You and your co-founder

Far and away, the most common question I get is about my partnership with Tom. It’s flattering, especially when founders you admire want to hear about how two old east coast friends with one B+ exit to their names do things. It has its moments of agony too: “They’re such good friends!” isn’t the backchannel feedback you were hoping the famous Series B investor was going to send to your Series A board member.

Still, at the end of the day we get to lead a life of adventure. We set sail in a direction, committing to inventing something but we’re not quite sure yet what it’ll be, and along the way we accumulate a team and a business and a culture that might just outlast us. It’s a life that’s enabled by a lot of luck, mostly having to do with the accident of where and when we were born. And it’s also enabled by a partnership that, at this point, has stood the test of time.

The truth is there are a lot of ways for these partnerships to work. Show me ten successful startups and I’ll show you ten different ways co-founders work together. Here, humbly submitted, is our way. We think it’s pretty good. A guide to how Tom and I do things:

Start a company with the person you trust the most. The truth is most of the skills you’ll need, you can learn along the way. Yes, even engineering. Loads of massively successful companies were started by amateur hackers with more attitude than experience. The missing piece in fatally flawed partnerships is not skillset: It’s trust. It's when there isn’t a deep well of understanding that gets you through hard times. When you have a fight and you don’t have a long-standing pattern of coming together and hugging it out afterward. Anyone can learn to build or sell if they want it enough. Trust can’t be bootstrapped.

A co-founder is someone with an open-ended, unbreakable commitment. This doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone who gets titled “co-founder,” especially retroactively. But you know who I mean. In the truest sense, the founders of the business are the ones who are fully, unconditionally committed to the company and the partnership, no matter how long it takes. Whatever the setbacks, pivots or role changes, they will be there every day because they have no other option. This means you can be fully honest with them, even and especially when you’re despairing, because you know for sure they won’t freak out and quit. And it means they’ll always be fully honest with you, because they have no options except making this work, so it had better fucking work.  

No argument is bigger than the company. Co-founder arguments are like heart disease: Obviously fatal, usually preventable, and yet the leading cause of death. The first serious disagreement is where you find out if the co-founders want to win more than they want to be right. Try saying these words out loud: “Look, I think this is the wrong decision, but our partnership is so much more important than this one decision. Let’s go with your idea.” If you can’t stomach it, don’t start a company with partners. (Also, seek therapy.)

No company is bigger than the partnership. I suspect the VCs reading this will disagree with this one. Well, some of those same VCs invested primarily because of Tom’s and my long-standing partnership. We’ve started two companies together, we invest together, sometimes we vacation together. If we execute flawlessly, Modelbit will be the last thing we do together. But if it goes sideways, you better believe it’s not taking the partnership with it.

Just split the equity evenly. Sometimes you see 4+ “co-founders” where one or two of them are the real founders. That’s all fine. But for true co-founders, adventurers setting sail together into unknown waters, nothing kills a partnership like the simmering jealousy of an uneven split. Whatever little bit of work one of you did before you started won’t matter. Whatever division of responsibilities you agree on at the start won’t matter. What matters is that you are a team, that each of you is all-in, and that you’re in it together.

One of you is the CEO. When you’re as successful as Workday, you can be co-CEOs. Until then, “co-CEO” is code for “we’re too timid to have the most important hard conversation.” The CEO is the public face of the company and the decider, especially in front of the team. One of the most important acts of the non-CEO co-founder is accepting this publicly, especially in key moments where the CEO makes an unpopular call.

The CEO hires the right team, sets the vision and strategy, and ensures you don’t run out of money. Credit to Fred Wilson for this framing. You must be able to hire an A+ team, and also move on from folks when required. You must set the right goals and the right plan to get there. You must be intimately familiar with the finances of the company, and able to secure more financing when necessary. These things cannot be outsourced. At any given stage of the company you’ll have to do a lot more too. (Like, say, sell the first couple dozen deals.) But you must always do these three things.

One of you is the CTO. The CTO owns delivery of the product, end to end. This includes developing the product, shipping it, maintaining it, documenting it, supporting it, and hiring any necessary people to do those things. Most importantly, it includes making sure it’s the right product. “I built what we agreed” is not what a founder does. “I delivered a product that solves the customer’s problem” is what a founder does. If your reaction to this is that it sounds like the whole point of the company, then you’re starting to understand.

The real decisions are made by the co-founders, by themselves, by consensus. Are we really taking this acquisition offer? Do we give this business another strong push, or do we need to confront the reality that it’s just not working? Do we burn more in a gambit to grow faster and raise, or cut and risk never re-accelerating again? I know I just got done saying the CEO is the decider. But that’s for those people out there. In here, we know the real decision isn’t in the board meeting, and it isn’t in the exec team meeting. It’s you and your co-founder, just talking, until there’s consensus. 

Every co-founder needs a day job with real accountability. As you scale, the co-founders will retain their singular ability to drive excellence and accountability across the whole enterprise. This is a highly valuable superpower. But it is not, by itself, a day job. When co-founders don’t have a day job, the organization can start to resent them demanding excellence from others while not having to deliver it themselves. Managing some combination of eng, product and design is common for co-founder CTOs. IC engineering is fine too as long as you’re contributing code every day at a pace and quality that sets the bar for the rest of the team. But singleton co-founders with no day job often end up out of the company within a few months. 

The kids will try to play mom and dad off each other. This is surprisingly common behavior from adults at their jobs. It can be tempting to seek immediate validation from your team by saying, “Don’t worry about what Sally said just now.” Never, ever do this. It creates a toxic environment that’s very hard to recover from. If you disagree, suck it up until you have a moment for a private argument. With the team, you and your co-founder are a united front, always. 

The right communication cadence is all the damn time. I’m a fan of inviolable weekly founder meetings once the calendars get packed. But I would also say that if you go the whole week without chatting in between founder meetings, that’s a leading indicator of a problem. Talk often enough that you’re just talking about your day. Catch up at the end of the day and just blow off steam. When you’re the boss, there’s no one else who you can be fully honest and yourself with. Make these conversations your release valve. 

All is forgiven in the morning. The tensest moments are when a co-founder isn’t delivering. In the early days, it’s pretty common for the builder to deliver rapidly and at high quality, and then the seller just can’t get it to fly off the shelves. As the company scales, it becomes common for the market to be pretty clear about what it wants, but the builder can’t get their team to deliver fast enough to beat competitors and hit numbers. 

We would all love to be empathetic professionals and true friends in these moments. But sometimes, we are just humans, we come up short, and we say things we wish we could have back. Looking your co-founder in the eye when you didn’t hold up your end is awful. Knowing you made it worse with your words might be the only thing that’s more awful. 

Just remember, the partnership is bigger than all that. Apologize. Hug it out. Tell them you love them. Tell them you wouldn’t want to do this with anyone else. (I don’t know how you all communicate, but we use exactly those words.) This is why you started the company with someone you trust deeply. Someday, this will all be over, and what you’ll remember is how you got through these tough moments together.