“The pony charged us head on!” one of the new EF cohort told me, after coming back from a trek across the New Forest. Stories of falling in bogs, climbing trees and encountering wild animals followed. This was not your typical week for aspiring tech founders.
We took the new EF cohort to the New Forest for two days this week. We stayed in a big country house with a tonne of food and booze and pretty much let them get on with it. We do a couple of talks on the way EF thinks about building teams and developing ideas, but beyond that this is a purely social thing. I often get asked, “is this where teams get built”? The answer is no. It’s a purely social thing and I think it’s important to understand why finding a cofounder isn’t a purely social process.
Counteracting the team building myth
If you read a lot of the literature on team building, it’s often compared to dating. They say it’s a process of turning a ‘lover’ into a life-long partner. You get to know each other over drinks, before going away for a weekend together to align your aspirations and then you finally commit to working together.
What happens to these teams? Well, from my experience, having seen more than 120 people build 37 successful teams (and countless unsuccessful teams), this is a great recipe for a friendship, but friendship and cofounder compatibility aren’t always aligned. Let’s dig into that a little bit more.
Respect and trust is all that matters
One of the most important elements of a cofounder relationship is respect. You need to have respect for each other and for each other’s skills. This is important as it's often a precursor to trust. If you can’t trust the person you're working with, you shouldn't be working together.
How do you find out it you really respect someone’s skills and that you trust them to execute? The only way is to actually work with them. I don't mean spending 24 hours together at a hackathon where the outcome doesn't really matter. You need to try working together on the idea you care most about.
We have had teams at EF in the past who would have been unlikely drinking buddies, but who had immense respect for each other’s skills and knew how vital each of them were to the startup they were building. What’s more, over time, the friendship develops. One of the biggest stimulators for friendship is going through intense periods of stress together – that’s probably the only thing you can guarantee when building a startup.
Productivity is traction for teams
Once you’re working together, how do you know if the team is any good? The only thing that matters is your level of productivity; productivity is traction for teams. Happy teams that build good startups are productive from day one. They don’t get lost in thinking and strategising, they treat every day like a time-limited hackathon and they get stuff done. If you can’t do this from day one then you won’t magically be able to on day 100. If you don’t think your team is productive and making progress, it’s time to think about a new cofounder.
Set up expectations before you start working together
So wait, you’re saying I should throw myself into a cofounding relationship with someone I barely know? Yes, that’s right. But there is one important pre-cursor for this. There is a risk to working on an idea you deeply care about with someone you don’t know that well. We are all too familiar with stories of people who have tried working together and then fallen out when they stop working together.
Before beginning to work together, set yourself two simple guidelines. First, a time limit where you can assess your productivity and make a mutual decision about continuing working together. Secondly, having an agreement about who owns any assets created by the company.
There’s no magic formula
Team building is not painting by numbers, but by working seriously on something you care about, with someone you respect, is a pretty good start.