A light hearted look at the importance of focusing on the relationship between partners at the beginning of new ventures. And what to do when the cracks appear.
Jack and Jill went up the hill, so the story goes, to fetch a pail of water. The mission was led by Jack, a geologist, who’d discovered a curious purple hue to the water from a spring on top of a particular mountain on a previous expedition to the area. His companion, Jill, a neurophysicist, had completed her PhD research on the potential of Thermadineahyde, a rare element of purple colouration, to treat a specific type of lymphatic cancer. Her research had been promising – exceptionally so – and a unit had been established at the university with a view to commercialising the prospect. After 2 years in the lab, despite extraordinary results and widespread interest from the private sector, the venture was deemed unviable due to critical shortage in supply of the raw material, and the unit was closed. At a socially distant cocktail party thrown by a mutual friend, Jill was valiantly attempting to drown the disappointment of several wasted years, when she overheard Jack talking about the purple tinted water he’d discovered atop a mountain. Jill was convinced she’d found the key to unlock her dream. Jack, for his part, was tired of creating maps of mineral rich topography for other people to mine for vast profit, and required little persuasion to take Jill to his spring, mesmerised by the prospect of going into business, getting rich and curing cancer.
So up the hill went Jack & Jill, armed with provisions and pails. They found the spring, confirmed trace elements of Thermadineahyde, and got fabulously drunk on a bottle of thunderously dark rum that had mysteriously found its way into their supplies. Jack fell down and broke a chair but his crown remained intact.
Back in Jill’s makeshift office they ran their numbers, did a hurried market sounding assessment, obtained a release from the university, scratched together some funding and with the help of a family lawyer, became formal business partners. The prospects for the J&J enterprise were stratospheric and the first year of operations was a mad frenzy of action; securing the land rights, extracting the mineral, setting up and managing production, protecting their IP, lining up customers and managing their growing team of employees.
As they galloped toward the end of their second year, a bleary-eyed Jill was working round the clock in the city, managing complex investor relationships, battling with lawyers to secure patents, and managing a list as long as both arms of crucial things that needed attention. Jack, meanwhile, had established himself in a rather fine log cabin on top of the mountain, from where he oversaw what had become an incredibly efficient extraction and production operation. They had become the world’s largest producer of the ultra rare Thermadineahyde, and as soon as big pharma recognised the importance of the find, Jack was confident he’d be sitting on something vastly more valuable than a gold mine. As was obvious to anyone around him, Jack felt rather pleased with himself.
Before long, however, tensions began to rise. Jill accused Jack of not pulling his weight. Jack cast aspersions on Jill’s productivity. Jill felt that she’d done all the hard work before Jack arrived and he was now merrily enjoying the fruits of her labour. Jack was quick to point out that before he arrived, her entire operation had been mothballed. Jill fumed and Jack pouted and the J&J enterprise teetered on the very brink of implosion. But as so often happens in tales like these, just as all seemed lost, the cool hand of fate intervened and sent them to the local chieftain to mediate. He listened to them for half an hour, then sent them to coaching. And we all know how that went.
They lived happily ever after.
The story of Jack and Jill is, sadly, not an uncommon one. Friends or strangers find each other, half blinded by the dazzling brilliance of an idea or possibility of changing the world. The prospect becomes the centre of attention; all energy is focused on its potential and the possibility of fame, fortune and forever changed lives. This is a wildly exciting time and rightly so; it provides the energy for the mighty task of getting a project off the ground.
At the centre of this thing though, is the partnership – the two or three people who may know each other well or not at all, who’re about to invest a significant portion of their time, energy, and possibly money, into a project whose future is shrouded in unknowns. Endeavours like this shine a light on one’s values, beliefs around money, feelings of self worth and require one to put a hard value on one’s own, and the other’s, contribution. This is delicate stuff. One hopes for a high degree of alignment between partners on these matters, but the overlap is never perfect. How much is enough? What differences are deal breakers? Many believe that going into business with someone is like going into a marriage – given some of the conversations I’ve witnessed in recent years, I’d say that’s not far off.
Orwell & Goode. But if the relationship between business partners is so obviously important, why do so many end in divorce?
1 – Limited resources. There are a million things that need attention at this early stage of an enterprise and founders feel like they don’t have the time to sit down and do the khumbaya thing. “We need to prove this is a viable opportunity first,” they reason, forgetting that the viability of the partnership is a key element of the viability of the initiative.
2 – Confirmation bias leads us to overplay the upside and underestimate the potential downside. We want it to succeed so it’s easy to ignore niggles that would otherwise raise red flags. Issues are dismissed in the hopes that they’ll go away in time (spoiler alert: they rarely do).
3 – The relational stuff is hard. A geologist is comfortable examining rocks; a neurophysicist is at home in a lab. Building a rock solid relationship between business partners is psychology and philosophy and anthropology and a sprinkling of other fields that most founders aren’t experts in. It involves deeply examining what you want in life and why, getting in touch with how you feel, recognising the strengths and deficiencies in your skill set and character and having the maturity to discuss these with another. For many people this is uncomfortable so it’s easy to justify moving it to the bottom of the list.
4 – There’s a fear that if you dig too deep you might discover something you don’t like, then the dream is dead (aka “better to let sleeping dogs lie”). In truth, there will very likely be things you don’t like – about yourself and the other if you’re honest and courageous enough to look – but the value of seeing them is you’re then in a position to change).
