The Forgotten Founder

This is the fourth post in a series of five on co-founder conflict.

The fourth source of co-founder conflict is the most heartbreaking because it only arises if everything is going really well and you are getting noticed by the press and outside world for your accomplishments. In this scenario, the co-founders have already successfully navigated through the first few common co-founder conflicts. Both are scaling, both are doing their jobs, and they are both making effective decisions. They have a healthy relationship and things are going really well.

Here’s the problem: The co-founder named CEO does all the interviews, gets all the articles written about them, speaks at conferences and is named to the latest 30 under 30, 40 under 40, etc. The non-CEO co-founder starts to wonder, “If we are equals, decisions are split equally, we are both scaling, and if I’m contributing just as much as the CEO, why are they getting all the interviews? Why doesn’t anyone outside of the tech community know my name?” The non-CEO co-founder feels forgotten and alienated. In response they will often fight for more internal control (see “Who decides what?”), which leads to not scaling (see “The founder that doesn’t scale.”) because they are playing a popularity contest instead of continuing to focus on their roles which is what has already made them successful leaders.

I believe this conflict can sometimes be the worst because it is purely ego. Put simply it is the sentiment of: “You are getting the spotlight and I’m not.” As a coach it’s truly heart-breaking to watch because this conflict often pops up when there are really healthy operational cofounder relationships, and the company is doing really well, but for whatever reason they are just getting unbalanced coverage in the press.

Consider these examples: There are three co-founders of AirBnB, but most people outside of the tech community can only name Brian Chesky. There are two co-founders at Dropbox and most people outside the tech community can only name Drew Houston. This is just the way the media works; they like one hero. It’s rare that there’s more than one. So the hero gets invited to speak at conferences, and gets invited to the CEO summit, they’re invited by the VC to the CEO dinner with the very influential tech visionary.

The non-hero co-founder is working just as hard, and bringing a tremendous amount of value to their company but receives none of the cool benefits of being a founder. The challenge is only exacerbated by the fact that the CEO is enjoying the notoriety, the special invitations, the award shows. Who wouldn’t? It can be hard for a CEO to give that up.

Sharing Is Caring

To avoid falling into this ego trap, co-founders need to find a healthy split of these perks of success that works for them, just as they found a healthy split in who runs what in their company.

Press and publicity can be addressed by talking to the company’s PR agency and creating guidelines that split one set of topics for one founder and anything on another set of topics go to the other founder.Co-founders can take turns speaking at conferences.

The “hero” can be mindful about sharing sharing acclaim with their cofounder in interviews and at events. An excellent example of a successful shared leadership is Warby Parker. It is clear that Neil Blumenthal and Dave Gilboa are purposefully sharing responsibilities and public recognition of leadership.

Another example of a company who navigates this well is Lyft. There is a clear distinction between who is CEO, Logan Green, and who is president, John Zimmer, but there is a lot of shared publicity and clearly split responsibility. In their recent billion dollar funding announcement, probably one of the most significant press announcements to-date for the company and when most CEOs would take the spotlight for themselves, it was John Zimmer, the president of Lyft, who did much of the press.

Above All Else: Clear Vision, Purpose and Commitment

Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith have been married for more than 20 years. A few years ago I came across an interview where they were asked: “You two are one of the rare successful Hollywood couples; What’s your secret?” Their answer? “Really at the end of the day, it’s just not quitting.

In founding companies it’s really the same. If you go in saying, “Separating is not an option. This needs to exist in the world,” you have humility. You realize that your work is bigger than any individual egos. That if it’s doing what it’s really meant to be doing in the world, it could have a profound effect.

You have to care about the company existing in the world more than you care about the whose name is on the latest headline or your title on your LinkedIn page. You just have to say, “I don’t care. This has to exist. We are going to build this.”

This is why having clear understanding of vision and purpose when you start the business is so important. If you have both, humility shows up and you can get through almost anything. Don’t let ego cloud that vision.

This post was first published on Techstars on January 25, 2016.