Dynamic Duos – Are You Batman Or Robin?


A version of this article previously appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

Balance is one of the most important aspects of skiing. A solid foundation formed by two strong legs is key, especially at a competative level. Balance is also an extremely important factor among a founding startup team.

Although it is difficult, balance can be achieved on one leg. Just ask Paralympic Champion Michael Milton, who has hurled himself down mountains at 133 miles per hour on a single ski. His time compares favorably with the two-legged world speed record of 157 miles per hour. Just like starting a company as a sole founder, it is possible to excel without a partner, it’s just a lot harder.

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“A problem shared is a problem halved.”

Gates and Ballmer, Jobs and Wozniak, Walt and Roy Disney, Batman and Robin, Abbott and Costello, Holmes and Watson – the list of famous duos in business and pop culture is long.

Outside of the startup world, there is a partnership which has served humankind well since the beginning of time – marriage. The same foundational elements that lead to a successful marriage are precursors to startup success.

Earlier this year, researchers at USC proved the veracity of this old adage. According to lead researcher Professor Sarah Townsend, ” When you’re putting together an important presentation or working on a high-stakes project… talking with a colleague who shares your emotional state can help decrease this stress.” Thus, despite the potential pitfalls of entering into a startup with a partner, the rewards outweigh the potential risks.

I have been fortunate to forge several long-term, mutually beneficial partnerships during my career (including my 25-year marriage). In some relationships I am Batman, leading the way and in others I am Robin, acting as the supportive sidekick. However, all of my successful partnerships shared the following characteristics:

Common History – Just as you wouldn’t marry someone you just met in a bar, you shouldn’t start a venture with someone you don’t know well. Work with your potential co-founder(s) long enough to understand how they deal with adversity and what they are like once your relationship exits the honeymoon stage.

Success Drive – All parties should share a similar level of ambition, demonstrate a common work ethic and agree upon a collective definition of success.

Complimentary Talents – Capabilities which augment and offset one another are vital to establishing a lasting balance among founders. For instance, a team comprised solely of engineers is greatly handicapped, as is a team exclusively made up of sales and marketing executives. To be successful, the sales-oriented entrepreneur’s drive to satisfy the market’s needs is ideally counterbalanced by an engineer’s urge to ensure that the company’s marketing messages accurately reflect the company’s underlying capabilities. This complimentary symmetry of attitudes and aptitudes is crucial to a startup’s survival.

Competitive Rivalry – Constructive internal competition that does not derail a startup from achieving its strategic goals will enhance your team’s overall performance. Founders should encourage a healthy rivalry among each other, while modulating such competition so that it does not escalate into destructive behaviors.

Mutual Respect – Encourage mutual admiration among your founding team. Shared respect will facilitate vigorous, healthy debates that will not damage the founders’ relationships.

Shared Vision – A collective vision is the cornerstone of an effective strategic plan. Ensure that such solidarity remains in place, especially as your venture shifts focus to accommodate evolving markets.

Internal Dissent And External Cohesion – Behind closed doors, each founder should be comfortable aggressively discussing issues about which they are passionate. Yet externally, your founding team should consistently display cohesion to your employees and other stakeholders (in a marriage, a common front must be maintained with your children). External dissent will eventually divide your company and could lead to the creation of “us vs. them” factions. who expend energy battling each other, rather than working together to resolve the company’s challenges.

I experienced this situation a number of times throughout my career, in which I passionately lobbied for a particular decision which the Core Team vetoed. Rather than leave the executive staff meeting and trash such “misguided” decisions, I was forced to articulate to members of my department the same rational that I previously argued against. Although this was personally frustrating, I knew that publicly supporting managements’ decisions was in the best interest of all concerned.

As entrepreneur and author Margaret Heffernan points out in the video below, your partner(s) should attempt to prove you wrong, in order to prove that you are right. This counterintuitive approach is vital to avoiding willful blindness, which has killed many a promising startup. According to Margaret, startup leaders should ask themselves, “If I were wrong, what would I expect to see?” – followed by rigorous intellectual honesty when assessing if their assumptions are erroneous.

A Dissenting Voice

Not everyone agrees with the need for one or more co-founders. For instance, popular startup blogger Mark Suster considers the sole founder to be ideal, as he eloquently describes in The Co-Founder Myth.

One of Mark’s primary concern is that founders often do not have adequate history upon which to form successful, lasting partnerships. It is for this reason that Rincon Venture Partners typically invests in serially successful teams who have previously experienced success together.

Another way to mitigate a potential founder breakup is to ensure that all the founder’s stock vests over time  Thus, if a particular founder does not carry their weight, loses interest in the startup or is forced out by the other founders, the amount of equity they will take with them will be commensurate with the time and effort they applied to the venture.

Like skiing on one leg, it is possible to create and run a company as a sole founder. However, for most people, two (or more) heads are, in fact, better than one. If you haven’t already, seek the other half of your dynamic duo as they will greatly enhance your chances of success, both in business and your personal life.

Note: The one-legged skiing analogy was inspired by Keval Desai of InterWest Partners, who cited the skiing metaphor in an rousing talk he gave to my entrepreneurial students at UC Santa Barbara.

Follow my startup-oriented  Twitter feed here: @johngreathouse. I promise I will never Tweet about that killer burrito I just ate – just startup stuff.

Image Credit: Flickr tinou bao

John Greathouse

John Greathouse is a Partner at Rincon Venture Partners, a venture capital firm investing in early stage, web-based businesses. Previously, John co-founded RevUpNet, a performance-based online marketing agency sold to Coull. During the prior twenty years, he held senior executive positions with several successful startups, spearheading transactions that generated more than $350 million of shareholder value, including an IPO and a multi-hundred-million-dollar acquisition.

John is a CPA and holds an M.B.A. from the Wharton School. He is a member of the University of California at Santa Barbara’s Faculty where he teaches several entrepreneurial courses.

Note: All of my advice in this blog is that of a layman. I am not a lawyer and I never played one on TV. You should always assess the veracity of any third-party advice that might have far-reaching implications (be it legal, accounting, personnel, tax or otherwise) with your trusted professional of choice.

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