5 – Finally there’s the issue of timing – when things are going well, it’s easy to ignore interpersonal issues. There’s much to celebrate, the vibe is strong, and the energy of the successes papers over the cracks. When things aren’t going so well (and to the best of my knowledge those times come for every enterprise that’s ever existed), the friction is amplified. People want to blame something, or someone. These are the moments of truth, the separation of the sheep from the goats, when those that have invested time in developing the relational glue to hold things together, outshine those that simply hopped in the same car for the thrill of the rollercoaster ride.
The good news is that armed with this knowledge of the traps in the road, those wanting to build solid relationships that go the distance can get to work.
What you can do about it
The startup incubator Y-Combinator is known for the pearls of wisdom it offers to aspirant tech moguls. One of them is this: make painkillers, not vitamins. It’s sage business advice; people are more likely to pay for your services when the pain is real rather than for prevention of a future, hypothetical hurt. Of course, it’s terrible health advice; make small investments to stay healthy (exercise, sleep, nurture relationships, have a healthy diet with the full complement of vitamins and minerals) and avoid the gigantic, and potentially ultimate, cost of cardiac arrest.
The health analogy holds true for business partnerships; you can take your vitamins by regularly doing the things we know are important, or you can reach for the painkillers when the situation gets more serious. Here are some things to look at, in both vitamin and painkiller format.
Start with vitamins
For starters, recognise the importance of the relationship(s) between the founders. Like all the important ingredients for your project’s success, invest in it in whatever way you deem appropriate; time, energy, money, etc. Make space for conversation not directly related to operational priorities. Look at how you allocate your time in an average week – it’ll tell you a lot about your priorities.
Have conversations that are broader than the narrow confines of your project (see below for some ideas). Pause at the uncomfortable bits. Be open and have the courage to go into uncomfortable terrain. Use the sentence “this is uncomfortable to talk about but I think it’s important…”. Have a little faith that your dream is not a house of cards and won’t fall over with one honest conversation (if it does, now might be a good idea to know).
Learn to distinguish between ‘you’, ‘me’ and ‘it’ (ask: what does this organisation need right now? See it as an entity separate from each of you as founders). Learn the difference between ‘want’ and ‘need’ (what do I want, vs what does the entity need). Get curious about similarity and difference. And your own relationship with difference.
Know when it’s time to see the doctor. Don’t be too proud to ask for help.
Some questions to kick off a conversation:
- What are the values that hold the business together? What do each of you care deeply about? How do each of you feel about money? What’s the balance between financial imperatives and non-financial? What do you want out of life?
- What does success look like for the organisation and for each of you individually? Is there a clear ultimate aim? Is it shared? (e.g. we’re looking to get bought out by XXX in 5 years time).
- How do you recognise your respective inputs? Time? Value to the business? Other? What happens if one of you is doing a magnificent job that’s adding a lot of organisational value, but only putting in half the hours of the other? How much time do you want to put into your work (and expect of the other)?
- How will you attend to your relationship as founders? How would you like your relationship to be?
- Are there any expectations/restrictions around the directors doing work outside the business?
- What’s the process if one of you wants out of the business for any reason? Or wants to work from a different geographical location?
- How do you handle conflict? (It’s going to come up if the venture is worth anything, best to practice when the stakes aren’t too high)
The thing about vitamins is they have to be taken regularly. Learning to have fruitful conversations over meaty issues is a skill that takes practice. Knowing about this work isn’t enough – you have to actually do something. But sometimes, for various reasons, the circumstances demand stronger medicine. If you’re still not functioning at the level you’d like to, it’s…
Time for painkillers
By the time partners are feeling the pain they’ve typically been living with discomfort for some time. If you’ve tried all the avenues you can think of it’s time for new ideas. Battling solo is like getting your car stuck in the sand and leaving your foot on the accelerator – you’re just going to sink deeper. Don’t do this; it’s exhausting, futile and makes the job of resolving the situation that much more complex. At the risk of sounding like a marriage counsellor; it’s not a sign of failure to get help from an external party; it’s a sign that you want the initiative to work.
In short, it’s time to find a coach.
A good coach will help partners find the common ground that exists already between them but has been buried under a pile of differences. They’ll help with the difficult conversations that would’ve happened at the beginning if the opportunity hadn’t been so damn exciting! And for those lamenting that they’re up to their axles in sand: don’t waste time worrying about how/why you got here – dedicate energy to resolving your differences, building trust, and setting out the frameworks and structures you need to do your best work together so you can get back out there and cure cancer.
The moral of this fine tale
In a parallel universe, the tale ended tragically: Jack, swelled with the glory of his accomplishment, struck out on his own. He offered the Thermadineahyde production facility to a pharmaceutical company who bought it for a modest lump sum, with promises of grand royalties tied to market success. But Jill held the patent and the IP and the company never did get the product to market. Jack squandered his payout on thunderously dark rum, briefly dabbled in piracy, then returned to the tedium of making maps of mineral rich earth off of which his clients grew fabulously wealthy. A stubborn insistence that he was right, and an inability to see that the potential of the J&J enterprise was far greater than either of the individuals who founded it, was Jack’s undoing.
The moral of our tale: don’t be a Jack.
Be a Lwazi or a Peter or a Ntina or a Yasmin or a Seth and get out there and do your thing with vigour, courage, and a splash of vulnerability. Remember the hub at the centre of the wheel you’re building and keep it greased. Decide if you’re a vitamins or painkiller type of person. Take the time to ask your partner how they’re really doing. And when in doubt… reach out.