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Here’s how to become a truly supportive co-founder

12 November 2018


Keep the following co-founder strategies in mind and you could have the makings of a beautiful and long-lasting business relationship.

There are a number of very good reasons to start a business with a co-founder beside you. Working in partnership means that each co-founder is accountable and can use their own particular skills to help shape the business.

But the co-founder relationship is not like most business relationships. It’s crucially important that co-founders remain as supportive of each other as possible.

Many businesses with great potential have floundered because their co-founders simply couldn’t make it work.

As Octopus co-founder Simon Rogerson explains: “the co-founder relationship can be very intense, especially during those early years. You’ll probably spend more time with your co-founder than with your family or partner. That closeness can create added pressure, but it’s all part of building something special. So, particularly during those most stressful times, try to take a step back and remember why you went into business together in the first place”.

Be practical

Entrepreneurs are naturally brave and ready to try new things. And when they launch a new business, they have an instinctive urge to do everything themselves. But the compulsion to do everything all the time can lead to unnecessary stress, unforced errors and eventually burnout.

Divide and conquer

Having a co-founder on board allows you to share the workload. But more importantly, it allows each of you to focus on your areas of strength. In any co-founder relationship, there will be some things that one co-founder can do better than the other.

One of the best things a supportive co-founder can do is to know when to take the lead and when to follow.

George Whitehead works closely with a number of companies backed by Octopus Ventures, so he has seen at first-hand some of the UK’s most successful co-founder relationships.

George says: “Some of the most successful co-founders have an almost subconscious understanding of what each of them is good at, and this allows them to share the workload accordingly.”

Don’t be afraid to ‘mix it up’

Whether you’re trying to win customers, pitching for new investment or trying to close a sale, it makes sense to allow one co-founder to take the lead. However, this doesn’t mean that the roles played by co-founders should be set in stone.

It can become exhausting if co-founder is expected to be the ‘creative one’ all the time, and equally counter-productive if one co-founder ends up doing some of the less exciting stuff while the other gets to be the high profile ‘face’ of the business.

One good way to avoid this is to switch roles every now and then. Not only does this offer the potential to shake things up, but it can help each co-founder get a stronger understanding of the business in its entirety, and maybe even discover hidden talents.

According to Octopus co-founder Chris Hulatt: “Being a good co-founder is about understanding when you should be in the driving seat and when you need to be the passenger, but knowing that you both share the responsibility of getting to your destination.”

Be emotionally available

In the early stages of most new companies, the focus is primarily on survival. Usually, this is centred on meeting very specific business goals and objectives.

But in this period when metrics and targets become the obsession, co-founders need to remember to be emotionally available to one another.

George Whitehead of Octopus Ventures explains: “It’s important for co-founders to be closely aligned on their start-up’s vision and values, but no-one should be afraid of communication, even if it raises difficult subjects. It can be invaluable to question, stress-test and iterate each other’s plans for the business. My advice is to start as you mean to go on.

“Remember that this is a partnership. Keep the lines of communication open and never turn down the opportunity to have a direct face-to-face conversation”.

Be understanding

Entrepreneurs invariably spend the first few years of their business struggling and being surrounded by people who tell them that what they’re trying to achieve isn’t possible. And the sad truth is that these naysayers are often right.

Nine out of ten start-ups fail within the first 12 months. That’s an enormous amount of pressure on anyone’s shoulders.

And of course, failure can have enormous financial implications on co-founders and their families.

Look after each other

It’s easy to ignore health and wellbeing when you’re working 60-hour weeks to get a business off the ground. That’s why it’s important that co-founders develop their own mutual support network.

Co-founders don’t have to be friends, and many choose not to socialise outside of work (they may feel they spend more than enough time together anyway). But it’s still crucially important to know your co-founder and be aware of what’s going on in their life.

Having a co-founder in your corner – who knows you and can spot when you’re feeling most under pressure – can really help to shoulder some of this burden. After all, you’re the only two people who truly understand what each other is going through.

As Simon Rogerson explains: “Entrepreneurs quickly learn to rely on themselves, and their instincts. It becomes them against the world, and that’s ultimately a lonely place to be. I think one of the best reasons to have a co-founder by your side is to make sure you don’t feel like you’re doing it all on your own, and that you have someone to share the emotional highs and lows with.”

Be honest

One of the most thrilling aspects of starting a business from scratch is the feeling that you’re doing something different, and you’re doing it your way. But the risk that comes with that is that you’re not always going to get it right.

Mistakes are a feature of every start-up and even the most successful business comes with its own tales of early missteps and readjustments.

So, it’s crucial for co-founders to have an honest relationship that allows them to take stock and talk about what’s working and what isn’t, without fear of emotion or resentment clouding the conversation. Mistakes are there to be learned from, after all.

George Whitehead also says: “You can only be truly supportive of your co-founder when you’re being open and honest about your concerns. You really need to speak up when these concerns involve core values, life decisions that affect work, or anything else that you think needs to be nipped in the bud.

|When the time comes for you to be straight talking (and that time will always come), open discussions will hope to keep you aligned on where you’re headed. Misalignments will only become more pronounced as time goes on.”

How does Octopus achieve openness and honest? Chris Hulatt explains the approach: “In any organisation, it has to start at the top. Here at Octopus, we believe in a communication process called ‘radical candour’. We encourage everyone to feel comfortable to share their opinions with others, regardless of their level of experience or position in the company.”

Be motivational and inspirational

Success can be hard to come by for start-ups, and there will always be times when the day-to-day job feels frustrating and close to impossible. During times like these it’s a co-founder’s responsibility to keep their fellow founders and other team members motivated and in a positive frame of mind.

According to George Whitehead: “Many founders find their conversations naturally focus on the problems in a business. Their single-mindedness can often be seen as negativity. So, it’s important to take the time to celebrate the businesses achievements as well. Simply saying ‘well done’ to the people around you every now and then can make a huge difference to morale.”

Encourage the people around you

As the company starts to expand and takes on more employees, keeping the team – and the founders – motivated and focused becomes essential. Taking the time to deliver positive feedback can be a great incentive to better performance. According to Chris Hulatt: “Co-founders really have to set the tone when it comes to creating and maintaining the culture of the business”.

Create memories that inspire

Finally, while it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day activities of a start-up, co-founders should always have one eye on the future. Simon Rogerson always tells people he wants to build a business he’ll “be proud to tell his grandchildren about”.

But that process starts from the very beginning of the company. Ask yourself, in years to come, how will you like people to talk about your company?

Often, the thing that bonds co-founders together is how they recover from the blows they take. Learning to put setbacks behind you and keep moving forward are essential ingredients for any company, and will prove inspirational as the business grows.

Chris Hulatt recalls: “When we started Octopus, we spent the first few months in my front room, using the Yellow Pages phone directory to call up potential investors. Those were very tough, uncertain times, but we persevered and eventually got the funding we needed.

“A few years later, when I got married, Simon presented to me a framed page from the very same Yellow Pages that we used. It’s a constant reminder of the tough times, but it also acts as a huge motivator to keep moving forward.”