A couple months ago I wrote a post titled, How To Find A Technical Co-Founder. It seemed to strike a chord with a lot of folks.

Recently I was asked to articulate my thoughts on what a “business” co-founder ought to be responsible for, so that technical co-founders could decide on the merits of working with “these people”.

The list of focus areas below were born out of 3 channels of research: a) looking back through my calendar/task management apps, b) re-reading team communications and documents, and c) asking my co-founder what she thinks I’ve done well and could do better. The caveat here is that I’m learning on the job, so I suspect this list could be extended.

1. There Is Very Little Room For “Business Only” Types

You’ll often hear of business people doubling as product people – I’m going to suggest (and I’m not alone) that they almost need to in order to demonstrate value in the early stages of bringing an idea to market. The sticky part of the situation is that everyone kind of thinks of themselves as a “product person” and when someone tries to wear that hat without having some previous lessons to fall back on, it can actually be worse than if they didn’t wear it at all.

So what kind of lessons should you be looking for? Start with that person’s ability to impose constraints on themselves and the product. Can they zero in on a single use case? Can they remove features quickly when timelines start to slip? Equally important, can they get out of the way?

When you’re working with outstanding talent, you have to be selective about when to steer. The uptick in our team’s cohesiveness came when Rocketr was distilled down to 3 principles for decision-making: Speed, Simplicity and Enjoyment. We now measure every implementation of an idea against these pillars.

2. Be the First to Wave the Red and White Flags

I have two flags that I keep close at hand. A red one and a white one. As a Canadian, I appreciate the irony.

The red one is for alerts, alarms, confirmations and cautions. I use it when scope is changing, process is broken, dates are moving, or communications are unclear. Owning the product roadmap means being on top of the iteration and having the foresight to course-correct before shit hits the fan.

The white one is for acknowledging when I am no longer able to provide the relevant insight into a problem’s potential solutions. It’s for when I am deferring and looking to the team to make executive decisions with the guiding principles in mind.

3. Be the Keeper of “Bets” and “Books”

At the end of the day, your startup is working against the forces of time and money. You’re making a series of bets with limited amounts of each. David Skok wrote a great post lately on why startups fail. Among the reasons he cited was poor conservation of cash prior to product/market fit. In the early days, the bets you’re making are about where to spend time. Push the idea of spending money out of your head until you’ve mastered time, first.

Should Rocketr find its “fit”, the bets will begin to blend hypotheses about where to spend time and money. We’ll look to double down on features and users where we’re seeing the most traction. We’ll also have to get creative and critical about how to maximize our runway of cash.

4. Absorb Every Distraction… Like A Bulldozer (Not A Boss)

This is my ‘grab all’ category and one that is often over-sold as being a full-time role. While it certainly has the potential to grow into several roles, a Business Co-Founder needs to take a bulldozer mentality to this category in the nascent stages.

You want your design lead to own the design, and your technical lead to own the code. Everything else needs to land on your desk.

Corporate structuring, legal documentation, merchant account setup, investor relations, sales and marketing, support administration, writing specifications for the data mart, writing copy, communicating back to advisors… your co-founders should only be exposed to these areas when a decision is looming and only if that decision requires their input or consensus.

5(a). Be the Historian

I keep rigorous documentation on where we’ve been and how our lens to the future has changed. Yes, Jen comments her code in anticipation of a growing team – and I know Verne is meticulous about keeping as much logged in Basecamp as possible – but at the end of the day, someone needs to document our progress.

The best example I can give comes from the usability tests we’ve been conducting with our target customer. These tests represent a critical feedback loop for the team, but to get the most out of them, we have to recall what was being tested, when, and how that feedback was articulated. Having those data points easily available for reference, means that future cycles happen faster.

5(b). Develop the Customer

I broke this out into its own category because it is increasingly more work than I anticipated. As Rocketr gets closer and closer to launch (t-minus 21 days), these tests are taking up more and more hours in my calendar. I’m visiting teams at their offices and bouncing around the city with a pen and a pad – observing, probing and relaying findings back to HQ.

6. Own the Vision

There is a fine balance at play when it comes to product vision, but ultimately the buck needs to stop somewhere. The business grads out there will likely be familiar with the RACI model for decision-making. The short story is that somebody’s neck needs to be on the line at all times.

This is not to say that the vision can’t reside with a designer or an engineer, but in our model, I have to be accountable. If we miss the mark, it’ll be my fault… because it has to be somebody’s.

Bonus: Stay A Step Ahead

Running a business is a lot like a game of Tetris – you have one eye on the piece in your hand, and the other on what’s right around the corner.

So while you’re maximizing runway, you need to be making plans for future cash flows. While you’re optimizing everyone’s time, you need to be aware of who the next logical hire is. If your competitor releases that feature you thought they might, you need to have your response (if any) locked and ready to go.

Always be one step ahead. The present can be all-consuming, but games are won by being out in front of the facts.

If I had to summarize my role in a sentence, it would read:

Own the product… Empower people… Pound the pavement.

If you’re without a business co-founder and need a crash course instead, my quick and dirty recommendation is to read this stuff and talk like this guy.

  • “Always be one step ahead. The present can be all-consuming, but games are won by being out in front of the facts.”

    Supremely sage advice. Great read for us business types who are doing their best in a product-oriented world.

    We aren’t the best coders, we aren’t the best designers, but damnit, we’re going to push this product forward.

    Onward and upward my friend.

  • Awesome Andrew articulates again…

    My biggest challenges are identifying when to raise that white flag (when do I stop researching to develop the right insight), and gauging the runway’s length when I’m not always sure as to what costs might creep up.

    Thanks for this post!