If there’s one thing the tech community loves to revere, it’s the co-founder.
Weighted with mythic connotations, the term conjures romantic images of courageous (or better yet, crazy) visionaries who are willing to bet everything on their unproven ideas; of geniuses toiling deep into the night, faces aglow in the light of their laptops. Preferably in garages.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Stop and look at the word – what it says, and what it doesn’t – and you’ll begin to understand what people like Matt Stevens and Chris Mendes have known for years.
“By true definition, a co-founder’s job ends at founding the company,” Stevens, CEO of Waterloo-based FleetCarma, told me. “Once it is incorporated, technically that role is done.”
Stevens and Mendes, his Chief Technology Officer, co-founded the company in 2007. FleetCarma’s technology eases the adoption of plug-in electric vehicles for fleet owners, leasing companies and utility companies.
Once the co-founding was done, they hired themselves to do actual jobs, with Stevens leading as CEO and Mendes supporting as CTO. But, just to keep things interesting, Mendes is also Chair of FleetCarma’s board – effectively making him Stevens’ boss on big-picture matters.
With the complexity inherent in these overlapping roles, clarity is key as a company gets traction and begins to grow – and a fixation on the term “co-founder,” and all the freight it carries, can trip companies up.
The topic arose at a recent meeting of local tech CEOs, where Stevens heard from another chief executive about difficulties they were having in holding one of their co-founders, who held a subordinate role within the company, accountable.
“I think my general comment was, it’s helpful for co-founders to realize that being a co-founder isn’t a perpetual licence to be employed at the company, regardless of what you do,” Stevens recalled of the meeting.
Of course, during a company’s lean, first days, it’s not unusual for the co-founders to fill all the roles.
“You hire yourself into a series of jobs because you can’t afford to hire someone else,” Stevens said, “and you accept on Day 1 that you’re going to wear a lot of hats, and probably falter at some of those [roles].
“But then, as the company grows, you have to decide which roles within the organization have to be done to an A-plus level. And if you want to take on that role, then you should hold yourself accountable as if you had hired someone else into that role,” he continued. “And if you’re not going to do that, then you should hire someone else into that role.”
In other words, being a co-founder is irrelevant if you’re doing a lousy job at whatever role you took on after the company got started.
“The idea that you’ll accept no accountability because you’re a co-founder slotting into a role is not OK,” Stevens said.
In FleetCarma’s case, Stevens and Mendes were lucky in that they were close friends who trusted each other before they started the company. They met as University of Waterloo grad students working the same project in 2004.
“Matt was doing a master’s that turned into a PhD in chemical engineering; I was doing a master’s degree in mechanical engineering,” Mendes said. “The two of us were collaborating on a project to build a fuel-cell vehicle. That was our graduate thesis.”
When they founded their company a few years later, sorting out roles “was fairly straightforward,” Mendes said, “because Matt was always the outgoing, salesy, presenter type, to put it bluntly, and I was focused on technology. That was kind of our relationship when we were in grad school working on that project, so it just made intuitive sense that that’s how we would continue having a working relationship.”
Natural collaborators and friends who also served as each other’s best man at their weddings, Stevens and Mendes are comfortable weighing in on each other’s work, while acknowledging their respective responsibilities. Sometimes, they need to clarify the roles from which they’re speaking, depending on the topic.
“Because Chris is Chairman, he’s my boss on the board . . . and day-to-day, I’m CEO and he’s CTO,” Stevens said. “And so, we have breakfast every Wednesday and we get into a bunch of different topics, and sometimes, when it gets really deep into the topic and there’s a lot of back and forth, it’s always helpful to think about, ‘Is this a board-level discussion, or is this an operational discussion?’
“If we’re talking longer-term vision, he gets to pull rank and have a bigger say, but if it’s ‘how are we going to do this over the next month or two months,’ I carry a bit more influence on that.”
One title they don’t really think about is co-founder.
“What we do have is our officer roles, which are CTO and CEO, but then we have board positions as well,” Mendes said. “We have relied more on those roles to tell us who is thinking about which topics, rather than thinking there’s some sort of inherent value that we’ve brought, and something that we’re carrying forward, as co-founders.”
As FleetCarma’s team grows to 30 people and the company eyes an ever-growing market for its products, role clarity will become that much more crucial.
The continuing self-awareness of its co-founders – notwithstanding the irrelevance of that title – will also be key to ensuring those roles are filled by the right people.
“I’m still trying to get to the point where I feel like I’ve earned the CEO title,” Stevens said. “I still feel like sometimes I give myself, or other people on the team give me, a bit more slack than we would give someone if we hired them into it.
“I’m trying to make sure I now earn it, as someone completely separate from the company [would], because that’s what the rest of the team needs,” he said. “They need a CEO who is as accountable as if they had no founding part in the company.”