A start-up founder’s incomplete guide to managing critical relationships

In general, quality relationships are usually the last thing on the mind of a start-up founder.  You are usually inundated with product development, coding, design, testing, fund raising, marketing etc. The survival of your start-up is your uttermost priority and “managing” relationships sounds like a core, however, relationships are the life-blood of your venture and understanding that all relationships are not equal and thus managing them is an essential skill which I’m learning & consciously making efforts to implement …  so here’s my 2 cents (I‘m told that one learns better when attempting to teach what one is learning, so please humor me and keep reading) ;

The four major classes of people you will be relating with as a start-up founder include;

Your team, Your friends, Your mentors and Your contract partners.

So here is my abridged guide to relating with these 4 groups;

  • – Roll with your team.
  • – Visit and hang out with your friends.
  • – Commune and respect mentors.
  • – Be clear with contract partners.

How not to relate with these 4 groups;

– Don’t occasionally visit your team, be intense with them & be constantly explaining the purpose of your company and the reason you exist and why their task matter. Understand the individuals in your team, push them, challenge them. Constantly communicate with your team and by all means keep engaging them constructively.

– Don’t roll with your friends, don’t be intimate with them about your business, they are there for the good times and the bad times but not to be a constant. Friends should be a sounding board,  a source of support and feedback without “feeling entitled”.  Friends should be able to give you the hard truth that may feel awful at first but help you in the long run, however friends can undermine your influence and kill your confidence unintentionally due to familiarity. Friends are needed in well-spaced measured doses when it comes to your business.

– Don’t occasionally communicate with your mentor,  keep her posted constantly, however don’t bore her with nitty-gritty detail. Go to her for her wisdom & have a question or challenge in hand seeking answers or perspective… then take what they tell you and test it out. If her advice works, then give the mentor a status report and thank them.  If the advice doesn’t work, then customize the solution and test again (if you chose your mentor well then he/she has most likely had a similar challenge & has given a valid solution that will work if you can use your own head). Show your mentor that you respect her and that their time is valuable to you and that you are using what they give you well. You want to be in contact with mentors in short regular doses.

– Don’t dilly-dally with contract partners, what they need is clarity not fraternity (except in the interest of clarity), be clear about the nature of the deal, timelines, work expectations, payment terms e.t.c. If conditions change reach out to them promptly and clearly. The tactics used in the initial negotiations are the subject for a different post, but once you are in bed or look like you are going to be, be clear!

Relating when it comes to decisions & actions…

– You are the captain of the team but not a know-it-all. When you are convicted about a course of action and it’s a high impact decision, call it! (and take responsibility for the outcome). Delegate to team members when it’s a routine task or if it’s a non-high impact task. And finally, find more wisdom from the team if it is a high impact decision and your convictions are not strong enough… leadership is dynamic!

– Friends that aren’t mentors have no business in decision making in your business, at best they can advice. Friends are there to enjoy the gist after you have succeeded or encourage you if you failed. Friends are also very useful for A/B testing of ideas/concepts/alternatives .  Business just has a way of messing with friendship… you will be wise to chose one.

– Aha, this is where mentors are invaluable. Your mentor most likely has been at a similar fork in the road, leverage on their previous good judgment or avoid her previous errors. But what of when the mentor’s opinion runs completely counter to your conviction? well, if you have a patient mentor she will hear you out and attempt to give you deeper insight… however if you still differ, then call it!.. it’s your life!

– Contract partners cannot be ignored when a critical decision is to be made that will affect the partnership… communicate with them clearly and seek to find a win-win solution…if no such solution exist then revert to your termination clause (hope it was favourably phrased in the contract :) )

Going deeper with relationships…

— Team members should become your friends, this is where it starts to get magical and you begin to get the best in people. However, in this phase, the occasional intentional cold/hard treatment is necessary so as to keep the work relationship healthy when there is a screw-up. If the team member gets too familiar such that a cold/hard treatment has the adverse effect on the work relationship, then it may be time to spin that person off into his or her own dream with all the support you can offer. Once this happens, this team member should fully become a friend and treated like a friend as described before.

— Friends rarely become good team members because of emotional issues. On occasions that this happens, it will be because this person recognizes that you are worthy of being followed and he/she will put up a non-emo-drama behavior when you pull rank and run them around. If this happens, then you have something also magical, but please don’t be a jerk with this person.
Take note that most good friends will want to come on your team if you are doing impressive stuff, but generally don’t oblige them except you are sure this friend can be humble and that you can be firm…it’s a tough walk. Most times, in the beginning, a friend is all you can afford to get the job done because all you have is a dream. This is how most start-ups get started but not without many horror stories… so what is the way out here?  The best advice I’ve heard about this comes from Brian Tracy who said that partnerships work best when roles are defined and a chain of command is agreed upon and respected.

— Mentors must never really become your friends. The moment you start to get too familiar with mentors, you stand the risk of taking them for granted and losing your respect for them. Mentors are human too, if you get too close you will start to notice their flaws and short comings and this is will invariably begin to add filters to your relationship and dampen the perception of their wisdom in your eyes.

— Contracting partners may be firms but they are always people behind the contract papers. Once you get into a rhythm with them, you can start to have drinks with them and attend their child’s Bar Mitzvah or niece’s wedding. A warm & cold relationship is also helpful here so as to keep the work relationship in balance. Hanging out with a tested partner but sending him an angry email if expectations aren’t met are both allowed.

How well you consciously manage all these kinds of relationships such that it appears unscripted and real and consistent is what makes for a great startup leader which goes beyond founding stuff.

In summary…

In my opinion, a start-up’s support system is made up almost entirely of these 4 groups of people. Your parents should fall into the ‘mentor’ or ‘friend’ category as far as your start-up is concerned. Your investors hopefully fall also into your ‘mentor’ category but they are definitely your ‘contacting partners’, and don’t think for a second that they are your friends (and this is a good thing which will keep you on your toes).  Your college buddy is your friend and hopefully she will understand if you don’t return her call on the Monday of your IPO ;).

The only person I can’t quite categories is the committed girlfriend/wife or boyfriend/husband… this person seems to be friend, mentor, partner and in some cases a valuable team member.  How do you deal with this person that can boost your confidence to dazzling heights as well as deflate your best laid effort with single word?… hmmm, there should be a mentor I can ask this question …but for now, I would like to hear your thoughts in the comments section please.

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