How to keep the cofounder spark alive
No relationship is perfect. They all have their ups and downs, but the most successful and enduring are the result of a conscious, collaborative effort to keep the spark alive.
And that’s no less true when it comes to co-founders.
I met my co-founder Dr. Anas Nader first met when we were both studying medicine at Imperial College London. We hit it off right away and eventually decided to start a business together in 2016 to find a solution to the pressures we were seeing our front line colleagues face.
Scaling to 100+ employees, raising millions in funding… the journey has certainly tested our friendship. But seven years later, we’re still really best friends.
The secret of our firm friendship was a process of trial and error. Here are the key do’s and don’ts we learned along the way:
Spend more time together
It can often feel like you’re already living in your co-founder’s pocket. But spending time together outside of work is essential for us to cement a lasting co-founder relationship.
Anas and I meet up on the weekends, have regular board game nights, and even go on vacations together (sorry to Anas’ wife for crashing her last adventure). We find that this time together reminds us why we became friends and why we started a business together in the first place. Very few people behave exactly the same at work and at home; Spending time together outside of work reminds you that the other person is funnier and more human than the office can sometimes lead you to believe. It’s the perfect reset from the stress of startup life.
Claim your individual roles
Co-founders often work in partnership, but claiming separate, distinct roles can be just as important.
“Be clear about your roles and keep the conversation open – you can return to the topic and revisit the approach as the company grows and new or changing priorities come your way.”
At Patchwork, we established our individual responsibilities early on. Anas had extensive industry experience having worked in temporary workforce management during his time as a Leadership and Innovation Fellow. This, and our individual circumstances at the time, made the most sense for him to become CEO. My own experience as a digital health consultant meant I had the right skills to take on the role of COO.
Defining your individual roles early not only helps you to evenly distribute workload and responsibility, but allows you to play to your strengths and use your unique experiences and skills in a way that most benefits the company’s mission. Be clear about your roles and keep the conversation open – you can return to the topic and revisit the approach as the company grows and new or changing priorities come your way.
let her have the glory
When it comes to building the company’s profile, your growth strategy is unlikely to allow you to keep branding opportunities between founders entirely fair. It’s important to acknowledge this and make sure you both agree on how this may impact your individual roles.
Rather, as CEO, Anas is the “face” of Patchwork. This is really helpful; it opens up investor opportunities and inspires confidence in him as a leader. As COO, I’m more internally focused, so my face is less likely to show up on your LinkedIn feed. And that’s okay.
I’ve seen many co-founders resent this for not having an honest conversation about what balance they’re trying to achieve when it comes to who’s doing what and where is being seen. Putting the ego aside and thinking about what will bring the greatest benefit to the company is the best way to structure this conversation.
Avoid the “productivity trap”.
Many people think they are more productive than their peers, and when they are, it can sow the seeds of resentment between co-founders. When you give your startup everything you have, it’s far too easy to see the input of others through the lens of your own experience.
“There will be disagreements along the way, but the rewards for trying to make things right are immense.”
Your co-founder left the office at 7pm but you stayed until 8pm? Maybe he’s not pulling his weight. Laughing with colleagues while knee-deep in compliance forms? How come I get all the boring jobs? These thoughts can creep in quickly if you don’t communicate properly.
As cheesy as it sounds, you need to develop a dynamic based on trust and mutual respect if you are to avoid falling into the productivity trap. Building a business with a co-founder should be a process of give and take, supporting one another and creating space for one another. It’s not a competition. When Anas and I start to feel resentment, we take a walk and talk about it. Don’t let those feelings fester.
A strong co-founder relationship can be the foundation for the success of your startup. And like any other relationship – it takes work. There will be disagreements along the way (hey, I love him like a brother, but we’re only human!), but the rewards for making the effort to make things right are immense. Nurture that co-founder flame and it will fuel your business through every stage of growth.
Jing Ouyang is COO and co-founder of Patchwork Health.