Choose your startup co-founder as you chose your spouse

They’ve started to arrive. An endless cascade of luxuriously quilted cream coloured and embossed envelopes, thumping onto the doormat. The wedding invitations – for either second or third re-bookings post Covid – friends of my children who I got to know well, sharing the roster on ‘Dad’s taxi’ duties to 18th birthday parties and 2am shuttles from nightclubs, before they jetted off to university.

Now they’re ready to settle down and it’s unstoppable. Some have the thickness of a letter bomb containing a complex invitation, a triumph of paper engineering, a comprehensive dossier of mobile phone numbers, email addresses, web sites, how to get there, what to wear, Amazon gift lists.

This isn’t the first wave of weddings I’ve been witnessed, that was when many of my contemporaries married after university. In these wedding photos the bride and groom are seen raising pint glasses, raucous groups of silly 1980s haircuts and outfits, and modest wedding gifts. But great music to dance to at the receptions I recall.

Then the second wave, the late-twenties weddings, which retained a little of that tongue in cheek home-made quality. The most memorable was a reception that took place in the groom’s parent’s gardens in Bristol, vows were self-composed and rigorously secular. I remember the ‘entertainment’ was from an all-girl band – including the bride – that had obviously taken a series of wrong-turns and bad choices in their musical direction. They sang their own songs – one was about miserable summer jobs. The bride subsequently packed up the band and took a course in circus skills until is transpired that she had none. Trapeze was not the answer.

Then the third wedding wave, proving to be the most spectacular, weddings of friends in the early to mid-thirties who had been working for the best part of a decade, and had some money to throw at a once-in-a-lifetime event. Country Houses, vast marquees like Bedouin tent cities; silk grey morning suits and top hats, worn with aplomb if not some discomfort, string quartets and harpists, even ice sculptures. One couple left the reception in a hot air balloon.

Now in the fourth wave. The last wedding pre-lockdown was in Cheshire. I was on table twenty-four, near the back of the room. I didn’t take it personally, although I was tempted to tamper with the seating plan. What’s the main course I asked? The rumour mill says salmon. Salmon, salmon, salmon at weddings, I feel like swimming upstream. I recall the confetti cost £2 a bag – it had to be Vintage Rose Pink and White Heart Biodegradable Tissue Paper Wedding Throwing Confetti per the event instructions. My bag of boil-in-the-bag fragrant jasmine rice from Aldi wasn’t approved by my wife and stayed in my pocket.

But the coming together of the couple itself is what it’s all about. Bonding, soul mates for life; or the start of melancholic, wet winters of recriminations, slammed doors and watching TV together in silence? Marriage has no guarantees. If that’s what you’re looking for, buy a toaster from Argos. My wife, Susan, and I have been married for 34 years, and not once have we had an argument serious enough to consider divorce. Murder, yes, but divorce, never. We always hold hands. If I let go, she’s gone, off to buy expensive clothes.

It’s really not an exaggeration to say that hooking up with a new partner in a startup is just like getting married and gaining a spouse. You embark on a joined-up hope-fuelled journey towards a bright and optimistic future. So, you should prepare for a co-founder relationship in much the same way you would for a marriage.

Like a great spouse, great co-founders can make even the worst times feel fun and bearable, they will sit with you at the bottom of the pit on your lowest day and tell you that it’s going to be okay. This relationship can determine the success of your venture. When you co-found a startup, your lives will inevitably intertwine, and as in marriage, you have to have each other’s backs.

Many successful companies were built by productive co-founder relationships. We all know the tech co-founder duos – Larry Page and Sergey Brin at Google, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak at Apple, and Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard at HP. Last week, the latest fundraising round by the digital payments firm Stripe, founded by brothers Patrick and John Collison, again showed the critical importance of co-founder relationships.

Stripe is an internet payment procurer which allows companies to process online payments from customers quickly. Handling almost 5,000 transaction requests a second, it takes a cut of 1.4% and a flat fee of 20p per transaction and, thanks to lockdown, has been going completely bananas. The valuation of Stripe at $95bn makes it the most valuable private company founded in Silicon Valley.

It’s all a far cry for the for two brothers from the Tipperary village of Dromineer, population 100. The pair grew up in a house that was not even connected to the internet for the first decade of their lives. Ready access to books and an encouragement to read voraciously led to a love of computers, an interest in coding, and to the boys’ first investment pitch: encouraging their parents to install a German satellite internet connection so they could continue their computer programming education. It was successful.

There’s nothing like sharing a bedroom and backyard soccer games to reveal someone’s true mettle, which is why the brothers have worked as co-founders. They’ve had each other’s backs, built each other up needed it, given each other flexibility when required, and made it together. Sorry, no rivalry or revenge stories to report, like a perfect marriage. Patrick Collison has nothing but kind words to say about his brother, joking that he’s determined to be the one in the family to make something of himself. He’s a better version of me.

