Cofounder management

It turns out that before founders ever have to manage employees, they have to manage one another. In fact, at the earliest stages of a company, when it's just two or three founders, bad management generally leads to the death of the startup. This kind of management also happens to be really hard.

Despite how important and difficult managing your cofounders is, most of the management advice I've seen is about managing employees or superiors. That's useful, but not at first. What I have read about this stage of management is structured as "treat this as a relationship." That's true, but also general enough as to be only somewhat helpful.

Managing cofounders is hard for a number of reasons:

  1. Initially, there are no clear lines of direct reporting amongst cofounding teams. One cofounder may be the CEO, but that doesn't mean that that person is the best manager or the best suited to lead engineering, sales, or product.
  2. Cofounders rarely have experience managing anyone or anything. They're learning at the same time as running a startup. There are a lot of good ways to manage, but they take time to learn and practice.
  3. Cofounders often think they don't need management because they're all on the same team, working towards the same goals.
  4. Startups are high pressure, and pressure makes people make bad decisions and lose their tempers. Small mistakes get magnified 
  5. Communication is much harder than you'd expect, even when there's just two people.
  6. Deciding to start a company from scratch with the goal of building a billion dollar business takes ego. As a result, founders often have large egos. With every success or piece of publicity, egos get inflated. Failures, public and private can deflate egos, and beat people up emotionally. That roller coaster creates tension, frayed nerves, and fighting.
  7. Divisions of responsibility are often unclear. That can result in turf wars, feelings of encroachment and micromanagement.
  8. Decision making in small teams of equals can be hard, especially when there are disagreements, which are often passionate.

There are many other factors that can introduce difficulties into cofounder management. Fortunately, the set of solutions is significantly smaller than the problem set. These problems stem from root causes which can be dealt with more simply than addressing the various expressions of those causes.

Open communication is the single most important factor in creating a good working atmosphere and provides the scaffold for everything else. It's significantly more important than cofounders liking one another. It is not enough for cofounders to agree to communicate, and generally inadequate for them to talk when the need arises. Cofounders need to establish regular check ins with one another to talk about issues at the company and with one another.

It is often helpful to have these types of conversations away from the office, especially once there are employees. Moving these conversations away from the office limits interruptions and also takes a lot of the psychological tension out of the conversations, especially the difficult ones. My cofounders and I were lucky here. We had a coffeeshop next door, a restaurant downstairs, and a bar across the street. Each came in handy, depending on the intensity of the conversation. We did, however, realize (a bit later than we should have) that disappearing from a tiny office too frequently during the day was a bad idea and hurt morale for the rest of the company. If you find that you can't have these types of honest talks with your cofounders, even out of the office, you're in trouble.

At the earliest stage of a startup, when an idea is morphing into a company, you'll probably have the first of your difficult conversations: you and your cofounders need to divide responsibilities and assign ownership of goals and the tasks that need to be accomplished to achieve those goals. Final decision authority has to be established for individual areas and for company wide decisions. Some of this will rest with the CEO, some of it with the head of product, engineering, or sales. Those roles might be filled by the the same person, but the responsibility flows through the role, not the person.

Remember that this conversation can get contentious if people feel they are being cut out of decisions they believe they should own. It is really hard to cede authority, but it has to happen in order to create a manageable strucutre.

Talk about these issues early, write down your decisions, and regularly review them.

Part of the reason you need to divide ownership of responsibilities early is to set expectations for yourself and your cofounders. Managing cofounders isn't easy, and you shouldn't expect it to be. When you're fighting over who has final say on product decisions, you'll discover just how hard it can be. One of my cofounders and I used to have shouting matches when I acted unilaterally on product without informing him. While he agreed that I had final say, I had failed to convincingly communicate my reasoning to him, and failed to set the right expectation of how product decisions would be made.

The truth is, finding out just how hard managing can be is one of the biggest shocks of working with other people. Having a reasonable set of expectations about it will help. Knowing, ahead of time, that you'll fight, get pissed off, and struggle, puts each of those events in a context that makes sense. Having strategies to work through each of those events means that those events (hopefully) won't destroy your company.

While you'll find some of your own strategies, it's a waste of time to come up with them completely on your own. Management is as much a repeatable and proven process as it is an expression of personal style. The process aspects can largely be adapted from general management literature, but I've always found it more useful to engage with a trusted mentor. In the best case scenario, this mentor is trusted by all the cofounders so that they're learning the same lessons and can use the mentor as an impartial arbiter when needed.

Finding a good mentor is tricky. Doing YC will give you access to some great ones, but certainly isn't the only way. Ideally, you want to find someone who has been through the situations that you're going to experience. You should also expect to need several mentors at different points in your career. The mentor advising you at the earliest stages might not be the person you want when each founder is responsible for dozens or hundreds of employees. The challenges you'll face will be different, as will the advice.

Even with this framework in place, managing your cofounders is rarely easy and invariably gets harder as the company grows and pressures rise. The pressures get amplified even more when things start going wrong, as they always do. You'll fight about important things, and you'll fight about seemingly inconsequential things. That's all ok and quite mundane. Just make sure you keep talking about it, adapting, and moving your company forward. Your goal shouldn't be to make your relationship with your cofounders easier. Your goal is to make the relationship manageable.