Founder Conflict: the troublesome star in the team

This article is the eighteenth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on June the 19th, 2017.

Both business and sport celebrate stars. In sport, especially football, star performers are often traded for huge sums of money, without regard to the fact that football is a team sport. The history of player trading shows that too many “stars” fail, when placed in the context of another team than their last one that let them shine. Startups are a team sport too, and founder conflict can sometimes arise from one “star” disrupting the team.

In an earlier column, I had written about a founder and her challenges with the technology lead. She had given the tech lead co-founder status and given him a considerable chunk of equity. Much conflict later, she had to part ways with him. That did not come without a lot of legal trouble and negotiation. The delay in resolving the conflict also derailed some of her timelines.

Are stars, especially uncooperative, uncollaborative and egotistic ones, worth it in a startup founding team? And what happens when you, as a co-founder, find yourself wasting altogether too much time on resolving team conflict due to a disruptive “star”?

Such conflict, if repeated or persistent, obviously does not bode well for the long term future of the startup. It is therefore best addressed when it first arises because if it is not nipped in the bud, you might find yourself expending too much energy on non-value generating activities rather than on core business issues.

Most people however do not relish confrontation, leave alone interfering in conflict and resolving it. So how can one approach this unwitting role of being a “peacemaker”?

As a first step, give yourself some time out. Separate yourself from the situation and take time to think clearly about the long term and ask these questions: Who in the team has a good attitude about working long term in a rapidly changing environment; who brings their competence to the work; whose ego hampers their delivery even though they may be competent; who is likely to be a better ambassador for the company in its growth years some time down the line; whom can you see yourself speaking and working with everyday for the next foreseeable future. These are deceptively simple questions with meaningful answers that bring clarity. In exploring all this, do not just go with your rational mind e.g. thinking the “star” may be irreplaceable or very expensive to replace. Pay heed to your feelings and your gut feeling e.g. does the “star” make you uncomfortable enough to avoid him or her altogether?

Consider the implications of breaking a relationship now on not-very-friendly terms. Can it bring you or your startup reputational damage? Will the break hurt a friendship? Will it shut doors to potential customers and investors for you? How will you protect yourself and the startup from the fallout?

Further, calmly assess the complete cost – legal, time, money – of getting rid of the “star” or indeed people that are conflicting with the start. Does the person have equity? Did the person do a lot of sweat equity work? What legal protections did you put in place for the business? If the person is a shareholder, what is your written and/ or implicit agreement? If you have been reading this column series, you will know we have discussed these issues in various columns and the importance of thinking of these challenges right when forming the startup and creating founder agreements.

Assess also the cost of replacing the person or persons now or later in time. This cost should not just be monetary but also the cost of delays, lost motivation, the risk of others quitting because they cannot bear to work with the troublesome star. The non-monetary costs are not quantifiable but could make or break your startup.

Last but not the least, remind yourself why you are creating the startup. I have often helped concerned founders visualise the possibility of a shattered vision if the bad situation persists. It is remarkably effective in spurring them out of paralysis and into effective and immediate action.

Once you have built a clear picture of the present and the future — with or without the “star” — you will be able to make a decision that is justifiable, fair, and, above all, taken in the best interest of the business and not just to pander to egos at war.

Founder Conflict: Key Asset Ownership

This article is the seventeenth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on June the 7th, 2017.

In this and the next couple of columns, I shall write about founder conflicts commonly encountered but not often easily resolved.

Some are foreseeable e.g. what happens to the equity of a co-founder who ups and leaves, and hence addressable, e.g. in the case of this example, through a shareholding rights agreement for which you ideally paid a lawyer, who helped you understand what you were agreeing to.

Some arise from human beings being human beings, ranging from unpredictable and flaky, to stubborn and demanding. These conflicts are harder to resolve because they require us to think creatively, to minimise immediate and future damage to the startup, and to stay focused despite all provocation.

