Exactly a year ago Jonny and I began our co-founder courtship. We had both been involved in startups before and we had both, successfully and unsuccessfully, entered into business as co-founders before. We were therefore hyper aware that the biggest obstacle to our success, aside from product-market fit, was co-founder conflict. During the early days we spent a lot of time and energy thinking and documenting our expectations of the kind of business we wanted to build, the culture we wanted to develop and the kind of co-founder we wanted to work with.
As we transitioned from the trial working arrangement to being fully-fledged co-founders we institutionalised our early reflection practice into regular check-ins with each other. To this day we have an inter-personal agenda item at our Wednesday morning management meeting. A key part of that discussion is “how are we meeting each other’s expectations?”. This felt great initially but we pretty quickly ran into the question of: what exactly are our expectations? When we started fleshing this out we realised not only were they quite varied but many of them were assumed and unarticulated until we took the time to really think them through.
At this point we had identified an array of varied and ambiguous expectations that we were using to assess other’s capabilities as a co-founders. “If only”, we thought, “there was a way we could document these expectations and track how we’re doing against them…”. As it turned out we were building the product we needed!
From the very beginning we had been looking for an opportunity to “eat our own dogfood” and this looked perfect, so I set myself the task of creating a skills framework for co-founders. I spent some time thinking about the expectations that we had of each other and grouped these into six skills. For each skill I came up with three or four behaviours that encapsulate that skill and then over a period of a month or so wrote examples of those behaviours across five levels of experience. Here are the skills:
Co-founder Candour: Giving and receiving feedback; Challenging your co-founder's thinking; Talking about emotions and mood
Product stewardship: Customer support and success; Product ownership Diversity and inclusion; Ethics
Values & vision: Business values; Vision and mission; Co-founder alignment
Domain expertise: Understanding of wider industry context; Understanding impact and benefits of solving the problem
Execution: Process management and documentation; Legal & finance; Commitment and grit; Learning and development
To give an example of how expectations change with experience level, let’s take a look at the “Challenging your co-founder's thinking” behaviour within the Co-founder Candour skill:
Level 1: “Challenges co-founder's thinking when it is in an area of personal domain expertise.”
Level 2: “Comfortable to challenge co-founder across a wide range of topics.”
Level 3: “Comfortable challenging your co-founder's strongly held opinions and brings in data, values and mission to back up the challenge. Invites own beliefs, opinions and ideas to be challenged."
Level 4: “Recognises when the idea or opinion they challenge is critical to the future of the company and / or emotionally charged. Takes steps to make sure the idea is properly challenged over a period of time and from different angles. Ensures challenge is made with tact and empathy."
Level 5: “Coaches others to better challenge ideas and opinions. Proactively builds "empathic challenging" into the company culture.”
What we currently have is very much a v0.1, with a lot more work to do. Firstly, I would like to get it peer reviewed by people with different experiences and viewpoints to help spot gaps in my thinking.
Secondly, Jonny and I need to actually eat the dog food that we have prepared. As part of reflecting on our first year in business we will be doing check-ins with each other and using the co-founder skills framework to set our own development goals.
Finally, once we have road tested the framework we will make it available on Progression to clone, modify and use in your own frameworks.
Are you a co-founder of an early to mid stage startup? Would you like to take charge of your professional development? We'd love to get some more people test driving this framework. Get in touch with me (firstname.lastname@example.org) we can set you and your team up and give you a good guinea pig discount.
Neil is the co-founder and CTO of Progression.
If you want to start using Progression today, please join our waitlist or email us at hello [at] progressionapp.com.
We also have limited opportunities for teams to work directly with us to set up their frameworks. Please email us if you want us to help you out.