11 October 2017

Two is the magic number: co-founders share the secrets of their partnerships’ success

The relationship between business co-founders can be the most emotionally demanding in a person’s life.

In 2009, the Blackberry was so popular it was being referred to as the Crackberry. It accounted for half of all smartphones being sold. It was even credited for single-handedly facilitating a political revolution in the Middle East.

Earlier this year, it emerged Blackberry’s 50% share of the market had evaporated, down to a piddling 0.04%.

This almighty crumbling was attributed to tough competition from Apple and Google.

But what the story missed was the collapse of the relationship between the company’s co-CEOs, Jim Balsillie and Mike Lazaridis. Having steered Blackberry to its highs, the pair then clashed and split the business between warring commercial and product teams, effectively strangling any momentum. They stopped working as a partnership and it ultimately led to the downfall of the company.

The format of dual heads at the helm of a company has become more common in recent years. It creates a fascinating dynamic where two people, brought together by history, friendship, circumstance or design, are thrown into a profoundly intense relationship on which prosperity, creativity and sanity are all staked.

What is, in theory, lost in decisiveness with a single owner is compensated for by having someone else to share the responsibilities, as well as the good times and bad.

At its best, having two complementary individuals with a common bond and strong emotional qualities can create a seemingly invincible force.

There are examples in virtually every sector.One of the fastest-growing companies in London right now is Transferwise, a facilitator of international money transfers that has just broken into profit and is on course to hit £100m in revenue this year. The relationship between the two Estonians who run the company is credited with powering that success; they share a common goal and enemy (big banks and their egregious fees).

The balance between the outgoing and enthusiastic Taavet Hinrikus and his partner, the more detail-oriented Kristo Käärmann, is a template that is so ubiquitous as a business double act it borders on caricature.

But will the Transferwise founders, and the thousands like them, avoid the relationship breakdown of Balsillie and Lazaridis?

The answer appears to lie in whether founders can successfully grow their business into something more than the sum of their talents. Big companies are much less reliant on just two people, points out Ondine Smulders, a psychotherapist. An established business, with systems in place, can continue to grow even when the bosses disagree. ‘With two or five or 20 employees, when two owners get into a fight, it can cripple the whole thing,’ she says.

Lots of startup founders, especially tech ones, are increasingly seeking professional conflict therapy or the kind of relationship counselling more commonly associated with married couples, she adds. ‘Lots of people think because they’re friends, it’s going to be okay and they’re never going to run into problems. If you don’t put proper agreements in place, you’re setting yourself up to fail.’

The line between a business relationship that’s almost magically effective and one that’s dysfunctional can be a fine one. A considerable amount of practical guidance is given in the coming pages around defining responsibilities in the early days, swapping roles and working out how to give each other space, while also making the most of strengths and covering for weaknesses. But many talk frankly about the emotional dynamic, and the need to fuel the relationship with the kind of trust, respect and affection required when it feels like a business is taking on the entire world.

1. Dishoom

Shamil and Kavi Thakrar

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Shamil and Kavi Thakrar are unlikely restaurant revolutionaries; prior to Dishoom, neither had any experience in hospitality. But with a shared fastidiousness and creative vision, the cousins have created an impressive dining machine.

In every Dishoom the attention to detail is almost fanatical. In the Carnaby Street restaurant, the screw heads in the lobby were replaced midway through construction – they didn’t have Phillips screws in 1960s Bombay. In King’s Cross, guests queueing outside the madly popular Irani-cafe-inspired Indian restaurant are handed umbrellas if it starts raining. The fifth, and most recent, site in Edinburgh has been designed as though by Patrick Geddes, a Scotsman who lived in Bombay in the 1920s, although in reality by the restaurant’s actual founders, cousins Shamil and Kavi Thakrar.

‘We found this character, and then imagined a day in his life, his story, and then imagined him imagining opening an Irani cafe, and then opened the Irani cafe he would’ve opened,’ explains Shamil.

Dishoom has been a runaway success in the last seven years. In many ways, it epitomises London’s transformed food scene: no bookings, queues around the block, a traditional cuisine that’s been steadfastly modernised while retaining something authentic and egalitarian.

