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Startup founder lessons from the Brownlee brothers

September 26, 2016

The picture of Alistair Brownlee giving up his own chance to win the Triathlon World series in Mexico, and helping his brother Jonny over the line, evoked strong emotions of two brothers in arms.

With the 1500m swim and 40km bike completed, Jonny and Alistair were out on the road on the run in front, battling for gold and silver. Then Jonny uttered one word to his brother – ‘relax’ – and Alistair, who interpreted it as a sign of weakness, attacked to retain his title. Jonny kicked on, and surged back into the lead.

One moment Jonny was striding to victory, the next his legs buckled beneath him as extraordinary effort took its toll. Just as Jonny stumbled like a drunk off the track, elder brother Alistair swooped to the rescue, hooking his arm around his shoulder and helping him to cross the line in second place. Jonny then slumps to the floor, spent from dehydration.

It was a natural human reaction to help his brother, but even so, the display of loyalty was incredible. It was a vital intervention. Jonny’s condition was serious enough for him to be taken to hospital, missing the podium presentation.

In their autobiography, Swim Bike Run, the Brownlee boys are humble on their fantastic achievements in the world of Triathlon. The Triathlon seems an exercise in torture to me. A 1500m swim, a 40km bike ride and a 10km run, all taken without a break. To achieve this at any level is a fearsome task.

Swimming and running in competition as early as nine with cycling vast distances a hobby, their competitive instincts and sibling rivalry were established. Despite this, they raced as a team versus the rest. The detailed account of their drive for success in Swim Bike Run, is extensive and meticulous, describing their development from schoolboys to standing on the Olympic podium. The sacrifices, hard work, intrusions on personal life are all here. It reminds me of the tenacity shown by startup founders.

The Brownlee brothers are incredibly driven, and very smart, particularly in terms of the emotional side of their relationship, and how to think positively in challenging situations. Working collaboratively despite competing with each other, they epitomise the old saying, ‘two heads are better than one’, pushing each other in training and racing.

This collaborative style holds true for those wanting to found a startup – a recent study showed that 80% of all successful startups have more than one founder. Even if you think you can reach your goals on your own, the truth is that you’ll have a much better chance of success with at least one co-founder to help build your business.

Research shows start-ups with co-founders are four times likely to be successful than those going solo – quite a strong case for forming a double act. From Larry Page and Sergey Brin (co-founders of Google, 1998), Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak (Apple, 1976, and Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard who came together in 1939, these founding duos clicked because they had similar personality types with an insatiable curiosity, and strengths that complimented each other.

It is the shared mind-set and skill-set that captures the essence of what makes entrepreneurial duos work. For example, Francis Jehl was Thomas Edison’s lab assistant, starting work at the Menlo Park research facility as an eighteen year old straight from school. After the completion of Jehl’s first assignment, Edison noticed Jehl’s work ethic and was so impressed that he started to work collaboratively, so much so that Jehl worked on the electric light during the lab stage of development.

During the next two years, Edison regarded him as a partner, entrusting him to take his electric light innovation to Europe and exploit it commercially. Jehl kept a personal diary, detailing some of the exceptional things that he worked on with Edison, captured in his book, Reminiscences of Menlo Park, published fifty years afterwards.

Whilst Edison regarded Jehl as a co-founder, not all entrepreneurs need an ally, but as seen, many successful startups are built by multiple leaders with productive relationships. What made their combined skill-sets a successful collaboration? There is a common trend: the most well-rounded co-founders recognised their individual limitations and respect what the other brings to a partnership. Here are the traits of what makes these co-founder relationships tick.

Focus on what you’re good at Dividing workload based on complimentary yet different skills gives focus and productivity, a focus of effort based on mutual strengths means you’re able to progress the day-to-day work while continuing to evolve many aspects of the business. A co-founder can help complement your skills and fill in the skills gaps in a way you’ll never be able to do on your own.

Double your odds While having a business partner is second best to having a carbon copy of yourself running around, it doubles your odds of being in the right place at the right time. Having someone you can trust with the same level of integrity and passion as yourself is a huge advantage and enables a ‘I’ll work on whatever you’re not working on’ philosophy to getting two things done at once. It simply doubles the bandwidth.

Provide you with a sounding board and companion on the start-up journey Starting a business means a bumpy road may appear on the horizon at any point, and it can be a lot easier to handle those bumps with a co-founder. Advisors and mentors are valuable, but there is nothing like being able to talk to someone who is sharing the experience, facing the same risk, the same problems, and the same potential upside.

Serve as a backstop when you have an off day We all have days when we are just not at the races, having a co-founder provides a backstop for those times, even for the simplest of matters. Sharing both the physical and mental workload with someone you can trust, and is just as invested as you, makes the journey slightly less frantic.

