I’d just sat down last month for a chat with the CEO of a very successful startup when his co-founder, the company’s chairman, walked into our coffee-shop. The two had been apart for a few minutes, but the chairman made such a beeline for us that I worried he wanted my pastry.
He was in flip-flops and a t-shirt. The CEO was wearing slacks and a button-down shirt. The chairman looked at me once to say “excuse me,” then laid flat on the table a notebook of product sketches.
I gathered that an experimental change to the website had lifted revenue and so now the change would become permanent. “All is well!” I thought. But the co-founder wanted to know why the change wasn’t being expanded, so that its effect was five times bigger.
Challenging one another to grow faster is an essential dynamic. When Redfin was first raising money from Greylock, Reid Hoffman’s only question was about why we couldn’t grow faster. I bristled at the question until Redfin’s Sasha Aickin explained that it wasn’t a statement of dissatisfaction so much as a genuine question.
Once a company has figured out who its customers are and where to find them, what will be the factor constraining its growth? When a retail business first becomes a hit, for example, it can still only grow 30% per year because it can’t open stores fast enough. Redfin is, in some ways, like that because we have to hire local agents; in other ways we’re not.
But mostly in the virtual, venture-funded world, a major constraining factor for mid-stage companies is audacity: no one even asks Reid Hoffman’s question because the company is already moving so fast. At many companies, the designers would say it was enough simply to accept the website change, not to take it to its logical extreme.
With any big group, there is a tendency to compromise, to consolidate gains, to revert to the mean, to be like everybody else. In Greek tragedy, the chorus is the conservative voice of the community, and the chorus is always right.
But a startup isn’t always a tragedy, so as a CEO you’re always trying to figure out when you should be listening to that chorus, and when you should be listening to yourself. A co-founder can come between those two voices, walking into the coffee-shop of your mind to tell you that your crazy convictions should be crazier, or that they should be set aside.
I have read many times that any equity split between partners is fine except 50-50, just because of the power struggles 50-50 creates. This is often wise advice, particularly when a founder has pitch-perfect instincts and a dominant personality. But what most CEOs really lack for when running a new company is a partner, not a subordinate. And the result of a partnership at its best is not less conviction, but more.
Just look at the co-founders of Atlassian, a massively profitable pre-IPO company with over $100 million in revenues. In the baloney-gorged world of enterprise software, only Atlassian has always refused to hire any salespeople, instead driving revenue just by making its product easier and cheaper to buy. Its corporate motto, printed in the lobby of every office, is “Don’t f*** the customer.”
Where else did the co-founders get the conviction to be different, if not from each other? I recently had dinner with the two of them, equal partners after 10 years in the business, and at 9 p.m. stood up to catch a flight. What surprised me most about our night together was that they didn’t want it to end: “we’ll just stay here,” one said. “We have a lot to catch up on.” It was like watching an old couple steal second base in the back of a movie theater. They were so engrossed in talking to one another that they didn’t notice Francis Ford Coppola in the booth four feet away.
The beauty of a true partnership is why I actually love to see a co-founder with the same stake as the CEO. Redfin has at times been lonely, mostly because I pushed so hard that others could only push back. Redfin is much, much better off because it isn’t that way now.
When I get to the empty basement of our parking garage for the start of my bicycle ride home from work, I always feel a little blue that I didn’t get more done. But in the earliest years, I felt something else too: a strange, flooding feeling. For a long time I didn’t know what it was, but recently I realized it was relief, that I wasn’t a center of attention, someone always trying to sway others or being swayed.
Now as I pedal out of the basement and into the sudden sun of a Seattle summer, I often think about the co-founders in their own, private coffee shop, two people who had created their own solitude. The French say that newlyweds are “seulement a deux,” alone just the two of them. It’s probably a way that only true partners can be.