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The Hidden Co-Founder

(This post was originally published on Techcrunch.  If you’re coming from there and have already read it, you will probably like this post on the hardest HR decision a founder has to take: firing herself).

It was Valentine’s Day last weekend and that reminded me of a story I often share with the founders we work with, here at Balderton.

One Friday in Cambridge, a few years ago: a tech guy and his fiancée are planning their wedding, which is due to take place in the city a few months later. Scheduled that day were: checking out the wedding venue, meeting people involved with the service, choosing the flowers and the food and wine, and perhaps being a bit romantic. However the tech guy didn’t do any of that, because he was six weeks away from the IPO of his company and spent all day dashing into corners to call up lawyers, bankers and his team in San Francisco.

That guy with the big phone bill was me and the fiancée is now my (still) very understanding wife. Despite the chaos I wreaked on our personal lives around the time of our wedding (note to all: never get married and IPO within a few months of each other), she let me focus on my work when I needed to, quietly catching the balls that were very important to us both as fast as I dropped them.  Afterwards, holed up in a hotel for (finally) a romantic dinner, she didn’t let up, leading the conversation to go over everything that was going on in the IPO process and interjecting with support and advice at every juncture.

I’ve found that ‘hidden co-founders’ – husbands, wives, girlfriends, boyfriends and even parents – are often a crucial factor in the success of a start-up.  Why?  Because being a founder and entrepreneur is not like a regular job. Start-ups are under-funded, under-connected and under-resourced compared to their competition.  The way you beat these odds often requires super-human effort and commitment.  This places you under strain and the primary nature of this strain is physical.  You have to travel, with no notice and at inconvenient times, often around the world.  You have focus entirely on the company and its mission, often pulling all-nighters, usually working through weekends.  But, even more draining than the physical strain can be the psychological strain.  As the leader of your under-resourced crew, you must maintain a 24×7 game face, never losing your positive frame of mind, taking the weight of fighting the fight onto your shoulders so that your team can remain clear-headed and get on with what they do best (build product, sell product).

All of this strain takes it toll.  You will extract time and energy from some other part of your life and that probably means your family.  Having someone else who can change their schedule at the drop of a hat, keep the trains running at home and go that step further to provide unconditional support, understanding and advice (after all, who you better than your life partner or spouse?) is key in allowing you to perform at your best.

To make this relationship work in the long term, however, I believe founders need to be fully aware of the (often quiet) sacrifices thesehidden co-founders are making and work to balance the effects of these contributions.  Every relationship does this in its own way, but in my experience, key tenets include:

  • Respect.  Respect what is important to your hidden co-founder (their own career is often overlooked) and commit to supporting them spend time on that when you can.  Respect can be demonstrated through time given or level of commitment.  Given you will rarely have the former, give with the latter – when you’ve committed to (for example) doing the school run for a week so they can travel to a conference, do not renege.
  • Share.  Share your team with your hidden co-founder and do the same in reverse.  Some of the people I worked with at blinkx became family.  We spent way more time together than many families do and we went through huge highs and lows.  When people are this important to you, don’t create artificial boundaries between them and the others who matter – in particular your hidden co-founders.  Make sure they know each other and understand the different sides to your life.  When you work overtime, it helps to know who that’s with and if you have to step in to cover for someone, your hidden cofounder will find it easier to support when it’s someone they know and care about too.
  • Balance.  I don’t think true work/life balance is possible in the day-to-day reality of start-ups but I think you can achieve it over longer periods (and certainly a life time).  My wife and I have never managed the Sheryl Sandberg schedule of being home for dinner every night. So we balance the times when one (or sometimes both) of us is at the mercy of company-driven deadlines and pressure – often stretches of more than a year – with periods when one of us, or both of us, are playing the support role, or doing something else we are passionate about.
  • The Good.  It’s very easy to dump all that is bad at work when you come home.  The hidden co-founder will be used to this and often be adept at helping absorb the negativity and talk you through the tough times.  But, for some reason, founders often forget to, equally, share the good times – those moments when it all just clicks and things are moving upwards and to the right.  You’d never forget to remind your team or investors of these moments, don’t forget your hidden co-founder either.

Starting and running a company is never easy.  Realize that the one thing that may help you through it is the support you have around you and, when you receive that support, be sure to respect it and pay it back: it might just be the most important investment you ever make.