Sibling ‘bro-founders’ are a secret weapon for business success, examples including Dodge Trucks (Horace and John Dodge), Disney (Walt and Roy) , Pizza Hut (Frank and Dan Carney) and Warner Brothers (Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack). But it can go wrong. One of the most famous involves the Dassler brothers, Rudolph and Adolf, who founded one of the world’s first athletic shoe companies in Germany in the 1920s. Dassler Brothers Shoe Factory became wildly successful, but tensions between the brothers were so dramatic they parted ways amid allegations of stealing, affairs, revenge and sabotage.

After World War II, Rudi launched his own company Puma, and Adolf countered with Adidas. Their rivalry spurred them along the path to becoming the biggest names in international sportswear – but they continued to sue and countersue each other for much of their lives.

But back to choosing a co-founder as you chose a spouse. When you know someone well, you have a fair idea of how they operate, how they’ll respond under pressure, their strengths and weaknesses, their dedication, their ethical fabric. In many ways, there should be no big surprises. It shouldn’t take the rough and tumble of commercial reality for traits to surface, no matter how well you think you know them.

Research shows start-ups with co-founders are four times likely to be successful than those going solo – a strong case for forming a double act. Going it alone it’s easier to make decisions quickly and go for it, and generally you can’t fall out with yourself, and you also learn more – by necessity. Alternatively, with a co-founder you have the benefits of ‘two heads are better than one’, improving decision making. With a co-founder, you’re also not spreading yourself too thinly, taking responsibility for everything, and working with complimentary skills and doubled bandwidth, more gets done.

So, everything considered, what are the attributes you should consider when seeking a co-founder?

Aligned motives If one founder wants to build a cool product, another one wants to make money and be famous, it won’t work. Pay close attention and unearth true motivations, which are revealed, not declared, it’s better to get that out in the open early and talk it through.

Personal compatibility Play a couple rounds of monopoly together, just to see how they react to opportunity and adversity – and if there is humour in the relationship. There are of course other such ways to gauge this but don’t co-habit without dancing together socially first, doing something outside of work with your potential future partner may be eye-opening.

How will decisions get made?  This is a fundamental tenet of the relationship. If it’s tied to voting the number of shares, you’re on dangerous grounds. Decide what kinds of decisions are made by the duo and which can be singular. Common areas to address are decisions around hiring/firing, pricing and employee salaries.

Learn to trust each other The underlying question here is Can you work closely together for an extended period without killing each other? If one of the founders has some ‘tic’ the other doesn’t like or if there’s some odd feelings there, it might be overlooked in the rush to get started. Basically, can you spend 24/7 time together and have trust, tolerance, space and stretch when needed?

Of course, besides the ‘strategic’ stuff, there’s also the everyday realities of working together. The face you see day in and day out, no matter what hour of the day, what day of the week, will be your co-founder. They know everything aboutyou – while it may start with knowing about your business personality, their knowledge of your life will soon extend to everything personal. They will also know what your poker face, happy face, sulky face, and goofed-up-big-time face looks like.

Whether you’re married or not, your co-founder will always prove to be your alter spouse, so what about the real day to day issues you need to be aware of when selecting a co-founder. Here are a few:

Tantrums and bickering Each mind is different and there’s going to be noise. It will be fun for the honeymoon – and then reality sets in as you deal with everything under the sun. Hopefully your passion for the startup will always be enough adhesive to bring you together again.

You’ll learn about each other’s likes and dislikes Your co-founder will know what order to place for you at the coffee shop. The same goes for you, you’ll know if she prefers to work with music on in the office or in the quiet. More times than not, you’ll have learnt these things the hard way.

Washing the pots In a startup, there will be loads of little, time consuming things to do and only the two of you. You’ll split the workload between yourselves, the good chores and dirty chores alike. Remember, the most important four words for a successful marriage: I’ll do the dishes.

Compromising to get along You’ll be scanning every small area of expenditure. There will always be disagreements over what you need and what you don’t need, and learning to compromise is key.

Keep it fresh Like spouses, business partners need their own ‘date night’, relationships won’t flourish without regular, open and honest communication, so let off steam with social activity.

The thing that makes co-founders work effectively together reflect spouses’ relationship in a successful marriage – make it a habit to set aside time for getting together to check in with each other. The best type of relationship is the kind where you share a vision and purpose, see yourself building things together, but where there is give-and-take.

Marriage is a wonderful invention. Then again, so is the bicycle repair kit. However, it offers insights and parallels to a successful co-founder partnership. They say don’t marry the person you think you can live with, marry the individual you think you can’t live without. Apply the same to choosing a co-founder.

I married in 1987. Some mornings I wake up grumpy. And some mornings I just let Susan sleep. We married for better or worse. I couldn’t have done better, and she couldn’t have done worse. When you feel like you’ve finally found that chemistry for a co-founder, take the leap, don’t bother with those luxuriously creamy envelope for invitations, just get on with it.

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