Startups have their highs and lows. A co-founder can help you ride the waves.
By Ilan Mochari (Senior Writer, Inc. Magazine)
Renee Robbie and Giorgia Rossi first knew they’d be compatible co-founders during their shared 40-minute morning commute. In a large cab, sometimes with several other passengers, they rode from the gorgeous suburb of Bondi Beach, Australia, to the McKinsey offices in Sydney.
Yes, it’s possible to have bad days when you live on the beach in Australia.
Working until 3 a.m. or 4 a.m.–and rising a few hours later to go to the office–will do that. Especially if you do it for almost three years. “We were not having a great time with the long hours,” says Robbie.
Yet Robbie, 25, and Rossi, 26, noticed that they were seldom cranky on the same morning. More than this, whoever was in the better mood would inevitably listen to, and cheer up, the other. Their chats were emotional and intense. Sometimes, other passengers got out of the cab and waited for another, preferring a quiet commute to the Robbie-Rossi pep talk.
Over time, Robbie and Rossi realized they’d be happier if they left their jobs to start a business. They’d also learned enough about their compatibility–and skill sets–to grasp that they’d make great partners.
Today, they’re the co-founders of LookBooker, a pre-revenue startup hoping to become for salons what OpenTable is for restaurants. They’ve raised $400,000 and hired two (soon to be three) employees. This week, LookBooker is beta-testing its platform with four salons in Singapore, where Robbie is based. Over the next few months, they’ll test the platform in New York City, where Rossi is based.
The co-founders still communicate every day, helping each other handle the moody roller coaster of startup life–and serving as each other’s witnesses on what might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “You really push each other, as you’re going through this journey together–and as you build something together,” says Rossi.
The Power of Two
It’s a long-held belief of anyone with a heartbeat that one test of long-term compatibility istravel. Another is comfort with morning routines. In many ways, the commute to Sydney allowed Robbie and Rossi to use both of these tests. They saw each other, daily, at each other’s worst, and learned how to make it work.
As it happens, their ability to lift each other’s moods very much mirrors the behavior of other creative co-founder teams. Robbi Behr and Matthew Swanson, the illustrator-writer tandem behind Idiots’ Books, practice a symbiotic emotional management that’s comparable to what the LookBooker founders did for each other during those morning commutes (and continue to do for each other, despite their geographical distance).
In fact, a forthcoming book (due out August 5) details the Behr-Swanson relationship as archetypical of how healthy creative pairs often help each other through role-playing and turn-taking. “They’re like improv actors, always saying ‘yes, and’–and moving the ball forward,” observes Joshua Wolf Shenk, author of Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs.
In the book, Swanson tells Shenk that he and Behr often find themselves “falling into a sudden pit of melodramatic despair, a fog of self-pity, a funk that renders us short-tempered, hostile, and ungracious. But we never both succumb to it at the same time. In fact, as soon as one of us starts to go downhill, the other’s resolve is strengthened.”
Just as fascinating, Swanson asserts that the emotional balancing feels almost involuntary. “It’s not that we refuse to go south at the same time. It’s that we seem unable to.”
A Human Response
I emailed Shenk to tell him about Robbie and Rossi, comparing them to his example of Behr and Swanson. I asked: Based on your studies of, and experiences with, creative pairs, can you hypothesize about how and why this mood-balancing symbiosis seems to happen?
Shenk pointed to a lesson in the book, from the psychologist and historian Frank Sulloway:
In Darwin’s famous example, he proposed that fourteen species of Galápagos finches–each with a distinct beak–had evolved from a common ancestor and that the beak variations allowed the birds to minimize competition and maximize resources. Some beaks were best suited to eating insects in trees, others to eating fruits and leaves, and so on.
Human beings also shape themselves to make the best out of their situations. The clearest way to see this is in the patterns of character that show up in relation to birth order. As a rule, firstborns find that they can get attention for anything they do well, so they tend to stake out traditional turf and defend it fiercely. They study hard; play the violin. Younger siblings often find the safe territory spoken for, so they have to go elsewhere. They act the clown; play punk rock. In a study of 121 major historic events–paradigm shifts in science, reform movements, and political revolutions–Frank Sulloway found that later-born children were roughly twice as likely as earlier-borns to take the radical position, while earlier-borns were more likely to defend the status quo.
The point is that we constantly make (often unconscious) decisions about what to do–and even who to be–depending on what will get us what we want.
Expounding on this section, Shenk says that what both people want is for the relationship–and the work depending on it–to stay “both upright and flexible, both energized to take on opportunities but realistic and aware of challenges. So either one is willing to go to the place of criticizing, wondering, doubting–maybe even despairing–and either one is willing to go to the place of fixing, comforting, finding practical solutions.”
He’s describing Robbie and Rossi to a tee, even though he’s never met them. All told, the social science around creative pairs makes a compelling case for co-founders. They serve as great mood stabilizers, if nothing else. The myth of the lone-genius entrepreneur will persist, but creative tandems clearly have more fun. Even while they’re traveling.