In Which A Bunch of People Fight & Life Goes On…



On co-founder fights, early employees and being together

If you’re in a startup, you’ve probably fought with your co-founder before. Hell, if you’re friends with someone (especially if you’re best friends), if you’re in a family, if you’re in a workplace, if you’re basically around another human being for more than a casual acquaintance…

…. then you’ve probably fought before.

I always feel slightly dumbfounded and amazed when people expect founders not to fight, or for everything to be perfectly smooth in something as risky and changeable as a startup. In fact, I think it’s better to have a fight once in a while, and air the frustrations rather than keep them repressed inside, only to explode later in an important meeting.

Some of it is just humans being humans. You can’t expect people to have the same upbringing and experiences as you, but we assume it anyway and misunderstandings happen — BAM! fighting. Increase that exponentially when you’re stuck together in the same apartment and office all day and night, in close quarters, right in each other’s faces – you will fight. It’s not an if, it’s a when. . This becomes even more confusing when you’re both friends and co-founders – where does the business day end and friendship start?

When my co-founder and I first started, we fought a lot. It took us around two weeks of grumbling, push-pull and compromises to get us into a working routine where we knew when was ‘office-time’ and when was ‘friend-time’ and being able to deftly negotiate the roles of ‘best buddy’ and ‘CEO’. There’s a lot of things you can change or ‘disrupt,’ but learning about each other, how we worked on our own, and then coming together, that kind of knowledge and bond cannot be sped up, outsourced or computerized into a function.

So. Some of the things I found out:

I learnt that I hate mornings, but that my co-founder is bloody chipper and comes in before the office opens.
I learnt that he drinks coffee with no sugar or milk, while I drink only tea.
I learnt that he likes gluing himself to tables and chairs, and I like to walk my problem out (round and round the same block, like a hamster).
I learnt that we have completely different creative-work processes, and working together at the same time on the same issue was detrimental to productivity, so now we work separately on problems, then come back together for a quick 15minute catch up.

Most of all, I had to un-learn everything from my previous jobs about how offices should work, because this was my office and the way we were working was going to be foundation of our culture.

The fights, I’ll have to say, are both more and less dramatic than any TechCrunch, ValleyWag or TV show will have you know. Most of our fights ranged from the banal to the point of pedantic i.e. ‘I really don’t like the background – it’s fuzzy from a distance’ and our biggest fight involved switching settings on Gmail, whether or not we should have the ‘Undo’ button, and how often to revise an email draft before sending, which resulted in a giant explosion of angry rage, tears, frustration and almost ditching everything right in the middle of SoHo with a crowd of gawking tourists. See what I mean? Pedantic. It’s really appalling how stupid it all is, looking back.

So all’s done and well and we’re trudging along and suddenly we get incorporated, a bit of money and enough customers to start seriously thinking about expansion. We hired our first employees, and suddenly we have to figure things out again: it’s not just us anymore: it’s us as co-founders, but also us-as-leaders, us-as-administrators, us-as-employers.

Who reports to whom, who makes executive decisions and what kind of checks and balances we have in place to maintain a proper organization structure. The larger picture of this is ‘HR’ or human resources, but it’s the smaller details that really trip you up, because it’s not really the kind of thing you normally think about.

For instance, who does the new employee on-boarding?

What are the protocols in place to ensure that the new employee knows your company — your startup-baby? Remember, you’ve been in on it since day zero, and the new employee, however awesome, doesn’t have the faintest idea of what you are.

How do you explain that culture you’ve created in the most efficient and effective time possible? Just slapping on an American Apparel t-shirt with your logo on it does not ‘make’ an employee. What’s your training? How do your roadmap their careers into your own startup growth?

And then when you actually look through their performance, and look through their code to realize something is very, very wrong  — who, among the founders will do the actual firing?

There are times I wish life would be just like another RPG, and if I get stuck at a level I could just find a walkthrough and cheat. Alas, life doesn’t come with cheat codes and guides, and the only way to level up is through experience. Most of the time, I don’t feel up for the task, I don’t feel like I’m actually capable enough to handle this, I want someone else to do it, but there’s no one to hold your hand or do it for you, and then you just do it and that’s when you learn.

I think one of the most fulfilling aspects of having a startup is not just the pleasure of creating usable, beautiful products, but also having a startup as a way to learn and discover. You find out that you can do so much more than what you thought you could do, you experience situations that give incredible richness to living and as your startup grows, you realize you don’t have to do this alone. The team that comes together, makes the journey even more worthwhile.

Image credit: CC by Tambako The Jaguar

About the author: Rachel Law

Rachel Law is the CEO of Interface Foundry and formerly an interactive artist, creative technologist and web designer. She designed and coded a browser extension that allowed people to swap their metadata across networks, developed a research methodology for analyzing the size and scale of networks and successfully funded a Kickstarter. She has also exhibited interactive art widely in Berlin, Singapore, Australia, New York City

Law has spoken at NYU/Intel, Center for Transformative Media,  4A’s CreateTech and more on networks and data.

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