I am back from my summer lay-off and feel incredibly refreshed, in some part due to the several books I read whilst away. One of them is by Tim Dowling, who is hysterical, and titled ‘How to be a Husband’ which I read whilst at a wedding in Revello on the Amalfi Coast. You can just imagine the sideways glances I got reading this book around the swimming pool with all the female wedding guests elbowing their husbands and muttering!
The author cracks me up and in the book there are 50 rules of surviving a marriage and when I started to tick through them apart from the laughter it really struck me that in many cases you could do a minor edit and change husband and wife for founders and get straight to the heart of the challenges of being a founder in a founding team. In my career I have founded several companies with more than 10 co-founders and thankfully many co-founders on a multiple basis. That’s go to make me an expert right?
Here are my “rules” following my minor edits on the good, the bad and the downright ugly of ‘surviving your co-founder’. This is completely inspired by Tim Dowling and his book How To Be A Husband, so if you need to be a better husband then read his book and if you want to survive your co-founder then read on…
1. Early on after founding the company together it’s vital for Co-Founders to agree upon an easily recognisable gesture – a raised eyebrow, say, or a discreetly pointed elbow – that will henceforth serve to mean, ‘You see this person I am talking to? Please use their name in a sentence immediately. I have forgotten it.’ This can also be repeated for “shut up”, “move on”, “please step in I have lost the audience”, “call the police, security or the head of sales this might turn violent”…
2. Try and speak at least once during the day, every day. If nothing else, it keeps vital channels of communication open and operating. Co-Founders have a habit of ringing at any time with little or no reason and agenda – this is often a sign of affection or insecurity. Often there is some cryptic pretext for the call – “what do you think on the new guy?” or sometimes they check in for no apparent reasons at all – “anything to report”. It doesn’t sound like much, but on such regular exchanges of inanities are rock–solid start ups often built.
3. Naturally there is a lot of disagreement in any partnership, but make sure you’re on the same side when battling outside forces: unfeeling authority, intractable bureaucracy; strangers who have invested stupidly, poor execution from the team. Mindless solidarity is vital under these circumstances – fight side by side, or run away together, but don’t be divided. Occasionally this them-against-us attitude can lead to founders resorting to criminal behaviour – like Bonnie and Clyde – a day in court or around the prison yard can really help to cement a relationship – criminality should be avoided at all costs as its not how your parents raised you.
4. When it comes to questions such as, ‘What do you think of the new branding’, ‘I thought I really nailed the auditorium’, ‘Are these trousers all right?’ and ‘Do you like my new hair?’ everyone, male or female, appreciates something that sounds like an honest answer. This is not necessarily the same as an honest answer.
5. Love is one of those emotions you occasionally have to talk yourself into with a Co-Founder. In the teeth of the shit storm of accusation and recrimination that start-ups can sometimes turn into – often in the “Grow Up” stage. It’s vital you take time out to dwell upon all the things about your Co-Founder that are admirable, exceptional and charming. Sometimes it’s easier to do this when they are away on business and not screwing up in front of you (see rule 9).
6. Remember being a Co-Founder isn’t all good. Like anything ultimately beneficial, it has some unwanted side effects. It can leave participants feeling hemmed in, held back and harried. It represents an ongoing threat to one’s individuality, personal privacy, fulfillment and freedom. You will be happier once you understand that this works both ways. When you’re feeling resentment, for example, it helps to bear in mind that you are also, at some level, resented.
7. Own your stupidity. Self-awareness is a reliably endearing trait, and over time your Co-Founder will come to admire your ability to recognise precisely when you have been/are being an idiot. In fact an objective grasp of your own stupidity is almost preferable to not being stupid in the first place and it’s much, much easier.
8. As a periodic experiment, try pretending that everything your Co-Founder says during an argument is factually correct. It’s easy to be a good listener – you just close your mouth, sit on your hands and nod – but it can be difficult to see other people’s opinions the way they do – as the truth – especially when they are wrong.
9. A little paranoia is a good thing in business (some of the finest generals lived long lives and had illustrious careers due to healthy levels of paranoia); complacency is the more dangerous enemy. You should never feel so secure in your Co-Founding role that you are unable to imagine the whole thing falling apart over a long weekend. I can’t give you an exact figure for how many sleepless nights per year you should spend worrying that you’re going to die alone, unfulfilled and unhappy if you don’t get your shit together Co-Founder wise, but it’s somewhere between 6 and 12. This number reflects some key points in the annual diary. Performance and Accountability can hit the weigh bridge during – strategy sessions, budget sign off, quarterly reporting or month end. This excludes product launches, DOS attacks, re brands, raising money and the ability to convert huge effort and expense on Golden Balls actually being hired and being any good…I wont go on!
10. “On the Spectrum”, this one’s all my own work…. if you are a social (read HR and Legal) nightmare or just an arsehole, always remember that these traits can wonderfully co-exist in building a great company with your Co-Founders as long as these negative behaviours can be attributed to your unique genius which generates truck loads of value. And truck loads of money more often than not, otherwise you can expect the guillotine. Its amazing how maniacs who generate riches are so much more tolerated than those who don’t.
11. My favourite. Being in business together is like sharing a basement with a fellow hostage: after five years there are very few off-putting things you won’t know about one another. After ten years there are none. Don’t worry too much about having revealed yourself over time to be a weak, irritating and physically disgusting human being – the trick is to maintain a daily standard consistently above your most unattractive self. Once your Co-Founder has seen you at your worst, they’ll realise how much effort you’re putting in just to make yourself presentable.
FINALLY (SPEAKING AS AN INVESTOR)
12. It’s okay to talk about your INVESTORS when you go out to a restaurant together. You’re with the only other person who’s actually interested in them. Seize the moment.
As I am now an agony aunt for so many founders in the technology scene please feel free to Tweet your stories good, bad or downright ugly to #survivingurcofounder where our bot will provide you direct advice from a SaaS platform Surviving as a Service (terrible investment hypothesis but great fun).