That success can be attributed to the cousins. They clearly love what running a business like Dishoom enables them to do: both speak animatedly about their team, training schemes, and employee benefits; the food charities the business supports; the way in which Londoners of all ages and incomes come together to eat the famous bacon naan rolls.

Left brain, right brain

Shamil, the more talkative of the two, covers the strategic and creative side of the business. He previously ran their family’s business Tilda, the UK’s biggest rice company. Kavi, who spent four years at the World Bank, is responsible for the operational side of the business and is, unsurprisingly, the practical one.

‘I tend to go off on flights of fantasy and have quite crazy ideas,’ says Shamil. ‘But I will always sense check [an idea], and say, “Is this stupid, is there any point in doing this?’’’

Being family makes asking for, and receiving, those reality checks easier.

‘It’s trusting the other person to spot your weaknesses or your blind spots,’ says Kavi. ‘If I’m not thinking about something that Shamil’s concerned about, he’ll say, “You know what, I know you’re taking care of this, but just think about that.’’ And I’ll do the same to him, give him my five seconds. Growing up with that relationship together anyway makes you more aware of each other’s sensitivities. I think it’s an enormous benefit.’

‘We have quite different strengths and weaknesses,’ says Shamil. ‘I’m a bit more wacky and left-field, whereas Kavi is quite grounded.’

‘But I think we need that,’ adds Kavi. ‘You want both in what we do, because when you come here, hopefully you leave feeling a certain way; you feel looked after, and you’ve enjoyed yourself. Ultimately [that comes down to] the creativity that goes into the design and the story-telling and bringing it all together, but you also need to make sure the team have the structure they need around them to look after you.’

While their roles are now split fairly evenly between ‘left brain and right brain’, they were fairly ‘amorphous’ at the start, says Shamil. At that point, two other founders – brothers Adarsh and Amar Radia – were also involved in running the business.

‘We’ve got into a rhythm of working together much more closely,’ explains Shamil. The pair share an office close to Dishoom’s Shoreditch site with their senior management team. They are both heavily involved in the opening of each new restaurant, taking multiple trips to Bombay together to research the story behind a new location, and then sourcing furniture with their designers. ‘We go through archives and museums and look at architecture – we’ll surreptitiously take photographs of hinges and staircases – and then take these design ideas and pull them into a very authentic environment,’ says Shamil.

They say most of their ideas, no matter how ridiculous, have been executed.

‘There were many restaurateurs who wouldn’t touch King’s Cross, because it was just too difficult a site,’ says Shamil (the restaurant is located in a former railway warehouse). ‘But Kavi had a mental idea, looked at me, and said, “Can we do this?’’’ The result: a floating mezzanine level which breaks up the space and, unusually, houses the kitchen.

Nowadays, Dishoom’s senior management team of five provides an additional sense check.

‘We’ve definitely come to a consensus once or twice,’ says Shamil. ‘And the team has said, “That’s crap. You shouldn’t do it.’’ And we’ve said, “Ok’’.’

2. Frame

Joan Murphy and Pip Black

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As Shoreditch fitness studio Frame has grown up, so too have the lives of its founders, Pip Black and Joan Murphy. With several sites, kids and employees to manage, they’ve had to become more structured in the way they work, and work together.

When the first Frame studio opened in 2009, Pip Black and Joan Murphy were involved in everything: sandblasting the walls of the ex-carpark, fixing the plumbing, managing the accounts. ‘We were really young, and had all the time in the world, so we both did everything,’ says Murphy who, like Black, was working in advertising, boozing hard and struggling to fit in serious sport when they met.

‘It was totally not time efficient,’ Murphy says of their hands-on approach. ‘But we got a lot of experience under our belts.’

Their roles are more defined now they have a 25-person full-time team and five sites to run – Murphy, ‘more handy’, covers construction, buildings, teachers and timetables, while Black, ‘an in-detail person’, leads on marketing, brand and legals. They don’t have an office, and try to avoid sending too many emails. ‘We’re quite structured,’ says Murphy. ‘We have a weekly meeting, and if you’re working on something and want an answer we Whatsapp, because you don’t want to hold each other up.’

For specific projects, they allocate each other tasks. ‘That’s a really easy way of getting through lots of things,’ says Black. ‘There are so many different things going on – you have to divide and conquer.’