One of the most common disagreements arises from the ownership of things that founders may bring to the potluck called the startup, and that really are essential business assets. The social media real estate is sometimes acquired before the company has been formed. Getting handles on platforms aside, this may mean one of the founders, who may not yet legally be in a contract with other founders, pays for the domain name or names. In the hubbub of early days, the domain name ownership transfer never happens and the founder, who paid for it, continues to own the domain name.

Should he? The short answer to that question is: No.

The domain name is an intangible asset of the business, among other IP. The renewal incurs a recurrent cost. If the person makes the expense out of his pocket, he can solidify his claim on the domain name. If the company reimburses him this expense, it is further unclear why he continues to hold on to the domain. This creates a fog for accounting and governance purposes.

As the business grows, in revenue and in value, the domain name will also grow in value. But hey, if you didn’t effect a clear transfer of ownership, it doesn’t belong to the company. How will it be accounted for in the books? At any rate the person owning the domain can hold you to ransom and play hardball at any time he likes. This is unlikely to end well.

Should the business wish to file a trademark on the name, the person holding the domain may be in violation of the trademark, assuming he lets you file trademark in the first place and doesn’t stake a claim. See comment about hardball above.

Should you attempt to raise growth capital at some stage, this will come up and raise a red flag as to the vigilance of the directors and founders. See comment about hardball again.

Transferring ownership is the ideal scenario. But let’s imagine, other founders agree that he can continue to own the domain.

The company may then want to consider signing an agreement with him to let the business use the domain name. Such a deal will have an agreed monetary consideration and will hopefully be for a clear but renewable term. Your shareholding rights agreement should allow for such a deal, and as cofounders, you should consider the governance and risk impact of such a deal on the future developments in the business. If you don’t, your investors, if vigilant, will point out what a bad idea laxity on this account has been!

While this sort of a deal remains a possibility, you may want to consider negotiating a one-time offer to buy the domain off him instead. If there is resistance, I would ask you to consider the possibility that the domain name ownership issue is just an indicator of other undesirable issues that may arise in the future.

As cofounders, you can apply this test of ownership to any other assets essential to the business that one of the cofounders brings to the table. It is worthwhile taking stock of “who brought what” at the time of forming the company and start with a clean slate where all assets are placed on the company’s books, with adequate compensation made as agreed.

Cosmetic counter sales staff: a counter view

A dear friend of mine recently spoke of how, while making an impulse purchase for a lipstick at an airport, she ended up having a fascinating conversation with a male counter sales guy, who seemed to be a lipstick connoisseur with a massive collection of his own. She noted how he had great insight into how lipstick should be bought, ideally for personality not just skin tone. Was it her gender bias, she wondered, that she was so delighted by this surprising encounter? She travels globally and had never experienced such a knowledgeable and passionate counter sales guy.

The story made me wonder about gender biases in talent hiring for specific roles especially in industries seen as gendered.

Across the world, cosmetics counter sales staff is rarely male (the exception: perfume counter sales staff is rarely female). The field sales force, however, is rarely female, as I note both from occasionally bumping into field sales staff of brands in SpaceNK and Liberty in London, and from my earlier experience in my first and extremely short-lived first job in a well-regarded Indian cosmetics company.

The brand managers in the company were almost all women whereas, barring a couple of stellar exceptions, the field sales force was all men. These men, otherwise traditional, old-fashioned, sometimes married, were the definitive experts on both our products and our consumers. In my short stint, it became quite clear that their job brought them in contact with wholesalers, retailers, and consumers, and whenever a new product was launched, they also gave trial products to their family and got unfiltered feedback from them. This gave them a wealth of knowledge and insight. Whether the company was harnessing it in a structured way, I couldn’t say.

In contrast, the counter sales staff only ever encounters a consumer primed for some purchase, even if not in the exact category she ends up buying. This means the encounters are more narrow in scope, and only if a consumer ends up at the counter in a slow time of day, can she expect a fulsome and deep conversation about the products and the anthropology and psychology of purchasing one colour over another.

In all this, the consumer is, of course, key. Not only does she, peripatetic as she is, encounter the brand in many more locations, she also gets to see the non-uniformities, the vagaries of the brand’s operations in many ways. These can be revealing about the brand’s values and prejudices.

