CODE2040 Fellows: Kaleb Ayalew
By Kaleb Ayalew, CODE2040 Fellow, CODE2040
Advice received, lessons learned, and ideas developed from my experience in CODE2040
This past summer, as a CODE2040 fellow, I had the opportunity to listen to and chat with a lot of talented and experienced people in Silicon Valley. I really appreciated the opportunity to hear their thoughts and advice, and here I’d like to share some of the points they made that resonated most strongly with me.
When thinking about starting a company:
Point: Always have a cofounder.
Clarification: A cofounder is like a spouse. You will go through a lot of heartaches and joys together. You will need to understand how the other person thinks and responds to situations to a certain extent and feel comfortable enough to give them honest criticism. In short, know your cofounder very well (you may not want to start a company with a person you met in a cocktail bar five weeks ago. You may want to start a company with a person you’ve known for 2-3 years).
Argument: Even with a cofounder, starting a startup will be a horribly stressful experience at times. A startup can be very rewarding, but without a cofounder to keep you in check and honestly have heart to heart conversations with, you may lose perspective, make crazy decisions or fall into any other traps ready for startup founders.
Yet at the same time:
Point: Know that you may fall out with your cofounder.
Clarification: There is a real chance that you will have a falling out with your cofounder. For that reason, I've been told that it may not be wise to start a company with a best friend. On the other hand, if you're confident your friendship can take it, perhaps you should go for it.
Argument: Startups can (and likely will) go through very stressful times. Hard times test relationships and not all relationships will necessarily survive them. \
A strategy to reduce fallings out:
Point: Solve social issues in addition to goal oriented issues.
Clarification: When startups run into problems they will have a combination of relationship issues and goal oriented issues. Make sure to solve both (don't just push code to production/write up a venture capital proposal and not check whether there are any emotional issues waiting to fester).
Argument: If not dealt with, such issues may arise again and may reduce future efficiency (and may cause horrible amounts of stress which is bad on a personal level in addition to the negative side effects that will spill over to people’s work).
Talking about stress:
Point: Have a good work-life balance.
Argument: It depends on the person, but apparently marriages have fallen apart and out-of-company relationships don't tend to thrive when you rarely have time to tend to those relationships. The main point here seems to be “Have an awareness of what things are important to you and do not forget to cultivate those things.” If it’s your work, so be it; if it’s your relationships, so be it.
Another way to reduce stress amongst cofounders:
Point: Decide very early on how decisions are going to be made with your cofounders and make sure everyone is absolutely clear on and agrees upon this point. Also decide the limits to that authority’s power. Make sure that everyone is willing to fully accept decisions made by this authority within it’s power.
Clarification: There are multiple ways of going about how to make decisions in your company (potential sketches below). Once you have decided these roles, each person should accept the decisions of whoever is in charge in that area. Not that there shouldn’t be heated discussions (you can have screaming death matches explaining why your solution solves a ton of operation-critical issues that their solution cannot be modified to address in it’s current form, if that’s how you operate), but at the end of the day you should be willing to accept the decisions made by the person in charge.
Method 1: You can decide to have a clear separation of responsibilities with your cofounders. This, in my opinion, leans towards informed dictatorships for the purpose of speed and the belief that certain people have skill sets that make them better at deciding certain things. This “way” doesn’t necessarily have to be a strict hierarchy, but you should decide very early on (I would say before talking to VC’s) who gets the final say on what.
Method 2: You can decide to have a small democracy (within your hopefully odd number of cofounders). I don’t remember hearing opinions leaning towards this way, but if you and your cofounders do have strong opinions towards having a democratic startup and accept the pros and cons of one you should also decide this very early. I may not have heard of startups run this way because of cons like group thinking potentially leading to bad decisions, but perhaps it can be made to work.
Argument: Even if there isn’t a clear person in charge, decisions will still be made (perhaps the person with the strongest personality will end up getting their way in contested situations for example). Clearly defining and properly agreeing upon how those decisions will be made before they are actually made may help to reduce the stress accumulated from and during hard decisions.
I’m sure if you asked my fellow CODE2040 fellows they would have additional lessons that they took away from the summer. These are some I’m pondering as I’m back in school and thinking about having a company of my own.
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