This is a post from my business partner (who is and will always be one of my favorite people) on our joint blog, All Things Wishful that I thought was fantastic and thought I'd repost on my personal blog. Her points speak of our startup journey together and some of the things we've learned along the way that can apply to not only our working relationship as partners, but can also apply to the world of love. I'm currently reading a couple of Gottman's books and find them to be absolutely fascinating, and in general, on the nose. Enjoy the post, everyone - and thanks, Mina!
Arry has written several posts on the parallels between the romantic courting process and finding start-up partners. I want to talk about what happens after the courtship process – after the long walks on the beach, big fancy wedding and the honeymoon to Europe, when you unpack your respective baggage (literal and figurative) and realize that this other person is not only imperfect (just like you are) but is going to largely affect your happiness and the course of your life. As the high rate of divorce shows, living with another person long term is not an easy one. Similarly, many founders of businesses cite partnership troubles as the foremost reason for the closures or failures of their businesses.Last weekend, my husband and I attended a relationship workshop in preparation for our baby’s arrival in a month. This two-day weekend workshop was based on the research of John Gottman (formerly a professor at the University of Washington) who has spent decades studying relationships and what makes some work (which he calls “master” relationships) and others fail (the “disasters”). I had first learned of Gottman’s work in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink where he talks about how Gottman and his colleagues can look at a couple interacting for three minutes and predict with 90 percent accuracy whether they are going to get divorced. Fascinating! I was eager for this workshop not only at a personal level for its potential to help make my relationship with my husband even better but also at an intellectual level for understanding the dynamics of human interaction. Both of these expectations were met, and as a bonus, I was even able to apply some of the ideas from the workshop to working with business partners.Here are some of my conclusions regarding start-up partners that the workshop helped me articulate.
1. Be friends with your partners. There’s the old saying, “Don’t go into business with a friend.” I disagree. While there are certainly some negative elements to starting a business with a friend, knowing your partners, their preferences, their tendencies and generally what is going on in their lives outside of your business can help you avoid the “fundamental attribution error.” For those of you who don’t remember this from college psych classes, the fundamental attribution error is basically our tendency to attribute behaviors to personality rather than the situation. Think about it. When we believe that a poor behavior is the result of some personality deficiency, the person exhibiting this behavior becomes a lot more unsympathetic and less tolerable than if we believe that this behavior is the result of some temporary external situation (such as sleep deprivation due to taking care of a sick family member). Being unsympathetic and intolerant leads to poor conflict resolution and less effective problem-solving (see next section). Gottman also talks about the “fondness and admiration system” of mutual liking and respect and of building an “emotional bank account.” The idea is that the more you like your partner and the more “currency” you have in your emotional bank account through previous positive, validating interactions, the more able your relationship is to withstand negative interactions that are certain to come up. So, if you are not already friends with your partner, get working on it!
2. Accept that you will be influenced to be influential. Your start-up is your baby. Your future, your ego, and your finances are tied up in it. So it makes sense that you have strong ideas about what your product should look like. But this is true for your partner as well – her future, ego, finances are just as involved in your start-up as yours is. This can lead to head-butting and to a massive waste of time when the issue is probably not all that important anyway (see my earlier post on the folly of trying to create the perfect product). At worst, it can lead to animosity and stagnation of progress. At the Gottman workshop, I learned that research shows the more influence you accept from your partner, the more likely you will have influence on your partner. So, if you feel really strong about your idea, try accepting your partner’s and see how she responds to you. As a further incentive to avoiding major conflict (besides the sheer unpleasantness of it), research also shows that when you are in a conflict or argument, your body reacts as if you are in physical danger. This state is commonly known as the “flight or fight” response or “Diffuse Physiological Arousal,” in which your heart beats faster and blood pressure rises. In this state, you have trouble processing information, listening, and coming up with creative solutions. Doesn’t your business deserve your best problem-solving skills?
3. Avoid the Lake Wobegon Effect. This didn’t come up during the Gottman workshop, but I started thinking about various concepts from my college psychology classes, and this one seemed very appropriate for the start-up world where most partnership troubles essentially stem from issues of perceived fairness and equity (at least based on my discussions with and research on entrepreneurs). Lake Wobegon is a fictional place where everyone in town is above average in this town. Assuming you know what an average is, you know that this statement cannot be logically true. However, this is exactly how we are. Countless social psychology studies have shown that we, when comparing ourselves to others, believe that we are superior (in looks, intelligence, work input, you name it), even when we are not objectively superior as judged by third parties. This “illusory superiority” plagues us all and can be especially dangerous in the start-up setting. You can easily imagine how one partner might overvalue her own work and contributions and become disgruntled and unhappy. Sure, it’s possible that you are actually doing all the work in your company, but before you get into a death spiral of self-pity and resentment for your partner, have a conversation with your partner. Your partner might agree that you have done all of the work, but more likely, she will feel exactly the same about her relative contribution compared to yours and you will leave the conversation having a better appreciation of each other’s role in the company.Related to issues of fairness and equity (and while I am throwing out psych concepts), beware of the “recency effect,” or the tendency to remember what happened more recently as opposed to things that have happened further in the past, as you evaluate the relative contributions of yourself and your partners. As we hear all the time, starting a company is not a sprint but a marathon. Don’t judge your partner based on your recollection of how the last few miles have gone; each mile builds upon the previous and is just as important, even if we are in such a state of pain from running the current mile that we can’t remember the miles we’ve run.