Gain new insights Two heads are better than one, most likely your co-founder will have a different set of experiences and competencies from you. You should be open-minded to share and utilise these experiences for the benefit of the business. It is always advantageous to view your startup from the filter of another because we are often limited by our own perspectives.

Also, by having another perspective we are not blinded by our innate biases. In the kaleidoscopic melee of day-to-day, it’s easy to overlook potentially important details or tasks because our judgment has been clouded by our own worldview, fears or when we give in to complacency.

Spread the risk and improve contingencies Most ‘solopreneurs’ start out with the mindset that they can achieve their goals – until reality sets in and they find themselves stuck in a spiral of masses of work to be done. Having a co-founder allows for discussion of priorities, a change in direction or a new approach, feedback which opens up possibilities in times of turbulence and an extra set of skills to push the enterprise past its limitations of a single decision maker.

Make better decisions Whilst recognising the upsides of a co-founder, there won’t be consensus all the time. In fact, it’s better when you don’t. A certain level of discord and tension means that you’re both championing opposing views. This creates an opportunity to discuss the merits of each viewpoint and ultimately decide which direction is better.

Balance the extremes and point out the blindspots Entrepreneurs just want to get things done, often in a hurry and always moving forward, but it helps to have a balance to caution this enthusiasm at times. We all have blind spots, and having a co-founder that can point out these blind spots so you can improve, opening your eyes to things you might not see, is undoubtedly beneficial.

So having identified the benefits of working with a co-founder, what are the criteria for selecting a partner? There are some fundamental aspects that make this relationship work, and should be clearly shared openly as part of the dialogue when discussing a joining-up of minds.

Collision on vision You wouldn’t marry someone you’d just met, so you should date first to check in on fundamentals that will form the bedrock of the relationship and the business – What is our vision and purpose, what are our personal goals for the startup? 

Though these may change over time, its helpful to get a sense of what each co-founder seeks as success outset, where there is common ground and you are aligned and synchronised, and where there is difference. You need to connect at a values, ambition, trust and philosophy perspectives – chose a co-founder like you would a spouse.

Aligned motives If one founder wants to build a cool product that makes a difference, and the other one wants to make money and be famous as their motive, it won’t work. Pay close attention and unearth true motivations, which are unrevealed, not declared.

If you have one co-founder that wants to build a sustainable business that is spinning off cash and run it forever, and another one wants to shoot for high growth and an exit, it’s better to get that out in the open early and talk it through.

Play a couple rounds of monopoly together, just to see how you both react to opportunity and adversity – and if there is humour in the relationship. There are of course other such ways to gauge this but don’t co-habit without dancing together socially first, doing something outside of work with your potential future partner may be eye-opening.

Intelligence, energy, and integrity It’s not the smart kid you knew at school, it’s not the person you like the most, it’s not the hacker most willing to work for free. It’s someone of high intelligence, energy and integrity you want. You’ll need all three yourself to evaluate your co-founder.

If it doesn’t feel right, keep looking, don’t compromise, keep looking. The founders set a company’s DNA, and its culture is an extension of the founders’ personalities. Make sure there is a tight fit.

One builds, one sells The best builders can prototype and even deliver the entire product, end-to-end. The best sellers can sell to customers, partners, investors, and employees. Looking at the successful duos earlier in the blog, this seems to be the ideal co-founder mix.

The seller doesn’t have to be a salesman, they can be technical, but able to influence. Bill Gates and Steve Jobs aren’t salesmen, but sellers of vision, passion and innovation.

Future skills matter more than present skills It’s impossible to judge the potential skills of a person on day one. So instead, while we don’t predict future skills, avoid giving too much importance to current skills. Startups demand different sets of competencies at various stages in their journey – being a CEO of a startup means being the Chief Everything Officer initially – co-founders need to be fast learners in order to acquire new in-demand skills.

Get personal The underlying question here is Can the founders work closely together for an extended period without killing each other? If one or more of the founders has some ‘tic’ the others don’t like or if there’s some odd feelings there, it might be overlooked in the rush to include people on the team who have a particular skill. Basically, can you spend 24/7 time together and have trust, tolerance, space and stretch when needed?

What it’s like to share the highs and lows, the successes and the failures, and the feeling of having someone alongside you, shoulder-to-shoulder all the while confident they think the same way? That’s what the Brownlee brothers have created with their special bond. Whilst startup founders aren’t racing against each other, they have to be supportive, just like Alastair and Jonny.

Alistair Brownlee’s heroic gesture of giving up the chance to win the World Series Triathlon event in Mexico to help younger brother Jonny over the line was a fantastic piece of teamwork in a very much solo sport. It captures the essence of camaraderie needed between startup founders.

By implicit mutual personal support and rapport, merging their disparate talents and idiosyncrasies, effective co-founders sync when it comes to the course they co-charted. That kind of strategic cohesion is the secret sauce behind many successful startups, so try to create that serendipity in your own startup enterprise with your co-founder.

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