10 tips on making your new co-founder partnership successful

So, you’ve got your startup idea and you’ve found someone as equally passionate about it as you, with seemingly complementary skills. On paper there is no stopping you. Maybe you’ve known them for years, but you’ve not worked with them, or maybe you’ve worked together for a larger organisation, or, maybe you’ve just met.

Surprisingly, there is little correlation between how long you’ve known someone (and how well you think you already know them) and the likelihood of your new working partnership working out well. In fact the more you assume you already know someone, the more likely you are to overlook upfront key conversations that are critical to enable you to successfully hurdle the inevitable challenges that will come your way.

So, how do you give your union, and therefore your startup, the best possible chance of success?

Like any good marriage, co-founders who stand the test of time (and all that startup pressure) have all followed these basic principles and practical steps.

  1. Make sure you have aligned personal missions. What do you both want from this startup? What are the personal end goals for you both? Acquired exit, or to generate a lifestyle business? Often our personal goals evolve over time and with experience so it is important to keep talking and work through any inevitable changes that come.
  2. Outline roles and responsibilities. Who is going to lead what? Make sure you are clear which areas are going to be shared, and which you will take individual ownership of. Perhaps one of you will look after marketing and one will look after the technical product, but you share the business strategy and financials. However it works best for you make sure all areas of the business are talked through, discussed and assigned. As you grow and new areas appear (e.g. HR) don’t make any assumptions about who will do this (a surefire way to build resentment). Take the time to consciously sit and discuss it.
  3. Avoid decision deadlock. As co-founders you will need to make a myriad of joint decisions and you are not always going to agree. If you have joint voting rights you need to develop strategies that keep negotiations moving when you both have opposing, but fixed opinions. Try to think about what you need, not what you want. Put ego aside and only focus on what is right for the business. Be prepared to compromise and spend all your energy generating creative solutions, not on who is right and wrong. If you get really stuck consider bringing in a mediator.
  4. Track your joint progress. You need to agree on how you will review your progress and overcome any obstacles. Ensuring you have clear goals identified for each business area will ensure you have an aligned roadmap to reaching the overall mission you agreed on in point 1. of this list. Make sure you establish clear times to review so outside of these times you are each focused on your individual responsibilities.
  5. Establish your day-to-day ways of working. Will you work together 9–6 from a set location, or will you work independently and remotely? Are there specific times you know you need to protect for child care or exercise? Make sure you both get all your needs around your time out on the table upfront and establish your personal boundaries, when you can and can’t be contacted, and how you will principally communicate; phone; slack; daily Skype; etc.
  6. Tackle issues head on. To develop this habit it might help initially to establish a weekly ‘what went well this week, what didn’t go so well this week’ check in. In time what you are aiming for is to give each other live continual feedback and the confidence to raise any conflicts. The key here is as each person talks, to commit to listening fully without interruption before focusing only on finding solutions. This is difficult but gets easier with practice and could save your business.
  7. Commit to trusting each other. Apart from psychopaths (see here to see if your co-founder is a psychopath http://amzn.to/2ewNplm), everyone believes they are doing the right thing for the right reasons. It is easy but very dangerous to jump to conclusions about why someone may or may not have done something, or behaved in a certain way. If you catch yourself making negative assumptions and feeling cross try to take a step back and think ‘have I really got all the information here to draw this conclusion?’. Building trust is the essential ingredient to making the partnership work.
  8. Expect the unexpected. You can’t prepare for everything that startup life is going to throw at you, or how you will feel about what comes up. Our personal goals and perspectives evolve over time as we are influenced by new experiences. How we deal (different to how we might feel) with the changes in others as well as ourselves is key here. Change is the only certainty so commit to being open to it and always choose to deal with the reality, rather than your fantasy, of any given situation.
  9. Don’t think because it’s hard it’s not working. Working with other people is something that all of us find difficult at times and disagreements and conflict are natural. We are not psychologically predisposed to work easily in groups (a true fact that I think explains a lot), but we also know that ultimately we get better results, make greater strides, and enjoy the wins more when we commit to putting in the hard graft that is necessary in making our relationships work.
  10. Enjoy it! Running a business alone is not as fun as having people to share all those highs and lows with. Make the journey hilarious, absurd, entertaining, and anything else that will make it ultimately memorable.