My lessons in entrepreneurship, part 3. Managing co-founder relationships

This is the 3rd post in a series. The 1st one can be found here, and the 2nd one here.

Doing something new, something brave and dealing with the unknowns in it is an adventure. And on an adventure, one thing that you will definitely deal with is stress. There will be many situations that will test your bonds with your co-founders. Therefore, it makes sense to have a plan to deal with such situations.

There are a lot of articles one can read about dealing with issues like customer retention, the speed of execution, scaling up, raising capital etc. But I feel the really important bit, the one that will lead to lasting success is managing your relationship with your fellow pilgrims.

..…He is all pine and I am apple orchard. 
My apple trees will never get across 
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him. 
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’…..
 — from ‘Mending walls’ by Robert Frost

Good fences make good neighbours. Or if you’d quote me instead “Good rules make great partners”. This is one of those which is easier said than done. I think the fundamental conflict here is that of letting go of control and putting 100% trust in someone else. It is especially true for Alfas (which is what a lot of driven and motivated people are).

So lay down some ground rules, and follow them.

For example, X takes a final call when it comes to a decision around topic Y. In new situation, Z takes the final call. Of course, everyone gets a say, but define ownerships around decisions. The largest benefit from doing this:

Your team’s decisions making will be decisive and rapid

People grow, and their personal goals may change. My master’s dissertation at IIT was around using genome data analytics to understand evolutionary changes. A startup is the kind of environment which will lead to changes in your approach to many things. These can range from technical :my-go-to-technology-stack, methodical: no-code-till-UX-framework to financial: it-was-stupid-to-turn-down-PE-money. What I’m trying to say is that

when you do a startup, some aspect of you is likely to change significantly. As partners, you need to live with these changes

We must not hold our partners to their old or earlier views when it comes to conflict. What we should hold everyone to, is making those decisions w.r.t. what’s good for the startup.

An awkward discussion now will help avoid many heated discussions later. This happens way too often. Reason:

people generally avoid having uncomfortable discussions with those they are friends with

As a result, they may have differing views even on super-critical stuff, for example, equity split and roles. But people often let their awkwardness in dealing with it procrastinate the discussion. Whether it is something as elemental as equity, or it is a recurring activity like client onboarding, if you feel that there is something that needs to change/be discussed do it. If you made the right fences earlier, no one will see these as a territorial challenge. In fact, you may be right!

Your present startup may fail. But if you have followed this playbook, you will walk out richer than you went in — a team you can do your next startup with.

Good teams will lose some matches, but in the long haul, a good team wins the tournament