Last week was an important week for Tangoo and myself as we officially signed on the right co-founders. It took over three years and three attempts to accomplish, but we did it. Out of all the insurmountable amount of things I’ve learned since diving into startup life post-graduation, building a winning team has been the most valuable. Something you’ll come to terms with very early in startup life is that one person is simply not enough. Even if you are a jack-of-all-trades and can code, design, and sell, you can’t do those all at once and must focus your time on the skill you most excel at.
Where co-founders really become valuable though is to get you through the challenges and surprises along the way of startup life. It takes it toll and you need others to keep you inspired, accountable, and always thinking critically. In the end, you’re all in it to win it and you’ve agreed to make sacrifices and commit your life to it. Sounds like a marriage, doesn’t it? I would argue it’s probably much harder as you need to raise a much more demanding baby and do it with multiple parents. As hard as this sounds, there is a correct way to do this and I’ll walk you through my three experiences and 7 rules I learned to live by for building a winning founding team.
Tangoo’s Original Founding Team
Tangoo started as a wonderful side project with some friends at UBC and SFU. We were all quite passionate about making going out in Vancouver easier and more purposeful and got really excited about actually doing something about it. This is the first crucial ingredient in creating a founding team and if everyone isn’t equally passionate about what the company stands for, you need to drop everything and only continue until you nail this.
Rule #1: Solve a problem everyone is passionate about solving.
I started it with my friend Henry Heeney who initially approached me to see how we could take advantage of Vancouver’s dire need for ways to reverse its “No-Fun City” reputation. We then realized that we needed some marketing muscle to get the word out and decided to partner with the co-founders of up-and-coming city blog, Vancity Buzz. We then added another partner named Daryl Louie to give us more industry experience and we were ready to rock.
We had assembled what I really considered a dream team at the time but, we were still missing some extremely important elements: full-time commitment and a diversified team.
Rule #2: Eventually everyone must take the plunge, go all-in, and commit full-time.
Don’t get me wrong, side projects are great and are probably the underlying reason of how companies get started. However, for your baby to really grow, it needs everyone’s full attention, all the time. Up until the summer of 2012, we had a year of ideation and great weekend huddles where everyone’s head always hurt by the end. We had started operations of running one event and getting a few restaurant owners interested in Tangoo. But it was when we started transitioning from ideation to actual execution that I realized that there was no way a side-project was sustainable to make any real progress, this baby needed more time and attention! We had all banked on going full-time once we were making the big bucks but I guess we overlooked the fact that in order to get there, you need to be all in. I had just finished university but the rest of my team was well integrated with their full-time jobs and one even had a real baby…these are things I wished I had thought through before.
There was something deep inside that implored me to take the dive of full-time and since I had just finished school and I was a free bird, so I was in the best position to do this. After my last exam, I took a 10-day trip to California to seek some startup inspiration in San Francisco, see the gold in Hollywood, and reconnect with family in Santa Barbara and San Diego. When I came back, it was obvious to me that this was my calling and even though the others could not go full-time, I was going to drive this forward.
Now, I’ll need to bring up that the equity division was still proportionately divided up even though I was working a lot more than anyone else now. Thankfully my team was understanding of this and we managed to slowly work on a solution however, it was very time-consuming and if one of them had decided to be stubborn about it, it could have killed the company. I won’t dive into equity in this post but, I will tell you to make sure you think this delicate topic through better than I initially did. I believe that everyone needs to earn their ownership over time with a vesting agreement.
Rule #3: Have the proper vesting equity agreements and legal documents in place with your co-founders.
Another thing that crept up on me was realizing just how important it was for us to have technical talent on board. Outsourcing was painfully expensive, slow, and fragmented.
Rule #4: Diversity in skills and personalities on a founding team is paramount.
At the end of the day, we were all awesome salespeople. None of us had a clue about how to code or design. We badly needed diversity so our quest to find a technical co-founder began. If I had first understood how urgent it was to address this void, things would have been much different our first 18 months.
After a year of running Tangoo events and riding our wave of big media hype, I got introduced to our CTO, Joshua Chan. Getting him on board was a one-month process where we really took the time to understand each other and learn about our values, ambitions, and personalities. Understanding a full-on tech person was very new for me as I was used to kicking it with gregarious type-A salespeople. However, I saw the value right away besides his coding skills. His attention to detail is phenomenal and his practical and tactical approach on ideas made me think twice about what could actually work and what was merely me fantasizing. It’s still an adjustment aligning my extroverted thinking with that of an introvert but as long as you keep communication channels open, you make it happen. Thanks to Josh’s recommendation, I am reading Quiet: The Power of Introverts to give me more insight on his hidden powers.
Rule #5: Get to know your co-founders and make sure you have the same values and end-goals.
A few months after onboarding Josh and making big technical improvements with Tangoo, we managed to attract some more amazing talent. Josh and I knew that we needed to build the team with more technical and sales power so we were open to expanding the new founding team. It was with this team that we managed to pivot the direction of Tangoo overnight and win Demo Day at Launch Academy – it’s incredible what putting different minds in a room can do.
After our honeymoon month it got down to business and working out equity and role definition. This is where we realized we were much more misaligned than we had originally thought. The values and personalities of everyone turned out to be quite divided and people were jockeying for the same leadership positions on the sales and technical sides. Even though we had more diverse skills and commitment than my first founding team, there were once again too many people involved who wanted to be founders with maximum equity positions. I don’t believe a startup can realistically have more than three equal equity founders without conflicts and since we had to account for my two years of previous work on the brand alongside my original co-founders still into the picture, it just wasn’t going to work out.
Rule #6: Keep your founding team tight and with clearly defined leadership roles.
As we finished 2013, Josh and I gave it a final go to find a winning founding team that would make sense given the history of Tangoo and the roles we needed filled. We didn’t need two more CEO/CTO’s, we needed a hybrid of high-impact early partners who could come in and be founders but still acknowledge that their roles were to accelerate Tangoo. We needed people who were more focused on execution rather than leadership and were ok with accepting a lower equity stake. One of our September interns was extremely close of filling this void but we lost him to a bigger fish – this was just unfortunate timing and a reality that some people can live on sweat equity for only some time.
However, the timing was incredible because in the first week of 2014, we found two more people who refilled the void we had before and were completely in it to win it. So we tested them for six months and here they are, sacrificing everything else to make Tangoo happen. This is the mindset of a winning team. Their names are Alex Guyenne and Jonathan Hill who head our iOS and Operations/Finances at Tangoo – two things that are crucial to taking us to the next level. They have withstood the test of time the last six months and have worn the brand on their sleeves. I don’t think I could have asked for a better scenario and I’m thrilled to have signed them on board as partners last week.
Rule #7: Bring on board people who can prove they’re willing to sacrifice whatever it takes for the company – don’t settle for anything less.
Tangoo has been fortunate enough to escape any Facebook-like founder conflicts and the it owes a lot of its success from the hard work and ideas from the people who have danced with the idea of being a full-time co-founder. I wouldn’t wish upon anyone to spend three years building their founding team however, I wouldn’t trade it for the world as it has engrained in me the major rules one must consider when building an honest, passionate and committed winning co-founder team.