I first met my business partner, Tim Molloy, at university in 2005, and shortly after we started a side hustle together. Since then we’ve had an ongoing business partnership and friendship through good and tough times.
In the 15 years I’ve been working with him, I reckon we’ve had one serious argument, and when I say serious, I mean it diffused in a day.
People often ask if there’s a secret to our success as co-founders. There’s no real secret, it really comes down to recognising the strengths that each of us brings to the relationship and optimising those for the business.
It helps that we’re friends as well, but you don’t have to be to make it work. You probably do need the following:
- Mutual respect: Recognising your co-founder’s skills, knowledge, and experience while respecting their contribution, even if you don’t agree on everything, helps make discussions constructive rather than destructive.
- Trust: Understanding that you’re both there to do the best job you can in the business, even if you occasionally have off days, means you are both more comfortable leaving various tasks or areas to the other person without oversight, which frees you to do the best job you can do on your end. The trust should be implicit and not once should you doubt each other or micro-manage each other’s time.
- Willingness to lead together: It doesn’t help if one partner is power-hungry, you both need to be willing to lead together and divide both responsibility and accountability, as well as sharing the credit when things go well too.
- Good communication: Opening the lines of communication and being willing to work through challenges together alleviates potential tension and benefits idea-sharing and development.
- Business focus: Keeping personal issues out of your business decisions will train the focus back on what’s best for the business rather than what might suit a specific individual – even if that person is a co-founder.
The strengths of co-founders
Once you’ve built a strong framework with your co-founder, divide the responsibilities accordingly. It’s important to understand that you shouldn’t both be doing the same thing with double the effort. Your responsibilities should be equal, but different.
For this to work effectively, take a look at your strengths and weaknesses. You may find it difficult to do this yourselves, so don’t be afraid to look for outside help if required.
Tim and I really came into our strengths after one of our first mentors spotted where we could complement each other and therefore how we could improve our process.
Since Tim and I both have an IT background, we thought we were pretty similar in terms of our sales and business prowess, so in the early days, we sought our own leads and collected the same commission on them.
What ended up happening was Tim would sell a fair bit and earn commission on it and I would have all these huge opportunities and leads lined up that didn’t get closed.
Our mentor turned to us and said: “Jeremy, you have all these big opportunities and all these great leads, but you’re not closing them. And Tim’s got these tiny leads, but he’s closing every single one of them.
Why don’t you try a system where Jeremy opens leads, then hands them over to Tim who can close them?”
It made sense because opening a lead and closing a sale are different skill sets. Opening leads is about being a good networker and getting in front of the right people. Whereas closing a sale requires persistence and good attention to detail.
I was better at the former, Tim the latter. We needed both processes optimised for our business to be successful.
From then on, we’ve worked as a complementary team, playing to our respective strengths, although today we do less of the hands-on opening and closing of deals and instead manage the teams who do it.
A lot of what makes co-founders work is being self-aware of your own knowledge, skill, or experience gaps and the potential capability of other people who can fill them, whether it’s your business partner or even another member in your team.
This requires humility and the ability to look beyond your shortcomings to address the requirements of the business.
Secondly, you can also find balance if your personalities are different: I’m quite hot-headed, whereas Tim’s very patient and obviously our moods shift day by day.
Dynamically, we’re quite cliché because when one of us is hot the other is cold and vice versa and we just balance each other out.
Being able to work as a team in a leadership role is essential to business success. Start by identifying each other’s strengths and fit them together to ensure your skills and leadership style are complementary.
Only then can you come into your strengths as co-founders and realise the full potential of your business.
Jeremy Chen is the co-founder and managing director of Good Things, a branded merchandise agency founded in 2012, which has grown 30% YoY since 2015 and turns over AUD $10 million per annum.