Why Choosing Your Co-Founder Is as Serious as Choosing Your Spouse (or Should Be)

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Choosing your co-founder is no casual decision. Here are one founder's rules for forging and maintaining a strong relationship with your co-founder. 

By Jules Pieri (Founder & CEO, The Grommet)

On a listing of stressful life events like illness or death, a co-founder breakup would surely rank near the top. Yet, oddly, when people join forces to start a business they are roundly cheered and encouraged, without a lot of rational evaluation from their friends and family.

Imagine if you announced an impending wedding to a casual acquaintance. The intervention and concern would sky rocket. People should take a startup co-founder decision just as seriously as a marriage. The reality is you will jointly impact more people (employees, investors, customers) and spend more hours together than any married couple.

I co-founded my current venture with Joanne Domeniconi, a person I knew very well. We’d worked together in a high-pressure fast-paced business, and we’d also shared a nanny for our young boys. Those two experiences meant we knew a great deal about each other’s professional and personal values. Those core drivers, habits, and behaviors mean more than any qualification you’d find on a resume when it comes to founder compatibility and building trust.

But even with that background, we were very naïve about the journey ahead.  Joanne recently reminded me that we agreed we would only do this as long as we were having fun. She said, “I've learned through those five years that there were lots and lots of very un-fun times but that it was absolutely impossible to quit. We were committed. You can't do this without the deepest sort of commitment.  You don't succeed if you quit when it's not fun. We didn't know that then, but we know that now.”

Similarly, when you found a company you have to throw out all the popular advice column mantras about work-life balance and “finding your bliss”.  What you are going to find if you focus on those trite goals is death at your business’s door. At the very outset you have to agree that the business is solidly and mutually your top priority. It has to be the biggest thing in the room for both of you, no matter what room you are in.

Here are a few other rules of thumb about co-founding:

  • Two is the magic number: Decisions are fast and accountability is high. Three or four is a crowd.
  • Presenting an aligned front: It really helps if you are a parent before you found a company. On so many levels you have deep experience with basic human motivation and development. Great co-parents never let their kids divide and conquer them. Great co-founders never do either.
  •  Collaborate on all key hiring decisions: We rely on each other’s instincts for this.
    • Mutual Defense of Energy Pact: Joanne and I have more stamina and capacity for work than 99% of the population. But that poses a risk of feeling like are letting the other person down if we dial down our contribution for a vacation, family event, or just ordinary life. We look out for each other here.
    • Have a weekly 30 minute touch base: Joanne handles the core operations of our business and I handle everything else.  I am also "outside" person and she is "inside" person. These weekly touch bases are important to get realigned.
    • Respond to each other’s emails immediately: Joanne and I rarely leave an "operational" or "emergency" email unanswered more than an hour. But we don’t use barrage each other with tiny stuff.
    • Be comfortable with your different leadership styles: Joanne is like a great athletic coach challenging you to do your personal best. I am more of the spiritual leader type, encouraging you to see a different vision for your contributions and role in the world.

Any two successful co-founders are going to have unique interdependencies and habits that work for their company. But if you adopt the type of behaviors that make a strong marriage work, you won’t be too far off the mark in effectively running your company.

What other tips do you have for maintaining a strong relationship with your co-founder?

Jules Pieri headshotAbout the guest blogger: Jules Pieri is Founder and CEO of the product launch platform The Grommet. Jules started her career as industrial designer for technology companies, and was subsequently a senior executive for large brands such as Keds, Stride Rite and Playskool. The Grommet is her third startup, following roles as VP at Design Continuum and President of  Ziggs.com. Jules was recently named one of Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Entrepreneurs.