Startup Culture: Aligning Co-founders (And The Org Beyond)

The following is based on a true story of how a simple framework called “OVIS” helped three founders form their startup, launch, pivot, raise capital, scale, and navigate their company’s successful acquisition by a Fortune 500 industry leader.

Universe (the startup we founded, scaled and sold) wasn’t created with a big bang. It had humble beginnings: as three founders, we sat in the back room of our “new” office — a small and humble space on Jarvis Street, next to a homeless shelter. We had no capital, no salaries and no employees, but we had big dreams. With our pooled funds, every day, one founder would make the others lunch on a rotating daily schedule that embodied our vision to accelerate the creation of the “sharing economy”.

Two of us had met while working at BCG — one with a mechanical engineering degree, and the other a software engineering degree & a business degree (me). This is to say that we both had a similar skillset (and perhaps equally important, aspirations) given our strategy consulting and educational backgrounds. The third founder had a computer science degree and prior roles as a lead developer in startups, and thus a more clear-cut role (but also had a great business mind on his shoulders!)

The Challenge

Startups can be daunting. With a seemingly endless to-do list pitted against minimal resources and time, we needed a way to “divide and conquer” (a term we would later refer to often), while knowing we could count on our counterparts in the team.

This need would prove only to evolve and intensify over time:

  1. As the quantity & intensity work on our plates expanded, we’d need to know which co-founder was on point for what–and do so without butting heads.
  2. As we built out the team, our employees would increasingly need to know who to go to for what.
  3. As we pitched VCs and angel investors, we would need to be able to explain to investors who was on point for what.
  4. As we scaled our team with new capital, we’d need to define roles to know what to hire for, and need to empower new and existing team members to build great things with autonomy.
  5. As we approached partnerships and our eventual acquirer, we would need to be a united front, showing strength, specialization and ways to align to those in the partner (or acquirer) organization.

The Solution

To address these challenges, I drew upon my learnings from a PMI (Post Merger Integration) project that I helped lead at BCG–coincidentally, this was the project in Montreal where my one co-founder and I met while he was on his internship. I took these learnings and adapted them for the startup world.

Enter: the O.V.I.S. framework. I sat down with my co-founders and described the concept as my marker inked the whiteboard.

“For the rows of this matrix, you have the letters O.V. I. S. — these stand for Own, Veto, Informed and Supporting.

For the columns we’ll have disciplines–for instance, ‘Development’: Adam is Owner, Craig is Supporting, and Ben is being kept Informed.

Let’s add other disciplines, let’s see: Design, Marketing, Sales, Legal, Hiring… what else do you two want to add?”

  • Own: get it done, make decisions, run with it unless your Veto partner checks in to course-correct. Leverage your Support, and keep in the loop those who need to be Informed. Own it. Don’t let your team down.
  • Veto: let the Owner run with it. Trust them. If you really need to course-correct, let them know. For example, QA new features (or leverage Supporting to help do the work) and green-light launches.
  • Informed: the person Owning things has the duty to keep you aware of what’s up. And your duty is to care and to digest that with which they Inform you.
  • Supporting: the Owner has a lot on their plate and/or need help from complimentary areas. Help them Own and do their things faster and better. For instance, unblock your CTO as much as possible.

We began to fill in this template and make the concept something quite practical. Some allocations were more obvious, others were more sticky… who would take the trash out to Jarvis Street? 😉

Benefits

There were important benefits of this defined way of thinking about roles:

  • Efficiency: the obvious benefit was “dividing & conquering” — this allowed us to prioritize things and get more done by working in parallel. And less stepping on each other’s toes.
  • Accountability: another main benefit was that only one person was on the hook for a particular area — was something missed in an area that you Own (“O”)? You’ve let your team down. Don’t drop the ball.
  • Transparency: with generic titles like “Co-founder,” our employees (and thus we) benefitted by them knowing who they should go to for what.

Growing and Scaling

It was important to not be rigid. As time would evolve, so would our matrix. New needs would arise as we grew, resulting in new levels of granularity for the disciplines. For instance, we would end up splitting the Design column into UI and UX.

On that note, as we hired people onto our team, new stakeholders would arise–and we’d need to add these people into the chart as new Owners (“O”s) or Supporters (“S”s).

Side note: As beautiful and egalitarian as it was at the beginning, the founders didn’t end up Owning making lunches for each other forever. (Although we did this for a while including founders making lunch for our new employees!)

A big challenge for some founders can be letting go of certain disciplines as the team scales. It can be hard to let things go, but in my opinion it’s important to give your people rope. The way we looked at this was that we would first get our hands dirty and Own things ourselves as founders (take on the “O” role). By doing this we would understand the thing we’re Owning deeply. We would then hire for it as needed (or, invoke someone already on the team), and then hand it off while saying Informed (“I”) and maybe with ability to Veto (“V”) or perhaps more importantly, so as not to micromanage, to explicitly Support (“S”) as a “servant leader”.

All Phases

This O.V.I.S. framework would prove valuable at all phases of our journey: after negotiating the sale of my startup to our parent company, where I have continued to lead the now-subsidiary unit and its growth, I continue to reference the framework to this very day.

It can also be useful at the very beginning of a startup journey — you can ask yourself, does this co-founding team have too much overlap? If we do, how will we divide things up and how will that evolve over time?

So, on that note, as an angel investor and mentor of startups, I often find myself referring to this framework, which is why I decided to craft this story into a shareable written artifact. One startup I’m thinking about at this moment is Crescendo— I‘m excited to share this and other insights with them (and other startups) so that they can save time and learn from what worked and didn’t work for me in my startup journey.

I hope this will help you learn, too. If you found this helpful or would like to chat directly, please feel to reach out.

And on a closing note: who took out the trash to Jarvis Street? It depended on the week. Not everything ends up on an OVIS framework. Founders have more grit than you’ll ever know.

Craig is Co-founder & CEO of universe.com - Universe was acquired by Live Nation Entertainment NYSE:LYV (Ticketmaster). The views expressed here are his own.

At Universe, Craig raised capital from angel and VC investors, led the company’s strategy, successfully executed a successful pivot (from sharing economy marketplace → event marketplace), oversaw the company’s acquisition of its universe.com domain name, led product development resulting in (among other innovations) the launch of its iOS & Android apps and the company’s embeddable widget, and defined and grew the marketplace’s LTV:CAC ratio and other metrics, bringing Universe from concept → launch → growth ➝ acquisition.

Craig is a classically trained software engineer and business analyst, with hands on experience at BCG, Credit Suisse and in software engineering roles. While at Credit Suisse’s technology investment banking division based out of San Francisco, Craig advised tech companies on their M&A and corporate finance needs. At BCG, Craig advised tech companies on strategy & operations, in Canada, US, Italy and Austria.

He studied software engineering at Western University, and business at Ivey where he earned his HBA. He is an avid rock climber.

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Entrepreneur, adventurer, artist at heart.

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