How to Be a Great Co-Founder

When we started raising the first fund for GAN Ventures, Reilly and I received a piece of advice that has stuck with us from the beginning:

“If you have a good partnership, people will sense it and be instantly attracted to working with you.”

Because we know that a business is often only as strong as its relationships—inside and out—it resonated with us immediately. So, we’ve worked hard to make sure our relationship was a top priority in a handful of very specific and intentional ways. Now more than eight years into friendship and around two years into our partnership at GAN Ventures, I can confidently say that these habits have created an insanely productive business partnership between us.

And since they’ve worked so well for us, I thought I’d share them with you.

Our Best Habits

Here are the best ways we’ve found to build—and keep—a great partnership:

Be Authentic
We do everything in our power to make sure that we’re authentic to ourselves and with one another. “Authenticity” has a lot of different meanings but we define it as, “Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses and not being afraid to ask for help.” I don’t mean just actively thinking about your life. I mean really doing a lot of work to know yourself (and heads-up that this sometimes means going to therapy). Be open to sharing what’s good and what might also need some help, and then invite your partner into both of those areas.

Assume the Best Intentions
There are at least a hundred things that can tear a partnership apart. And these usually start off with something small that later turns into something much bigger. Several times a week, there are situations where I could interpret Reilly’s behavior as something different than he intended—but I choose to assume that he has the best intentions. This eliminates me getting into a “self-fulfilling prophecy” where I see or think something negative about Reilly, and then I’m looking at all of his future behavior to validate my negative thoughts about him. This all goes away if I believe that he’s acted out of his best intentions.

Understand Each Other’s Motivations
If we understand what motivates us, we’re a lot more inclined to understand why we’re each acting in certain ways. One of my biggest motivations is a deep need to help others. If Reilly sees me spending a lot of time with a company that’s struggling, he understands why—because I love-love-love giving support to others, especially when they’re struggling. At the same time, if he sees me going a little overboard, he can gently redirect me by saying something like, “I know you like helping, but we need to adjust the time we’re spending with this one company so that we can help other companies that also need our support.”

Start Off on the Right Foot
I could write an entire book on this but I’ll try to be brief. What we realized before we started was that, if a fund has a 10-year lifespan (which our fund has), we are going to be in business together for the next decade. That’s a long time. And it meant we had to build a great foundation before starting on this (long) journey together. Here are a few of the things we did to make sure we were on solid ground from Day #1:

  • We had values alignment: At our core, our values are almost identical. Which means that how we treat people and one another will naturally be extremely similar and we won’t spend a lot of time fighting over “core” issues related to how we think about the world and do business.
  • We had a friendship: We’ve been friends for more than eight years, which has allowed us to watch each other develop and grow through various life challenges. By the time we decided to go into business together, our shared history had already given us a lot of mutual trust.
  • We both already had a strong community outside of our partnership: We’re great friends, but we know having support systems outside of work is essential. It allows us to talk through issues with others who aren’t invested in our partnership or business. So we make it a point to have friends and support outside of one another.
  • We thought through anything that could be an issue: Before we officially signed off on our partnership, we talked through anything that we thought might come up. Truly anything. Like death. We spent a good amount of time talking about death. Yes, we got morbid. What would happen if one of us died? What would happen to control of the company since we’re equal partners? What would happen to our shares? We also talked about what the company’s budget and our salaries would look like each year for the next five years. And, we actually refer to those documents frequently because they’re our marching orders for how we run our business.
  • Our families knew one another: It was important that our families (specifically our spouses) knew and liked one another—and liked our business partner. The four of us didn’t spend a ton of time together, but we spent enough time to make sure that our wives knew one another and were able to talk to each other about what we were doing.

Don’t Mess with the Weekly Meeting—Or Agenda
We meet together once a week. This has happened every week since we started working together. Every. Single. Week. Even when I was on sabbatical, we still met. This allows us to accomplish a few things. It means any decision we have to make doesn’t go more than a week without being answered. Any issue (personal or business) can be discussed. And it gives us space to consider and decide on potential new startups to invest in each week.

One more thing: Our agenda stays the same for every meeting. We literally have the same roadmap every week, which helps ensure that we discuss everything we need to, removes any guesswork in terms of what kinds of discussion might arise, and gives us both an opportunity to prepare well for the discussion in advance. And this agenda includes time to talk about professional and personal health, which gives us space to share wins, struggles, and fun—building our personal relationship and ability to support one another, too.

Get in Front of Issues Early
We don’t want things to fester. Ever. So we bring things up a lot. During our weekly meetings, we can bring up anything about the partnership itself. But we don’t just meet once a week to talk about work, we also…

Make Space to Reflect
We get together twice a year over the course of several hours for a partner meeting meant to dig into larger issues that currently (or could potentially) lead to struggles between us down the road. We do zero work during this meeting. It’s only a time to reflect on our partnership and how things are going. What’s so productive about these conversations is that both of us always have things we can improve on—even small things—and this time gives us space and confidence to talk through them.

During these check-ins, we ask the following questions and have a very candid discussion about each:

  • What is going well?
  • What do you enjoy about working with me?
  • What annoys you about working with me?
  • Where can we grow as both partners and individuals?
  • What would you change about how we work together?

Apologize Quickly
As much as we’ve tried to have a good partnership, maintain good rhythms, and prepare for the worst, we can’t plan for everything. And there are many times we let one another down. Recently, we moved our partner meeting one day earlier than normal, and I made the mistake of scheduling calls over it because I completely forgot it had been moved. That mistake required me to ask Reilly if he could move things around on his calendar, which is a pain for anyone operating with his workload. He was gracious about it, but I still felt like it was important to end our discussion by saying, “I’m sorry.” Because I really was sorry. It might seem simple, but being able to apologize for the small things and creating an environment where it’s safe to talk about things that cause frustration will build your muscle to do it when it really matters—when you each inevitably make a mistake that might actually compromise your relationship, because we’re all human. So apologize quickly and often and practice using the muscle now; you’ll be glad you did later on.

Make Fun of Each Other
One of the benefits of knowing one another like we do is that we’re able to (easily) poke fun at each other. For instance, Reilly knows that I like to get “really” into things for a short period of time and then move onto the next thing. I’ll ride my bike to work for a couple weeks and then just stop. Since he knows this about me, he’ll make fake bets on how long my “next thing” will last. I love and hate him for it. But at the end of the day, it means he knows me well. And we’re able to have fun with one another’s idiosyncrasies.

Commit to Delivering
At the end of the day, Reilly and I both work hard to actually deliver results for each other and the business—we truly get a lot of stuff done together—raising money, picking and helping companies, etc. Even if we were doing everything else well, we know that if we didn’t actually get the work done, we simply wouldn’t have a partnership.

Now Your Turn

What else do you do to maintain great partnerships—with your co-founders or otherwise? I’d love to hear them.