What does it mean to be a startup co-founder?

Seth, a batch mate of mine from Ycombinator wrote a post about his tragic encounter with IRS, which forced his company into somewhat of a tailspin, leading to a major layoff and subsequent troubles.
Originally, based on his post I was quick to judge his cofounders, but after talking to a few friends and getting a broader view on this story, I think it’d be wiser to revise it. We will never know all the facts, but it’s unfair to judge either side based on the incomplete information. Instead, I would like to focus on the founder dynamics in general.

Like I originally stated, it is my opinion that if you choose to accept a title of a co-founder (or a Founder, in case of multiple co-founders), you then choose to accept the full responsibility that comes with it. I suspect many first time founders, including yours truly, don’t actually understand what that means, until it’s too late.

Co-founder is not a sexy word that describes your seniority to your employees, and it's not a title that you give to TechCrunch when they want to write a story about how awesome you are. Co-founder is first and foremost a responsibility to your company, yourself and your other co-founders and the team. Your day-to-day job might be that of a CTO, CMO, a Janitor, but as a co-founder you're also always a VP of giving a damn!

Co-founders are great for a company, both from operational and personal standpoint. Startups are really f-ing hard and having people who would help, listen to you, keep you in check and remind you that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, that’s crucial. But, having co-founders is also incredibly difficult, and I suspect even more so because of the nature of who startup founders are.

We, and I will broadly speak here about the majority of founders that I’ve come to know, like to be the type-A people. We like to be bossy, controlling, focused and ruthless. Everything (and everyone) that’s not a priority tends to be thrown under the bus. Unfortunately for co-founders, that’s a terrible place to start.

I remember very prominent founders telling me once that you can get really great value from co-founders, if you don’t kill one another :-)

That’s right, most co-founders are not all daisies and rainbows. They argue and they fight, but it’s the ones that make it through who are able to create great companies, together.

What values should co-founders have to be able to work together? This will differ a little for different sets of founders, but let me give it a stab: honestly, trust, openness and respect. As long as you start with this solid foundation, you have a fighting chance.

Founders need to have distinct functional roles and be later focused on their deliverables, but at the same times they need to work in tandem and be able to respectfully disagree with one another, and passionately lift one another when needed. The day founders lose trust in one another is the day the company might as well die.

Maintaining a balanced environment, that's everyone's responsibility. If one co-founder isn't pulling the weight, the others can't just nag, or change things against one's will. We, each one of us, must understand that "I am who I am" is a terrible way to do things. Thinking that we, the founders, don't need to grow as our companies growth, that's a terrible lie.

Even the most iconic founders in the Silicon Valley, aka Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg, they've all grown many-fold in order to achieve what they have.

Learn to grow or die.
To be continued…