5 Things You Need to Remember as Cofounders

There’s something romantic about starting a company: you feel inspired to chase your big idea, build something altogether different, and change the world, frequently with cofounders.

But then, reality sets in.

You need to get money, clarify your core offering, find customers, set up a website and payment systems, hire a lawyer. The list goes on forever. In short, you have to figure out what the hell you’re doing. Not to mention, you’ll probably be working without making any money, as most startup founders do in the beginning.

To have a shot at getting a new company off the ground, it helps to surround yourself with super-driven people. Startups with cofounders have a higher success rate than startups founded by a single person.

Famous Cofounders: The Skimm

TheSkimm cofounders, Carly Zakin and Danielle Weisberg. The Skimm has raised $28.4 million since 2012. Photo Source: CNBC

But navigating those relationships can be tricky. I’ve started dozens of companies, I’ve bought out cofounders, and I’ve been bought out myself. My experiences have taught me that being a founder can be not just challenging, but completely grueling.

5 rules for cofounders

Here are five things to keep in mind when the going gets tough:

  1. Always be honest

When you’re navigating the early stages of a business, it’s easy to let negative feelings go unsaid.

But being direct with your cofounders is essential.

At my first company, a booking agency in Sweden, I noticed that I was working a bit more than the other cofounders. They had their day jobs, and I was putting in 80 hour weeks. Essentially, they wanted to stay where they were, while I wanted to go all in.

So, we all sat down and had a level-headed discussion about what our real priorities were.

It wasn’t easy to do, but it was really important for everyone to be a part of the decision.

23andMe cofounders

Cofounders Linda Avey & Anne Wojcicki founded 23andMe in 2006. They’ve since raised $786.1 million. Photo source: Bloomberg

I’ve also experienced the other side of the conversation:

I was also involved in an entertainment venture. It was another unfunded role, and I eventually realized I couldn’t keep putting time into it for free. So I evaluated my time using the 80/20 rule, initiated a conversation with my cofounders, and they bought me out. But to do this without burning bridges, I had to be upfront with my business partners.

It sucks to let your cofounders down, but most people appreciate when you communicate truthfully and don’t let things fester. So, no matter which side of the equation, make sure you’re straightforward, and tell the truth.

If you aren’t honest, you set yourself up for an ugly, unnecessary explosion down the road.

  1. Give People A Fair Chance

A big part of starting a company is managing everyone’s expectations.

If you aren’t on the same page, misunderstandings and arguments will arise and threaten your business. That’s why you and your cofounders owe it to each other to give the benefit of the doubt.

Don’t assume anyone’s feelings or motivations, and don’t confront people just because you want to have a fight.  

When I had my booking agency, I noticed that tension was beginning to build between me and my cofounder. So I just said to him, “Hey man, I don’t want this to affect our friendship, but I’m the only one working full-time, yet we’re sharing everything 50/50.” I asked him what his read on the situation was, and he admitted that he didn’t have the time or passion to do the project anymore. We agreed that I should buy him out, and that was that.

Google co-founders Larry Page And Sergey Brin.

Google cofounders Larry Page And Sergey Brin. Photo source: The Verge

Be fair to your cofounders by gauging their feelings and giving them the opportunity to leave or to stay and pull their weight.

  1. Don’t Glorify The Experience

Society tends to glorify founders, but the reality is that starting a company requires long hours and high stress, often for no pay.

It’s really, really hard work. And the truth is, nine out of 10 startups fail.

If it were easy to start a successful business, everyone would do it. But most people simply aren’t willing to put in the work.

In my own experience, everybody on the ShipChain team worked their asses off for 40, 60, even 80 hours a week… for nine months… for free. While we all had big dreams and goals, most people who start companies don’t all have the time, motivation, or resources to go all in.

That’s why you shouldn’t gloss over the challenges inherent in starting a company.

  1. Get Tough

You’re going to learn the most from failure, so you’d better accept that being an entrepreneur means you’re going to get beat up, repeatedly.

It’s only by staying strong even though you’ve gotten knocked down over and over that BOOM—there comes victory.

Eventbrite cofounders

Julia and Kevin Hartz, Cofounders of Eventbrite. Photo Source: First Republic

But don’t be confused, being tough isn’t about mindlessly grinding as you work 100 hour weeks. Instead, it’s about being smart. Find the 20 percent of work that yields 80 percent of the results, and go find clients.

Standing firm is the only way you’ll overcome the obstacles required to reach success.

  1. Have Fun

It sounds cliche, but it’s hugely important to enjoy the challenges and rewards of running your own company.

To do this, celebrate the small victories and milestones.

Once you build your website, go out for drinks with your business partners. When you land your first client, buy a cake and have a party. It’s good for everyone’s morale, and it gets you out of the rut of running on a treadmill of never-ending tasks.

Don’t forget, taking the time to have fun helps you remember your larger plan. You have to set small goals on the path to the big ones: you can’t walk 10,000 steps without first walking 100, then 1,000, and so on. So break your vision into weekly, monthly, and annual goals, and celebrate when you reach each step.

Starting a company, especially with cofounders, is incredibly challenging. But if you’re willing to work hard and persevere when things get tough, you’ll be well on your way to success.

Sam Rusani is the CRO of ShipChain and a serial entrepreneur with several multi-million dollar businesses. Under the capacity of his media group, he has served as a marketing, branding, and growth consultant/advisor for various companies, from start-ups to global brands. Sam is also heavily involved in the blockchain and cryptocurrency space in both advisor and fundraising roles.
  • Originally published January 7, 2019, updated April 26, 2023