Working relationships between startup cofounders are very much like the personal relationships of couples — at times wonderful, draining, magical, frustrating, intimate and stressful. Similar to a long-term committed relationship, cofounders enter into their journey together with the hope that the time spent will be long and prosperous, often with a growing family of employees and teammates.
Yet, founder tension is all-too common in startups. Frustration and communication challenges frequently boil over during stressful times, and what often begins with sunshine and happiness ends up on a boulevard of broken dreams.
Given this common occurrence, how should someone choose a good cofounder?
I argue that, as with any couple, it all comes down to The Alphabet Soup Theory of Relationships.
What’s that, you wonder?
The Alphabet Soup Theory of Relationships is the following:
Every human being has 26 needs — A to Z. No other human being can match up perfectly with all 26 of one’s needs; as a species, we are unique and there is no single person who is a perfect fit to all of one’s desires. The trick, however, is to find someone that matches up to one’s vowels.
Because, without vowels, there is no communication. Without vowels, there is no structure for understanding. Without vowels, there is only noise and gibberish.
(Ok, for the sake of this blog post, let’s assume that all people speak English. It allows the analogy work. Stay with me…)
This rule of relationships applies equally well for both personal relationships and for startup cofounders — anyone thinking of starting a company needs to be aware of what are his/her most important five interpersonal needs are, and how they match with those closest to you.
Now, as stated above, not everyone has the same five core needs. However, I’ve been around startups long enough to see a few vowels stand out as being consistently more important than others:
A – Amusement: We all get one go-around on this spinning ball we call Earth. Given how much time and energy startups take, people might as well enjoy the ride. In choosing a cofounder, be sure you like being with the other cofounders — life is too short to spend most of your days and nights with people whom you don’t enjoy being around.
E – Evolution: When a company is beginning, everyone pitches in and does whatever is required to get things done. Often a company’s equity is divided equally amongst cofounders. But, over time, specialization is required for the business to scale. Someone needs to be responsible for engineering decisions. Someone has to step up and be the CEO to make the ultimate strategic choices of the organization. Teams need to be ready to grow and to change as the complexity of the business matures and expands. The outcome of this is that different roles and often different levels of responsibilities evolve over time for founding teams. As an organization gets larger, not everyone can be involved in every decision — it is neither efficient nor is it the right way to run a business.
I – Interdependence: In team sports, no single individual wins championships — teams win championships. As such, everyone depends on others to play his/her role. Therefore, it is important to find people with complementary skillsets that are both additive and also work well with others on the team. This doesn’t mean everyone has to like each other at all times; rather, it means that people need to bring skills that make the team stronger, and that different personality styles cannot get in the way of achieving the common goal of winning.
O – Objective: One of the most painful situations in a startup is when a cofounder is not doing either the quality or quantity of work being done by others. This situation is even more difficult when the person is a close personal friend of the other cofounders (see Big Head from HBO’s Silicon Valley as an extreme example). When this happens, cofounders need to be able to communicate with clear, concise and objective measurements on performance. Startups cannot afford deadwood — that involves all parties, including cofounders.
U – Understanding: Startups are hard. The rags-to-riches stories we read in the press are six sigma outliers. Most days are battles — battles with product development, battles with winning customers, battles with the competition and, sometimes, battles with coworkers. Everyone is dealing with not only the collective stresses of being in a startup, but also with their own personal issues and demons: relationships with spouses, parents, siblings, children, friends, etc. Realizing that your cofounders are also making sacrifices so that everyone can achieve their dreams should lead to an appreciation of each other’s dedication and commitment to growing the business.
So, what are your vowels?