What is stopping the cosmetic industry hiring more men as counter sales staff? Do men not seek out these roles? Or are they actively rejected in an act of gender bias, unless, as my friend noted in the case of the sales guy she met, they are “flamboyant” in their presentation?

And since everything needs to have a business case, by not having male sales staff, could brands be missing a trick in capturing the growing male interest in cosmetics and skin care? The male grooming and beauty market is estimated to be $50Bn and growing.

One could cynically note that keeping men and women segregated helps companies as they persist in charging women, in cosmetics and skin care, a whopping 37% more than they charge men. This is frankly not sustainable as the web is transparent, and women can read labels and buy substitute products and brands.

Change however is coming, slow but steady, it appears. Even if it is in the form of YouTube influencers.

Men could, of course, watch YouTube videos privately but coming to the cosmetics counter in a city centre store is still uncommon. Andrew Snavely, who runs a magazine focused on men’s grooming, thinks this is unwise and notes: “… young professional men find trial and error with products to be an expensive and time-consuming process…”. Could this be because men feel unwelcome at beauty counters to discuss their needs with the mainly female staff? Airport stores, such as the one my friend was visiting, are probably more welcoming because a man could always pretend he is buying for a woman and engage in a conversation about lipstick.

On a philosophical note, everything that frees women frees men too. And vice versa. That includes the freedom to discuss, try, buy and use cosmetics.

Cosmetic brands would do well to watch watch their gender biases and actively hire male counter sales staff, thus welcoming male customers more.

May be over time, both men and women will get better at speaking openly across gender lines about gendered topics.

Because we are worth it .

Attracting talent

This article is the sixteenth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on May the 25th, 2017.

Apart from having a strategic direction and enough money to execute on the vision, the key challenge for founders is talent. Based on my experience, I will go out on a limb and say this: talent is not scarce. No matter what we hear about the “war for talent”. What is scarce is the ability to know what talent you need, find that talent, and find that talent efficiently, quickly, and affordably. This is truer still of the earliest hires, who shape your vision and your startup’s culture.

Here are some pointers based on my experiences with helping founders find people for their teams.

Making a successful hiring decision requires a process: knowing whom you seek, where they hang out, whether they see and notice your call for talent or otherwise know of your need, whether your call for talent is attractive enough, whether they are interested enough to apply or reach out, whether your hiring process confirms a mutual fit, whether you agree terms and, finally, whether they are still interested and have not been poached by a better offer in the meanwhile. This step-by-step looks obvious when one lays it down in black and white. In reality, most founders founder when it comes to hiring because they are haphazard and their follow-up is poor. Avoiding disorganised thinking and the ensuing chaotic hiring process, which can repel many a good candidate, is therefore the first thing to aim for.

The second thing is to avoid obvious and easy answers. At every step.

Most founders look in one type of spaces e.g. online startup communities or mailing lists or Slack groups. These are also spaces where your target talent is most likely to see all the other competing possibilities. Avoid being so narrow and niche. The wiser thing to do would be to tap your IRL network too. Ask the people you know who are not connected to the startup space and you may unearth several new possible candidates. As a bonus, your contacts would also have vouched for you and your startup before those candidates agree to talk to you.

People have CVs and people have side projects. These side projects in many cases provide insight into a person’s thinking as well as their skills. The obvious mistake is to not probe these side projects and thus miss possibilities. In two instances that I have been involved with, the side projects pursued by potential hires showed how those hires were perfect for the company’s international expansion plans.

Falling back on unconscious biases is another obviously easy thing to do in hiring. And avoidable. It has been shown that women get hired on proof, while men get hired for potential. If you are not finding or reaching talent of the kind you want, it would be foolish to let your unconscious biases against an entire gender make your hiring outcomes worse. Unconscious bias training goes some way not the whole way in addressing these flaws in thinking although it would be advisable for your own personal growth as a leader and entrepreneur. Emerging hiring technology could give a helping hand too. For instance, Blendoor enables merit based matching by hiding irrelevant data and thus widening your candidate pool.

