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!

The long awaited Mac review

This is for the few friends whom I have bickered with for YEARS about the Mac. This is not a post for bashing Windows or Mac. I don’t think there is one technology or company that can be considered the best. Let me just say that neither fulfills the promise that each technology has so artfully crafted for years.

Why I switched – after about 4 years in college and 4 more years at work, I switched from from Windows to Mac. The reason is pretty straight forward. My first Windows machine lasted nearly 5 years (IBM ThinkPad R51), while the second lasted another 5 years (IBM ThinkPad T61). These were machines I had bought while still in college and I overlapped them. It was when I got to work when my Windows experience was completely destroyed. My first work laptop was a Dell (can’t even remember the model) and it was just awful hardware – lasted maybe a year. There was a period of respite with the second Dell machine which lasted 2 years and performed better but was still pretty bad when compared to the ThinkPads I had at home.

Then came the last 1.5 years. I managed to cycle through some 4 Dell machines in this period. Reasons – driver failures that IT admins didn’t know how to fix. Keyboard malfunctions that were too expensive to fix as compared to just giving me a new machine (ask the IT folks about that) and random mysterious slowing down of everything I needed to do. Enough.

That’s when I switched. I owned a 13″ Mac Pro for a few months from my previous employer. I liked it enough to purchase a 13″ Mac Air for myself (and for my wife!). Its been about 6 months since I started on my Mac journey and here are some initial thoughts.

  • My favorite stuff on the Mac:
    • Gestures – no one has figured this out on other machines. Best implementation yet and truly delightful to use.
    • AppsAlfred, Fantastical, Cobook, Sparrow. Together, these four provide me everything I need to be productive. The last three could be replaced by Outlook on a Windows machine, but I think they perform better by themselves and unfortunately don’t have windows versions. As for Alfred, there is no competition!
    • Pretty to look at. Yep, I’ll agree to that one. I haven’t been impressed with many other machines on this scale of measurement.
  • Stuff that still bothers me:
    • Copy/Cut Paste. Why not implement something so simple? Actually, I take that back. I don’t want to hear any reasons, because I know they will be simply too stupid. Apple, FIX IT.
    • Mac hardware specs are way better than the Dells I owned, but probably only equivalent to the ThinkPads. In fact, with the specs you get on ThinkPads these days, Macs seem like a joke. Tejas Viswanath fondly reminds me of this!
    • The design standards fail to impress. Case in point – I often find myself screaming because of the stupid magnetic power cable which snaps out of its socket at the slightest jerk! Oh, and what’s with the non responding keys once in a while?! Not cool…
    • Mac is as buggy as Windows had been. Many might disagree and everyone is entitled to their opinion. I have seen enough hung apps, unresponsive screens, video driver issues with external monitors… kinda reminds me of the Windows days.

So, what’s the verdict? I don’t think there is one. Here are the facts. I am not changing back to a Windows machine anytime soon. Would I in future? Absolutely! Just waiting for the right hardware to come along. Vizio looks promising and I hope they get through the final few iterations quickly. The best part with Vizio is the clean install of Windows.

Oh, and by the way, did I mention I own a Windows Surface RT, a Nexus 4 and a Nexus 7 in addition to the Mac? I do think that with Nexus 4 and Nexus 7, Android has certainly leveled the playing field in terms of mobile devices and the Surface is not a bad device at all. A tad bit slow, but very smooth and I’m warming up to Metro the same way I warmed up to the Mac.

Here’s one gripe though. Why are OSs still stuck in the past? Why is everything compartmentalized in Apps and why is a user made to do so much hard work to get stuff done? Alfred single handedly beats any other application at increasing productivity. That should be the job of the OS! So, is someone at Redmond or Cupertino, or maybe even Mountain View trying to do this in a meaningful way? I sure do hope so.

(Re)Learning how to program

I graduated with a degree in Software Engineering in 2008 from the National University of Singapore. I didn’t actually learn much software engineering in the 4 years that I was enrolled in that program. Not because I was lazy or because I didn’t want to. It was mostly due to my involvement in a startup, where I was leading design, sales and other general management activities, which I believed, at the time, to be the best use of my time. The uninspired educational environment also didn’t help the cause. :P

So, I proudly adorned the role of the “general manager” while I was still an undergraduate and totally ignored the software I was supposed to be learning. Bad move (you’ll see why as you read this). Eventually, the startup died an unceremonious death. I moved on to a consulting role with a boutique strategy consulting firm, travelled the world a bit and eventually decided to settle in the bay area, where I currently reside, with a job offer from PayPal’s strategy team. That was 2 years ago. I learnt a lot from my consulting and PayPal strategy days. I loved the experiences, the people and the opportunities I received over the years.

However, I was always slightly disappointed in myself for not maximizing the value of my undergraduate degree. This disappointment was further deepened by the realization that, if you want to be a web startup founder in today’s environment, NOT having a solid software engineering background can be a big deterrent.

So, finally, as I took on a co-founder role at a web startup, although I was super excited about the possibilities, I was also super fearful of the lack of programming skills that are almost a must in a seed stage web startup. It hasn’t been all that bad but totally could have been! Three things have helped in a great way:

  • My co-founder, who DID pay attention in college and put his tech skills to practice with another startup before now, has been very helpful and patient while I re-learn how to program.
  • The friends I have kept up with over the years (you know who you are) have also been very supportive in this process.
  • Finally, the INTERNET. Resources like CodeSchool have been instrumental in picking up the basic skills that are needed at our startup (Ruby, RoR, CoffeeScript, BackBone.js, RSpec).

Based on my experience, what I recommend to every college-goer (or for that matter, any youngster) today is to learn how to program so you don’t end up in a situation similar to mine. Surround yourselves with others who know how to program and START NOW. The next few years will completely transform the way careers and professions work and programming is, likely, going to be at the center of it. I forget who I heard this from, but its an interesting thought:

“Programming in the 21st century is how carpentry was in the 16th century!”

Translation: programming has become such an essential skill for building today’s artifacts that not knowing how can be a career limiting move.

Why did I start this blog?

Oh, well, just because. I’ve tried blogging multiple times and have never stuck to it. I believe that’s not dissimilar to many others who either aren’t sure about who their audience is or what their purpose for blogging is. This time, however, I have a feeling things will be different. :)

So, what is this blog going to be about? Three things:

  • Startup life – most of my close friends know by now that I quit my cushy corporate job at PayPal for Wallwisher.com. It’s likely going to be a fun ride and this blog seems like a good way to capture the moments.
  • Learning new things – I’ve finally begun programming again (after 5 years) and hopefully I will start learning a lot of new things in the months/years to come. Expect to see guides, lessons and maybe some rants along the way!
  • Travel and the outdoors – being in California, I’ve come to love the outdoors and have wanted to spend a lot more time outdoors. Hopefully, with this blog, I’ll be able to document some of the best hikes as well as other trips that I take.

Tag along if you’re interested in any of the above!