Co-founders and Conflict

Scott Francis
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Martin Zwilling’s post on 7 startup co-founders that can lead to conflict reads like a greatest hits of imminent failure.  Not that there aren’t notable exceptions to every problem cited, but at this level we’re talking in generalities. His advice?

If you think about it, you should realize that not everyone is ‘ideal partner material.’ Most of us learn that in other partner relationships, like dating and marriage. First you have to be clear on who you are, and who you can co-exist with, what complementary skills and resources you need, and what decisions in the business you are willing to relegate.

Lance and I are often asked how we make our partnership work at BP3.  We’re different.  Different personality types and different kinds of career experience and skills.  Martin addresses this neatly:

4.  “We are so alike, we finish each other’s sentences.” You really need a partner who is complementary, and can tackle the operational roles, like marketing, finance, and sales. A partner who is a carbon copy of you will likely mean two people working on every problem, rather than a natural separation of duties. Most startups can’t afford that.

I couldn’t agree more.  Lance and I are good complements.  And we each respect the other person’s strengths.  And we know how to step in for each others’ weaknesses.  I really think respect is the foundation for people who are truly different to have a good working partnership.  Without the mutual respect, conflict is inevitable. Lance and I were fortunate (in a sense) – we had the opportunity to test our partnership while we were still working at Lombardi.  We had a 13 week assignment – with 8-hours of travel required each way, and traveled 5 days a week for 13 weeks.  We spent 2 hours in the car each trip, we ate three meals a day together, and we worked together with our customer for 8-12 hours a day.  And that was just the MINIMUM amount of interaction we had for 13 weeks.  In this environment, you either earn mutual respect or you never want to work together again. At BP3, it hasn’t all been roses.  2008 and 2009 were tough years for the US economy.  We grew in those years – but we had to scratch and claw are way through it.  Our previous experiences of trial-by-fire prepared us to get through those tough years as well – we didn’t give up or play the blame game, we just got to work.  And it prepared us to be able to tell each other tough truths.  I recall taking a call, the day our son was born, about taking a new assignment for BP3 – one which I needed to personally handle and travel to – at what we might say is a sensitive family time.  But we talked about it and we knew what the right decision would be for the business.  Lance has similarly taken tough assignments in Europe and other places hard to travel to – when it was what the business needed.  Sacrifice is required to build the business up.  Make sure you’re in the hole digging with someone you respect. Our point of view – that co-founders who really do have different backgrounds are a better fit – is actually backed up by research done by the Startup Genome project, which shows that co-founders with a mix of business and tech background are more likely to succeed than co-founders with the same background (I’m paraphrasing badly – but that’s the implication of the research so far).  

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