Being the other co-founder

Reflecting back on Scripted, I think it stopped feeling like my own company pretty early on. I had the luster of a co-founder title but I really was an employee like everyone else. There were some extra freedoms, perhaps, but not real freedom. Not like I have it now.

Part of it was not being CEO until the end. Being the second, internal, “other” founder of a company has its drawbacks. I didn’t have direct contact with the board. In the early days of Scripted, outside of board meetings, all contact went through my co-founder, who was CEO. This meant my co-founder knew everything and I only knew what he told me. Being a co-founder is not the same as being the CEO. Not even close.

I’m coming up on two full years since my Scripted days came to a close. Since then I’ve run my own ship, sold that ship, and become a hired CEO. I haven’t had a co-founder since Scripted and that distance and my most recent CEO experience has brought with it some new insights about those old days at Scripted.

The co-founder or CEO / non-CEO-but-still-important pairing has many obvious examples:

  • Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak
  • Warren Buffet and Charlie Munger
  • Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg
  • Bill Hewlett and David Packard

And that’s just some big names in tech and finance. There’s a reason we like to have Presidents and Vice Presidents, Governors and Lieutenant Governors. Most leaders need a competent partner to achieve their greatest potential. Even the most competent CEO can’t do it all. He or she needs a confidant, a second opinion, a voice to call out when they make a mistake.

It’s that last piece about trusting the second partner’s opinion and hearing their voice that is most critical. The CEO can always overrule. That’s the CEO’s job. But if they don’t listen, don’t want to hear it, and consistently see things differently, then the partnership breaks down. It’s inevitable, and history is littered with examples of partnership breakups too.

Et tu, Brute?

So when I look back and reflect on the glory and the garbage, I think about what I could have done better as the other co-founder, when I wasn’t CEO, and also what I could have done better once the mantle was passed to me. Did I speak up enough? Too much? Did I advocate for my CEO, try to make him better and successful? When it was my turn, did I listen and really absorb the opinions around me? Or did I listen too much?

I’m sure the answer is: all of the above. Had I played my cards perfectly, Scripted would have had a better outcome. But one thing I’ve learned from reading Warren Buffet’s shareholder letters is when you have a business with even mediocre leadership but in a great, growing market, you can get away with making mistakes. You can make more than a few. At Scripted we made some mistakes, and unfortunately we were not forgiven. It was and still is a very tough market.

Still, I feel for the co-founder COO’s of the world. It’s a tough, nearly impossible position to be in. Charlie Munger, Sheryl Sandberg, my hat is off to you. You haven’t made it look easy, but you’ve definitely made it look possible.

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