Google’s chaotic hiring process in the early years has now passed into tech industry legend. It is also something best avoided and not emulated. It is crucial that founders build a creative but robust hiring process that scales, including for collecting candidate data, made simpler by platforms such as Workable, and conducting telephonic and face-to-face interviews. Equally it is important to make references as systematic and methodical as interviews themselves. Not asking meaningful questions and failing to listen actively to what the referees say is unwise, although it is easy to do cursory checks and feel you are done.

Last but not the least, avoiding firing people who aren’t a great fit is not a great move. Especially early hires, who will shape your startup’s culture, have to enable your vision and not sabotage it. If they are being disruptive or otherwise do not fit the startup, the founder has to learn to let them go. There are laws of the land that will cover firing within and outside probation periods. Of course this assumes you have given people employment contracts! It is also useful to talk to people in “exit interviews” before they leave to understand what you might have contributed to the disagreements.

Hiring is a contact sport. Putting this advice into practice will take commitment to solving the talent puzzle for your own startup.

Early employees and the art of equity distribution

This article is the fifteenth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on May the 10th, 2017.

As a professional and an advisor, I have been on both the founder’s and the early employee’s sides of the question of equity for early employees.

In an early stage venture, equity is an idea, and equity distribution an art rather than a hard science, regardless of how much algorithmic formula type advice you find floating on the web or from well-meaning people. At an early stage, both founders and early employees are driven by the vision and the possible value creation from realising that vision. Both sides need preparation and clarity on their best number, their best alternative to a negotiated agreement (BATNA), and their respective exit strategies.

This column draws upon the several startup situations I have been or advised in and covers some essential considerations in such a discussion.

For her part, the founder sets aside a pool of X percent equity, from which early and later-but-crucial employees, and members of advisory board etc., will receive shares. Some of this X is designed to be given away as restricted stock, which is “granted” or “given”, and other as stock options, which must “vest”. The founder should have at least a rough plan for using this pool, with clear ideas on how the cliff, vesting, clawback etc may work. If she is unable to find how other startups are thinking about this, she may be able to get advice from an experienced startup lawyer, whose role in a startup has been discussed in earlier columns in this series. I have experienced at least one situation where creating the pool was an afterthought and created avoidable friction among the co-founders.

Often early employees are advised by well-meaning mentors to demand a percent of equity and not budge. Equally, founders are advised to make a fixed offer and stick to it. Both of these are poor advice. Not only is the making and the accepting of the offer a very personal decision for both sides where formulaic approaches may not work, but negotiation is also normal and an inflexible attitude does not help the situation.

Both stock grant and stock options have different implications for the recipient’s personal taxation and wealth generative situation as well as his “tie-in” to the company. Both may have a cliff, and a lock-in period or vesting schedule. The lock-in is where the founder’s and the early employee’s interests may diverge. The founder wouldn’t want a valuable employee to quit as soon as his options vest, for instance. The potential employee may rightly want to maximise his professional and wealth generative opportunities. The founder should be clear about communicating the terms of such grant or options. The potential employee will have to determine for himself whether the schedule and the lock-in are in line with his vision of his career and life.

It is worthwhile for founders to be transparent about exit avenues being envisioned or developed for the startup, and for early employees to understand those possibilities. In very early stage startups, this can be a fuzzy discussion. But it can be made better by discussing what the company is already doing, what the trajectories are, and what outcomes are feasible. This would enable the potential employee to make up his own mind about whether the offer is appealing enough for the associated risks of accepting a pay cut and the uncertainties that come with a startup.

Who drives the process? Here is some advice specifically for the potential employee. Unless you are an absolutely crucial hire, the founder will get distracted if the negotiation carries on too long. In a start-up, there are always more important things to do than discussing your specific situation ad nauseam, so you have to be the one driving the process. It would be wise to agree on a date to close an agreement. This is just a practical pointer. Sometimes we can get so hung up on the maths that we forget to have the actual conversation.

Finally, if things do not work out, it is worth remembering that walking away is a valid option for both the founder and the potential employee.

Leaving on good terms may earn the startup a friend and there may be a chance to engage again sometime in the future.