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Founders and co-founders: Dynamics that enable success

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Is one founder or more than one better for a startup? It can be a mixed bag.

With two or more founders, the chances of you raising money from venture capital and other investors are higher. However, NYU and Wharton School research shows that entrepreneurs who go solo are likelier to succeed than those who do it with others.

Still, while the research may encourage more founders to go into business on their own, it also highlights the need for founders who want to start with partners to look at how they can best work together to boost their chances of success.

In this article, we look at founder and co-founder dynamics in some of the world’s biggest companies, as well as some startups in Asia Pacific.

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Founders of tech giants

If you look at tech giants Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft, only one of them had a sole founder. Jeff Bezos founded Amazon in 1994 using his own money and help from his parents. The others all had co-founders.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who did summers working at Hewlett-Packard, co-founded Apple with Ronald Wayne, a much older former Atari colleague of Wozniak who soon cashed out his 10% share in 1976. Wozniak effectively left Apple in 1985 due partly to frustrations over Apple’s direction, although he technically remains on the company’s payroll.  

Bill Gates and the late Paul Allen, high school friends who shared a passion for computers, founded Microsoft in 1975. Partly due to disagreements with Gates, Allen left Microsoft’s executive ranks in 1983, although he stayed on the board until 2000 and was friends with Gates until he passed away in 2018.

Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page got to know each other at Stanford University, where they built a search engine based on the popularity of pages. In 2015, they created Alphabet as a holding company of Google and then stepped back from day-to-day management of the parent firm in 2019.

Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook out of a dorm room at Harvard University with schoolmates Dustin Moskovitz, Chris Hughes, Eduardo Saverin and Andrew McCollum. Saverin had an acrimonious parting, while the co-founders left Facebook on relatively friendly terms with Zuckerberg after at least a few years.

A running theme in these corporate behemoths is how the co-founders got to know each other at school or work and shared a strong passion for tech. This familiarity and enthusiasm helped their ventures take off, although few co-founders stayed on for more than a decade.

Departures happened quickly when the fit was not right, as in the case of a 40-year-old Wayne dealing with then twenty-somethings Wozniak and Jobs. Partings happened when trust deteriorated, or interests diverged too much.

McCollum, who left Facebook in 2007 to finish his degree, explained his decision, “While Facebook is very collaborative, it’s always been Mark’s vision, which is great, but I knew that eventually, I was going to be working on something where I could define the vision.”

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Having trust among co-founders at India’s Udaan

In a couple of GGV Capital’s portfolio companies, co-founders have stressed the importance of trust and working as a team.

Udaan, India’s largest B2B e-commerce platform, was co-founded in 2016 by three former top executives of Flipkart – Vaibhav Gupta, Amod Malviya and Sujeet Kumar. Recently, Gupta was named chief executive officer in preparation for the company’s public listing within the next two years.

Vaibhav said that their shared experience at e-commerce startup Flipkart and their similar backgrounds created chemistry among them. “When you see people in both good and bad times, you are able to see the true fit or true character of the person,” he said, adding, “We had that ongoing strong trust with us.”

Also, when they started Udaan, they formed a core group of about 15 people and built a culture of trust so the team “would focus on problems and solving them.”

Gupta says he spends a lot of energy on business growth, category management, and finance in terms of sharing responsibilities. In contrast, Sujeet spends a lot of time on operations, and Amod focuses on products and technology. However, he says they also devote time across functions, which is enabled by a solid team backing them.

“We also get together every week. We talk about core decisions; we ensure that speed of decision making is not ever delayed. And I think there’s a lot of ownership in the company like people can go ahead and make their decisions, and I think that’s beginning to work for us,” he said.

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Teamwork in Next Gen Food’s unconventional pairing

Singapore-based Next Gen Foods is an unconventional pairing. Timo Recker and Andre Menezes did not work or study together before co-founding the foodtech startup offering plant-based meat products in 2019.

Recker, a serial entrepreneur, comes from a lifetime background in the food space, having founded German-based LikeMeat. Menezes, a Brazilian native, has lived and worked in many countries and was responsible for scaling Impossible Foods from a newcomer to a household name in Asia-Pacific.

Recker said that after setting up a venture in Europe, he thought about the US as a natural area for expansion, but his girlfriend opened his eyes to Asia. Also, he met GGV Capital managing partner Hans Tung at the RISE conference in 2019 and discovered Singapore’s investor landscape and market potential and, more broadly, Asia. He met a team at Singapore’s state-owned investment company Temasek, and they connected him to Menezes.

“With Andrew, it was a natural connection. He also has a very comparable skillset,” Recker noted.

For his part, Menezes said they liked each other since they first met in August 2019. “He is a nice person whom I identified myself with in terms of values. We’re about the same age; we have global experiences, shared hobbies, vision, alignment,” he said.

He also pointed out that they have complementary backgrounds. Menezes has a track record of operating a global business from Asia at a massive scale. In contrast, Recker has the technological know-how and development experience in the plant-based food sphere.

Recker stressed the importance of how to manage their relationship. “If you work in a team, it’s all about the relationship, the power of the team. We initially had an executive coach coaching us and building the team with us,” he noted.

He also pointed out that addressing things quickly is vital. “If you don’t dare to speak up, things could build up. When things happen between us, we raise it and address it, so no one feels alone, which I think is such an important part for us co-founders to really work as a team,” he said.

So for anyone thinking of setting up a startup with one or more co-founders, strive for success by getting to know and trusting the other person and working collaboratively.

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