Communication for Startup Co-founders

Reasons behind failure of startups are widely discussed on the web. One of them that always stands out for me is co-founder disagreements. Maybe its because I have been through such a situation, early on in my career, while still a student. More importantly, the reason I feel compelled to write about the topic is that not enough has been written about it already. I would go even further and say that disagreements are just a symptom of failure but not the cause.

The causes behind disagreements, in my view, are two-fold. The first being varying value systems. That’s a huge topic in itself. There’s little you can do when you have differing values as individuals. Surviving in a startup can be very difficult if you don’t agree on what values you and your company should abide by. There’s a second cause, however, that gets very little attention in the startup writing that, at least, I have come across. Poor communication.

If you look at any other facet of a Startup, whether it is raising funds, serving customers, or telling your story to the media, communication skills seem to be at the center of it all. Yet, the startup community rarely talks about this topic as actively as it talks about “fund raising”, “growth hacking”, and the likes.

So, what is communication and why does it go wrong?

It seems like everyone would/should know what communication is. It seems obvious that somehow we all have learnt how to communicate effectively at school, or at home, or at our previous jobs. Think hard, however, about the last time you actually studied “communication”.

In my research for this post, I came across the Shannon model of communication, which apparently was a mathematical model of information theory that led to the technology behind modern telephony systems. Now, the content in the next couple of paragraphs may sound obvious to many of you, but it never hurts to remind us of the basics. Inability to follow the basics is what often leads to our downfall. Here are the components of Shannon’s model:

  • The sender (and intentions)
  • The message
  • The channel
  • The barriers (or noise)
  • The receiver (and perception)
  • The feedback

Success can be defined by when the receiver has understood the message of the sender. Let’s use this process to look at what communication between co-founders may involve. Please bear with the formulaic description of the process, but the breakdown is essential to get the full value out of this model.

  • The sender starts the process by encoding the message based on her experiences, attitudes, knowledge, skill, perceptions, and cultural influence. Encoding basically converts the concept and ideas in the sender’s head to some symbols, such as languages, words, or gestures. Encoding will naturally also involve some assumptions that the sender has about the receiver’s knowledge and assumptions.
  • At this point, the sender must choose the channel. In our example, this can be verbal or written communication. More importantly, however, the sender must think about whether the content is complicated or controversial, or whether it’s meant for one receiver (co-founder) or multiple (e.g. team/users).
  • The receiver, on the other hand, is responsible for decoding the message. The process by which the receiver decodes a message will be similar to the sender’s relationship with encoding, involving his experiences, attitudes, knowledge, etc.
  • Finally, feedback is the last step in the process, through which the receiver signals the response to the message, back to the sender. Without feedback, it’s impossible to determine the success of the process.

When you start looking at the process of communication in this light, the causes for unresolved disagreements become quite clear.

1. Incorrect understanding of the receivers or senders knowledge and assumptions about the content of the message. Now if you have worked with someone directly for a number of years (ideally you have), you may understand the person well enough to know their assumptions and knowledge about the content, but often, you may not. If you and your co-founder have only been working together for a couple of years or less, understanding their assumptions or knowledge about most content will be even more difficult. So, think hard about this when communicating with your co-founder, or for that matter, anyone else at your company.

2. Poor encoding of the message. Choice of words or language, conflicting body language, jargon, all can lead to the message being conveyed in a form that deviates from what the sender had initially intended. I would argue that the “intention” of the sender is always lower in importance to the sender’s ability to encode the message properly for the receiver. It always feels awful to be misunderstood and we all are guilty of saying, at some point of time, “oh, but that’s not what I intended”. Based on this model, the burden or responsibility of successful communication always falls on the sender’s shoulders. In complicated messages, this is where feedback becomes even more important as it allows the sender to clarify the miscommunication.

3. Noise contributed by any distraction (e.g. poor choice of timing or location to convey the message, if a part of the message distracts from main point, other matters the receiver needs to pay attention to). Noise can’t be underestimated in its ability to disrupt the communication process. The right thing to do is to always be cognizant of creating a noise free environment for important discussions. One easy way to do this is to always schedule important discussions, or to make sure you get all the noise out of the way before the discussion, or to simply make it impossible for anyone to be distracted (cellphones switched off).

4. Lack of, or poor, feedback. This is the most important part of the communication process for the sender. Without this, knowing whether your message was conveyed successfully is impossible. Giving and receiving feedback is, unfortunately, a skill that almost no young entrepreneur formally learns. There is no course for this at school or college. You really have to learn it yourself. One good resource is MindTools.

As you can tell, according to this model, the larger responsibility lies on the shoulders of the sender of the message. Ultimately, it’s her job to understand the receiver’s biases, assumptions, and knowledge of the matter, and to encode and convey the message in a way that reduces noise and distraction. Seeking feedback and clarifying any miscommunication is also the responsibility of the sender. Finally, it’s my belief that “Intentionality”, in communication, is less important. As a sender of a message, it’s our responsibility to make sure the intentions behind our message are well represented in the encoding, and the channel we choose for the receiver.

There’s a whole lot that can be said about the receiver too, but I realize that this post is becoming really long, so I’ll save that for another day. I’ll focus the next post on Active Listening, which hopefully will do justice to the receiving side of the equation.

Some other resources for communication:

  • Brad Feld’s book on Startup Life – although it focuses on relationships with startup founders, I feel like its good for co-founders too!
  • Dummies guide to effective communication – yes, its not just for dummies!
  • Hi. I’m an Interpersonal and Organizational Communication Major, so I am very much familiar with dozens and dozens of theories of communication. When it comes to what disagreements are, from a communication related perspective, they are simply two varying opinions. Disagreements are actually a good thing because when people disagree they are each taking a stand on what their opinions are. If there was never any disagreement, it would mean that both parties are thinking the same all the time – which is highly unlikely, and boring.

    What does matter: how disagreements are handled. How do you handle varying opinions? One approach, in the context of startups, is to decide what is best for the startup itself, not what is best for the individual. That may be tricky, however, by looking at all of the options available, there may be a resolution that satisfies both parties. Of course, bringing in an unbiased 3rd party may help.

    • Raymond, I’m in complete agreement with you (no pun intended). Disagreements are good as they bring varying points of view and my co-founder and I have a lot of healthy debates.

      You’re right about the 3rd party too. Sometimes that’s data in our case, or an advisor, or more research into the matter. Thanks for your comment.

  • Nice! :) You seem to be very popular on HN! :-D

    And I’ve added your blog to my reader. Look forward to more posts!

    • haha… not at all dude. I am guessing the subject is relevant… :) Thanks for visiting!

  • The ironic part is that most Comm majors wouldn’t understand this article :) Joking, joking

  • The Key is to comunicate without violation of the receiveror. This works very well with the framework of “non-violent communication” from Marshal Rosenberg. With these techniques it is possible to communicate without blaming, finger pointing and looking back.

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  • Great advice Pranav! At CoFoundersLab, http://www.cofounderslab.com/, our entire goal is to help entrepreneurs find the right co-founder(s). We encourage our members to really consider things like share values, personalities that mesh, communication/leadership styles, etc., and we’re building many of these assessments into the platform to do the best matching possible. Co-founder relationships are REALLY hard, and it is critical to look at a multitude of factors/assessments when finding the right person/people.

    Thanks for sharing!

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