Dr. Phil quotes.
It’s been a recurring theme of this post, and we’re going to conclude with it.
People, not products, make startups. And when people are involved, genius or otherwise, mishaps will definitely occur.
I can confidently admit I’ve made a great many mistakes. I’m sure you have, too. Sh*t happens, as they say.
But playing the blame game just deepens wounds, potentially creating rifts too wide to ever close. If you took the time and chose the right cofounder in the first place, you should know your cofounder’s working just about as hard as you to make the business a success.
That’s why I urge you to approach your cofounder with understanding rather than anger. Easy in theory, hard in practice. I know that firsthand.
Rather than treating mistakes as terrible setbacks (granted, they can be at times), you can view them as learning opportunities. Discuss what transpired, move on, and neither of you will repeat the blunder again (fingers crossed).
A mistake could also be the result of personal trouble your cofounder has kept to themself. Berating them will only worsen the issue, and they definitely won’t feel inclined to open up to you in the future.
↪ Five Seattle Startups I think you should know about
Any thoughts on building a strong and healthy relationship between cofounders? Have a better analogy than the marriage one? Whatever it is, feel free to share your perspective.
While you’re here, I’d like to mention that I’m searching for entrepreneurs with great business ideas and practical plans.
I’ve been fortunate to have worked as a startup CTO and technical co-founder for over a decade, specializing in B2B SaaS. I also have a bit of an obsession with blockchain companies.
I’d like to offer my expertise to you and your startup. First-timers, I know, have a particularly hard time navigating an already difficult space. Please reach out if you’re having trouble building your business.