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When to fire your co-founders

by Simeon Simeonov

The best strategy for not having to fire your co-founders is to not bring them on board in the first place.

One of the most common early-stage startup mistakes is building a weak founding teams. Since a good team is often the closest you can get to a good business plan, this one anti-pattern is the cause of many company failures. Before we dig into why this happens so frequently and what entrepreneurs can do about it, I want to share one of the formative stories from my early days as a VC.

An entrepreneur who should have fired his co-founders

Many years ago, I met a 20-something technical founder who had recently left graduate school with interesting technology in the enterprise search and knowledge management market. Beyond his compelling personality and the technology, he had an impressive approach that allowed him to deliver benefits to users without prior user setup or explicit user actions, using desktop and email client integration. To use a current analogy, it was likeXobni but better.

A week later, he came to Polaris with his founding team. He had three co-founders. They all had grey hair and so-so backgrounds. Over the course of an hour, I learned one of the three was a relative who, after hearing about the idea, pushed himself onto the team as “the business guy” and then promptly brought in a couple of former co-workers as co-founders. The net effect was that a backable founder had become essentially unfundable. I passed on the deal. As expected, the company went nowhere. I am friends with the founder and would like to back him some day.

This is an extreme example, but it underscores the randomness by which founding teams are created. Three disclaimers before we dive into the issues:

  1. I’m not advocating that an entrepreneur goes it alone. Much has been written about the costs and benefits of partners when starting a company. I’m advocating for more thoughtfulness about the building of a founding team and more creativity around how to make progress with limited resources. See Venture Hacks’ post on How to pick a co-founder.
  2. I’m not advocating that what’s best for the company in an abstract sense should trump personal relationships or commitments that have been made. I am advocating for greater care in making commitments and more openness around the balance between business and personal spheres.
  3. I’m focusing specifically on founding teams here, but many of the lessons apply equally well to hiring in very early stage companies (before product/market fit has been proven).

How weak teams get built

Arrogance and ignorance, in small doses, are powerful tools that help entrepreneurs focus and execute against overwhelming odds. In larger doses they make a dangerous poison that kills startups. In most cases, they are the root cause behind weak founding teams.

It’s no secret that startup business plans tend to evolve over time, sometimes substantially. Yet, at any given point along that evolutionary path, many entrepreneurs are over-confident that, this time, the plan will succeed. Then they look at the founding team and, if they think they are missing a key role, they may bring a co-founder on board. This process repeats itself up to the point where either the company converges to what it will likely end up doing in the next few months or the founding team gets to a size that makes additions practically impossible.

I recently met an entrepreneur who started working on a consumer social media idea about a year ago. Thinking he was building a small dot-com, he brought on a college buddy who had done Amazon Web Services work as a chief technical officer (CTO). In a few months, the idea shifted toward working with agencies. He brought in a VP of marketing from the agency space, because he was confident that was where the opportunity was. After a few more months, the team realized there was only a services business in the agency space. Now they are pivoting towards expert identification/collaboration in enterprises, and neither his CTO nor his VPM is right for the team.

The entrepreneur in this example is a smart guy. But he didn’t have enough experience to understand what would be required for a co-founder role over the early evolutionary path of the company. He didn’t fully appreciate the opportunity cost of making these early hires given his limited recruiting network and the pre-product, pre-funding stage of the company. Further, he did not know how to evaluate a VP of marketing. He ended up with a communications-oriented exec who — beyond lacking understanding of the enterprise domain — is not very helpful in general with product marketing issues. This is how ignorance hurts.

What VCs think about bad co-founders

Keep in mind that when you recruit or you pitch investors, they don’t get the benefit of the history that might explain your decisions. Let’s imagine what goes on in a VC’s head:

“Shoot, this is a backable entrepreneur and the idea may have legs but the two other founders are B players and a poor fit for the company at this point. I could talk to the lead founder, but I don’t know about the personal relationships on the team and this can backfire. Also, I don’t want word getting out that I break founding teams. This can hurt my dealflow. Anyway, the CEO showed poor judgment in bringing these people on board. Also, there is still a lot of recruiting work to do whether the team changes happen before or after an investment. Frustrating… this could have been a good seed deal. Now it’s too complicated. I’ll pass using some polite non-reason.”

