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It can feel like that sometimes. When companies are growing fast, pressures can bring personal differences to the surface … surprising things you didn’t realise were there! So what should you expect and how can you deal with it in a professional way?
My experience has brought me into contact with a number of start-ups in different capacities (mentor, strategist, product marketer and business developer, to name a few). I’ve also worked at different stages of product development, from the birth of an idea, to testing its commercial viability and then looking for growth capital to bring it to market on a major scale.
Working alongside company founders and CEOs gives you a unique perspective. You’re exposed to the rollercoaster of emotions that inevitably happens when companies are growing rapidly.
The excitement of a start-up or new product can take over. Targets, finances, campaigns, spreadsheets and the regular business issues are vital. But all this activity can mask significant differences.
It’s crucial not to neglect the personal and emotional side of your business – and how the company’s founders feel about how things are going and about each other. After all, will the partnership between partners be strong enough to last the distance?
Let’s explore four key areas where differences can put a strain on working together.
1) Different dreams
What do each of the founders want in 5, 10 or 25 years? Is their vision to change the world or simply to get acquired by a large player and then exit with wads of cash for an easier lifestyle?
It’s important to be on the same page from Day 1. Otherwise, this can lead to conflict and affect the company’s direction in a serious way – for example, when deciding what to do about a future round of financing.
An outside expert can provide a listening ear and work to create a common objective at the outset, giving a strong sense of direction and purpose. This can be kept in review of course.
2) Different geographies
Is it viable to have a co-founder based in a different city or country to most of the other founders? This is linked to the ability to manage expectations.
The people that live and work in the same place (often the same room!) can meet, discuss and decide what to do. This can often be spontaneous. But their remote colleague can feel more and more excluded from the decision-making process – and simply be told what’s been decided already.
It’s as if they have become a ‘virtual’ partner, not a real one. Even with the latest tech, face-to-face communication is always better in this kind of scenario. It’s so easy to misunderstand the tone of an email, isn’t it? Miscommunications can have disruptive effects – eroding trust in a way that may destroy the business.
I’ll be honest, sometimes having a remote partner doesn’t work. But it can succeed with good communications, equal input from everyone and regular calls – not simply unstructured decision-making. Sometimes decisions need to be taken quickly, so the remote partner needs to make themselves easy to contact – or be happy to delegate some decisions. You can’t have it both ways.
3) Different planets!
Often, friends go into business together, which is great! But it can be difficult for everyone to enjoy the same strength of relationship at a serious, professional level.
It’s important to have a structure in place, to define how to make decisions and what to do in case of disagreements. Formulating a shareholders’ agreement at the outset is fundamental. Someone told me once that it’s a document you write when you’re sober – to use when your drunk, and I agree.
Think about what can go wrong and add it to the agreement: if things work you’ll never read it again. But if things become challenging, it’s essential. I know of co-founders having an equal share and no agreement. They were unable to decide if/how to take their start-up to the next level – and lacked the legal ground to unlock this difficult situation either way.
4) Different levels of resilience
If two people always agree, only one is needed; if they always disagree, both are not needed!
Disagreements can drain the life out of people – and your early enthusiasm for the business ebbs away. Companies grind to a halt. So how can you keep going during tougher times?
Even in healthy and active working relationships, sooner or later, you disagree and get to a conflict situation. This is usually amplified by the stress, the workload, the lack of sleep … and ultimately governed by the level of resilience of each person.
It’s here where points 1-3 all come together. But on top, you need a deep respect for each other, enormous patience and an acknowledgement that the skills/roles/experience of each person may be different, so should carry weight accordingly. Sometimes a decision is more to do with the other person’s side of the business. Sometimes you just have to ‘let things go’ on some issues, while the other person does the same on points that matter most to you. It’s give and take, which gives you balance. In many ways, this is the sharp end that may decide the fate of any company.
The points above speak for themselves and are worth considering seriously before going very far with any new start-up business or offshoot operation.
I would strongly urge anyone in this situation to get outside expertise to set a whole range of ground rules – from goals to communications. I know it’s often the last thing of people’s minds – and no-one likes to think of worst-case scenarios during those giddy early days of a new venture.
Getting a sympathetic expert to work alongside everyone to agree some helpful ground rules doesn’t have to be a dry, awkward, clinical experience. It’s a good way of thrashing out important details before politics or other problems raise their ugly heads. You could even decide how partners can exit the business gracefully if they wish (which is to be expected, almost inevitably). Sort these things while everyone is in a good mood and feeling positive. It can actually prove to be a motivating experience too, unlocking ideas and goals.
Ground rules will give everyone that added confidence as you move forwards. Over time, they’ll effectively serve as that grounded and sensible voice in the boardroom – that everyone can call on for impartial guidance.
Without thinking ahead, that first rush of enthusiasm that got your company started could disappear as quickly as it arrived.
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