‘We work because we have full trust in each other. If the other person says they’re going to do it, they’re going to do it,’ says Murphy. ‘So you can plan forward and you can move quickly.’

Forced to focus

Over the last three years, as three new sites have opened and both have taken time off for maternity leave, they’ve drawn back from most of the day-to-day running of the studios and put a senior management team in place. ‘It made us start going through a process of looking at where our skills were, and where we wanted to concentrate time,’ says Black.

‘You become a lot more focused, and question the superfluous stuff,’ adds Murphy.

However, the shared and in-depth knowledge of all aspects of the business that they picked up in the early days has made it easier to cover each other’s roles when one is away.

‘Back six years ago, we couldn’t both go on holiday at the same time,’ says Black. ‘We’d even schedule a night off. Now, we could both be on maternity leave and it would continue to run.’

‘But we wouldn’t have the element of new, evolving, interesting stuff,’ she adds – like the pre- and post-natal classes and yoga teacher training course they’ve just launched. ‘When Joan was away, we still spoke once a week – but there were so many things I wanted to do, and I couldn’t get as many of them done without Joan there to keep pushing everything forward.’

3. Harry’s

Jeff Raider and Andy Katz-Mayfield

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US razor startup Harry’s was founded by business school friends Jeff Raider and Andy Katz-Mayfield. They’ve borrowed tactics from Raider’s last company, glasses startup Warby Parker, and played to their different strengths; Raider is the more emotional of the pair, while Katz-Mayfield is more rational.

Did you have the same vision for Harry’s?

Andy Katz-Mayfield: I called Jeff when I had this frustrating experience in a drugstore buying razors. A big difference [between us] at that point (and still to this day) is my mind went to ‘there is this big opportunity’ – Gillette is this evil overlord taking advantage of consumers and there is an opportunity to disrupt and provide better value. Jeff saw it from more of a consumer perspective: to build a brand that connects emotionally with guys.

Did carving up who does what fall into place immediately?

Jeff Raider: Because of my experience at Warby Parker, it was fitting that I would spend more time on brand and customers: technology, customer experience, service, front of house. Andy was more around operations: factory, supply chain, research and product development.

Are there any areas where you work together more closely?

JR: We align on planning. He will push for timing, and there is a bit of back and forth. I trust him to make really good decisions to make product and he trusts me to get products into customers’ hands. We’ve known each other so long, I know how Andy’s thought process is evolving, so we can be really efficient. I can get more done in 15 minutes with Andy than I can in an hour with someone else.

Give me an example of where the emotional/rational contrast manifests itself.

JR: I sometimes take negotiations more personally. Andy sees it more as sport.

AKM: He’s better at negotiation than he gives himself credit for. He likes to throw me in there! Jeff has very high emotional intelligence and he can identify and explain how people will be impacted by a decision and what they will be thinking. He really helps me create awareness and deal with people and organisational stuff.

JR: Andy thinks and acts in a very clear and straightforward way.

AKM: Jeff’s positive spirit can lift me up, and encourage me to be more outspoken and bring energy to a situation. It’s been so important for us, especially in the early days when you’re living on optimism and spirit.

What about each other’s weaknesses?

JR: Andy likes to get information and make a call. I think sometimes you need to get into the weeds a bit more. That takes a lot of time and emotional energy.

AKM: I suppose for Jeff, it’s just the flip side of being an emotional guy. You know when he is very stressed out. I like to think I can be a calming influence.

What are the challenges of working so
closely together?

AKM: Maintaining a friends’ relationship.

JR: It’s hard to get past Harry’s; it’s the baby we had together. It was the same at Warby Parker. The 10 minute walk from the Little League our kids went to would be a Warby Parker meeting.

Have you had any major disagreements?

JR: Andy was really up for international expansion, while I thought it was [too] early. But we did it, and I’m happy we did.

4. Amaliah

Nafisa and Selina Bakkar

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Last year, sisters Nafisa and Selina Bakkar founded Amaliah: a curated fashion site and community voice for Muslim women. Decades living together has made pitching and dividing business responsibilities easy.

You’re sisters. How does that make working together different?

Selina Bakkar: We don’t have to over-explain things. It just kind of clicks. She’ll finish my sentences or say, ‘I’ve already had that idea’.