Agile founding teams

There is a principle in agile development that centers on minimizing wasted effort. One of the cornerstone strategies — supposedly one of Toyota’s rules, too — is to delay decisions until the last responsible moment. Because the future is uncertain, the idea is to make decisions with the most information. The emphasis is on “responsible,” because a lot of procrastination is bad too.

Last week, I wrote about how to raise money without lying to investors with this same principle. The logic also applies to building strong founding teams. Because you don’t know what your startup will end up doing, it can be a big mistake to hire the best people for this point in the company’s life.

The obvious solution is to build an amazing team of well-rounded, experienced athletes who can do anything that comes their way. The Good-to-Great companies put the right people on the bus and the wrong people off the bus. If you can do it, more power to you. However, you may have a few problems…

Entrepreneurs Anonymous

I am an entrepreneur, and I have team-building problems:

  1. I am not exactly sure what my company will do.
  2. I have limited resources and can’t have many people on my team.
  3. My recruiting network is limited.
  4. My company, especially pre-product and pre-funding, may not be very attractive.
  5. I may not be the best person to evaluate people in _______ and _______.

Ten rules for building agile founding teams

Here are some specific strategies for building founding teams. There are no silver bullets. Some of the advice is contradictory and situation-specific. Caveat entrepreneur.

  1. Network, network, network. Learn how to learn through people. It’s the fastest way to understand a new domain. Value negative feedback. It often carries more information than a pat on the back. Expand your recruiting network, so you get access to better talent.
  2. Set clear expectations. When getting involved with someone, establish the right psychological contract from the beginning. Talk about what might happen if there is a pivot in an unexpected direction.
  3. Go easy on titles. Don’t give out big titles unless you have to and, even then, question why you have to. You can always “upgrade” someone’s title later if they perform well. They’ll appreciate it. On the flip side, big titles can cause many problems when you recruit or raise money.
  4. Structure agreements well. Founders should have vesting schedules with some up-front acceleration. In some cases, you can bestow founding status without giving founding equity with accelerated vesting.
  5. Be honest with and about your team. Get in the habit of discussing team fit with the business plan in an open, non-threatening manner. When you talk to experienced investors or advisors, be honest about the limitations of your team. Most likely they see any warts just as well or better than you, and you can only win by showing you have a firm grip on reality.
  6. Hire generalists early. Hire specialists later.
  7. Hire full-timers reluctantly. You can only have a few of them in the early days, whether they are co-founders or not. Be picky. Don’t fall for the chimera of “If only I hire a __________, then I can _________.” This may be true, but only if the person you hire is perceived to be good and does a good job. The perception of the quality of your team is as important as reality for recruiting and fundraising.
  8. Find experienced part-timers. Sometimes you can get a lot of value out of very experienced people even if they only spend a few hours, or a day, each week with you. The key is to do this over a period of time and build context. Over time, experienced part-time employees can help in the process of building the company. They can help make many decisions — for example, around team-building, financing and the business plan — as opposed to any one decision. This is how I work with startups through FastIgnite. Depending on the situation, I’m an active advisor or co-founder and/or acting CTO. Other people, like Andy Palmer, take on a board or acting CEO role.
  9. Find the right investors. Seek investors who pride themselves on their recruiting abilities and have a track record of helping startups build teams. These investors may see the holes in your team as an opportunity instead of a problem, as long as they feel confident the company is a good recruiting target. Some firms have internal recruiting teams led by experienced former executive recruiters. Examples include Benchmark (David Beirne) and Polaris (Peter Flint). Others, such as General Catalyst andFounders Fund, favor partners who are former entrepreneurs with deep networks and team-building experience.
  10. Fire your co-founders. If you are behind the 8-ball and see your team as a key constraint, you should do something about it. Don’t wait for an investor or someone else to do it for you. The non-CEO co-founders can fire their CEO co-founder, too (or change their role and level of responsibility). This happened at a social commerce startup in the Bay Area I liked. The CEO came up with the idea (kudos to him) but he had enterprise background and provided little value-add. His two co-founders were responsible for most of the progress. It took them too long to reshuffle things. By that point, they’d made a bad impression in front of too many investors. The team fell apart eventually.

If you successfully apply these strategies, you stand a better chance of going after the right people at the right time and bringing top talent on board.

You may not even have to fire your co-founders.






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