Nafisa Bakkar: And there are no pleasantries.

SB: The first three months, on the [Ignite] accelerator, were very intense. We were constantly messaging each other, voice noting each other – got this great idea, talked to this investor… That ease of communication, being available to each other all the time, has allowed us to move relatively quickly.

NB: Even when we’re at home, at family gatherings, we have to actively be like, ‘Don’t talk about work or everyone’s going to get pissed off with us’. Because it’s so easy…

SB: The barbecue!

NB: I was going to say that. Everyone was sitting around, talking about how Ramadan’s around the corner. And me and Selina looked at each other, and she was like, ‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, content?’

You can’t help but have work blur into your personal lives.

Tell us more about being on the Ignite startup accelerator.

SB: You have to be very strong – as a team, as co-founders, as a company. Because you do see people crumble. We were a double act; you have to be able to command a room, and you have to have that synergy between you.

NB: People were really compelled by the fact that we were these two sisters on a mission. I would do the unveiling of the site, and the demo. Selina would do the speech about the community, and how the Muslim voice is really taking off.

SB: There were certain sentences you had to get in.

NB: It’s like speed dating, so you’re going to see 12 people, and you’ve literally got 20 minutes…

SB: And some people are going to chat shit to you. And what was hilarious, we both had our laptop screens open…

NB: And we’d be on the same Google Doc – ‘He’s chatting nonsense, please don’t even let it subliminally enter your mind…’

SB: Or, ‘Really good idea, love this guy’. And whenever one of us had that gut feeling, we both had it.

Were you in-sync even as kids?

NB: Interestingly, even though Selina’s seven years older than me, I assume the CEO position, while Selina takes care of the community, writers, on-boarding, marketing…

SB: The mother.

NB: And I think that stems from our personal relationship, because even growing up, I was the disciplinarian out of the two of us. And I think that has gone into Amaliah as well.

SB: I was that older sibling like, ‘Oh mum and dad have gone on holiday, shall we get our second ear pierced?’

NB: I don’t think we’ve ever felt like, ‘Why are you the CEO, why aren’t I the CEO?’ We know very clearly what our roles in the business are, and what we need to be doing. I think for some founders, that’s a very difficult thing. On the accelerator, there was a trip to America, and only one person from each team could go. Some of the teams hadn’t distinguished who was the CEO, and you could see there was real tension. But for us – Selina was eight months pregnant anyway…

SB: But it was a given [that Nafisa would go].

NB: I would hate to be doing the stuff Selina does… But that’s because she’s really good at community building, talking to people. She’s the funny one, the warm one. I guess that’s why I’m good at building business relationships, because they don’t have to be intimate and personal.

SB: And as sisters, you’re cheering each other on. You’re each other’s fan girl.

Nafisa, you’re off to San Francisco for two weeks. How does it feel when you’re separated?

SB: It’s a bit emotional, actually.

NB: It is, and because Selina’s also talking at the Southbank Centre [while I’m away], I really want to be there and hear it. We want to be there to support each other.

And when we’re communicating what we’re doing, it comes across better when there’s both of us. We have different perspectives, and we cover very different demographics. We’re almost like activists, and I think both of us in the room together is very compelling.

5. It’s Nice That

Alex Bec and Will Hudson

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University design blog-turned-media business It’s Nice That has just celebrated its 10th birthday. A decade in, founders Alex Bec and Will Hudson say their student friendship has morphed into something much stronger.

‘It’s a funny old thing the relationship we have,’ says Will Hudson, who’s been running It’s Nice That with his university friend Alex Bec for 10 years. The days of voluntarily hanging out together at the weekends are long past; now there are kids, and the two live in different cities. Despite that, they often spend more time with each other than they do with their partners.

‘Are we best mates anymore? Probably not,’ says Bec. ‘Do we have something completely different? Yes.’

Trust and autonomy

While their roles have shifted over time, Bec has always managed the day-to-day running of the company – from events to client work. ‘What we’ve learnt is Will is good at starting a new thing; he’ll get his head down and not care if people really doubt it. Whereas that would derail me,’ says Bec. ‘What I like much more is analysing what we’re currently doing and going, “Have we made those things better?’’’

Each is entirely responsible for his area of the business. ‘A reason why it works and we run a successful business is that we trust that the other one is wholly invested in what we’re trying to do and where we’re going. It doesn’t require a daily check-in to go, “Right, what do you do?  Where did you get to on that thing?’’’ says Bec.

Hudson agrees: ‘You couldn’t question what someone was doing – that would drive me insane.’

They have a regular 8.30am meeting on a Monday morning to run through what’s happening. ‘It’s a time we will make available for each other to chat, almost always in-person,’ says Hudson, who works remotely half the week. ‘It gives us an opportunity to have a sounding board before anything get actioned,’ adds Bec. ‘There’s no agenda necessarily; we bring things we want to talk about.’

Having someone to check decisions with is invaluable, says Bec. ‘If we weren’t working together, I wouldn’t be quite sure of some of the decisions I was making. I slightly lose conviction.’

‘When [Will’s] on holiday, the thing I miss more than anything is just someone to go, “Am I being a complete dick about this?’’’ he adds.

6. Echo
Sai Lakshmi and Stephen Bourke

Sai Lakshmi and Stephen Bourke founded repeat prescription app Echo, in July 2015 – despite never having worked together before. A few ego clashes, two investment rounds and several hires later, they’ve found their roles.

Before starting Echo, the two of you hadn’t worked together. How did you decide who took what role?

Stephen Bourke: When we started, it was a lot more contentious as to who did what – because we had less to do. The trivial stuff we argued about at the start…

Sai Lakshmi: Macs or PCs? That was a good one.

SB: Just so much bullshit. I look back at it now and I think, what the fuck were we wasting our time on?

I was the GM [at Lloyds online pharmacy], running my own thing. Sai was coming in with the vision, so there was a natural clash.

By the sheer fact of being a startup founder you have to have an ego. So there’s always going to be that friction. Difference is, can you wake up the day after you have a fight and come back into work and say, ‘Fuck it, we’re going to do this’?

When I saw Sai, I saw someone who was tenacious, a guy whose ambition and energy matched my own, and who wanted to get stuff done. I think that’s the main thing.

SL: I had a skill set that Stephen didn’t, and vice versa. It’s kind of like… The machine needs to turn and we’re the cogs that fit together. But you need to figure it out, it’s kind of like dating.

Now you’ve got a team of 21 and £1.8m in funding. What’s different, day-to-day?

SB: Now we have so much to do our roles are really quite fluid. We have support coming in, but sometimes things take a certain complex knowledge so it’s easier to just do them ourselves. We sweep up – we’re like the company’s janitors.

SL: We do whatever needs to be done. I do people, money and vision. Stephen’s in charge of customer experience – a combination of product and marketing.

SB: We talk every day of the week, Saturday and Sunday included, and hang out a lot both inside and outside of work. Sometimes we don’t say anything, just ‘uhh, I’m so tired’.

Now we don’t so much have different opinions, but we’re looking to each other for answers because the questions are so big. We’re so busy with so many things that frankly you’re glad to have someone to take a decision.

SL: You have a problem, come up with a solution, go to the other person, say ‘what do you think?’ Most of the time, you do the logical thing, and the logical thing you agree on.

How much do you lean on advisers or speak to other founders?

SL: One of the best people I’ve ever worked with is our lead investor Ophelia Brown. She’s a fantastic sounding board. If she comes to the same conclusion as Stephen and I, that’s three people aligned going forward.

 

Three founder fallout

Planet Organic

Co-founders Renée Elliott and Jonathan Dwek disagreed over how their food store should be run. As both were equal shareholders in the company, they got lawyers involved to end the dispute. After a 14-month court case, Elliott bought out Dwek for an undisclosed amount.

Google

In 2013, it emerged Sergey Brin was cheating on his wife with a Google Glass employee (who was the girlfriend of another Google executive). Brin’s co-founder Larry Page was reportedly so scandalised by the whole episode that the pair stopped talking. The two had been friends since their college days at Stanford.

Seenit

Emily Forbes has lost two co-founders. She split with the first over the direction their production company should take. When she founded video collaboration tool Seenit in 2014, she hired a technical co-founder, Max Werner, to help build the site. He left a year later.