How does one build trust among founders in a start-up team?
As we witness a never-before spurt in start-up activity in the country, this one question assumes pivotal importance. It is so for a simple reason: most start-ups, the world over, fold up within the first year of their coming into being and, most among them do so, not for external reasons, but because their founders part ways. In that context, the idea of trust needs engagement, ahead of things like business plan, fund-raising and valuation, and all that stuff.
For this, we must first understand where the word trust comes from. Its origin is in the Old Norse word Treysta; it is akin to “making strength”; that is why we talk about “building” trust as in we build strength. In the context of a founding team, trust is not an esoteric thing or a magic wand, it is something that needs to be built brick by brick through a set of specific conscious acts. It also means, we stay wary of certain things that may bring us in harm’s way. The question is where do we start?
Entrepreneurs often miss the starting line: it is when you conceptualize the company among co-founders. I have seen many teams discuss everything with supreme comfort and ease at this stage, but when it comes to four crucial elements, they let them hang awkwardly. These are: who will own how much of the business and why, who would be responsible for what function, what would be the way to resolve conflicts and, who would be the overall boss. If a team finds discussing, disagreeing and finding common ground on these issues prior to the very formation of the enterprise an awkward act, it is starting on shaky grounds. Familiarity with each other may be high and excitement strong, but this team will have fragile trust. Trust wants you to be bold.
Once an enterprise is off to a start, the next big testing moment comes when founders have to deal with a lot of unpredictable, and sometimes uncomfortable, issues that weren’t anticipated in the beginning and may not have an immediate solution or easy answer.
When confronted with them, founders can take an Ostrich posture, they can be in denial or in a very few cases, say to themselves, “look we are flagging this as an issue and we choose to do so openly, on record, we don’t know how to resolve this right this moment, but know we will. We would revisit this issue in so-and-so time frame”. When teams display the “flag-move-revisit- resolve” approach as against a don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach, trust gets built. Trust doesn’t build on a void, it seeks an ether called transparency.
Trust thrives in synchronous communication. As all of us get busy with the acts of organization-building and split responsibilities and as growth takes momentum, it is inevitable that multiple things happen at the same time and information is no longer synchronous. I meet the investor and he expresses concerns about certain things, elsewhere and at the same time you meet a senior employee who has issues with me, a third founder has meanwhile concluded a deal with a customer that would hurt bottom line in the near term, someone else has just made a job offer for a critical position without polling others—the list just gets bigger with time, volume and success. The casualty in it is synchronicity of communication. We are no longer on the same page. Outcomes are more visible than the reasoning behind them. This is when we need to rein-in this beast of non-synchronicity and write down a small list of things on which there should be zero-latency. When I know of something and when I am about to do something, I must ensure that you know. We got to build a communication protocol and some articulated matters are not left to chance.
This brings me to a very interesting subject: what is the staging platform for building trust? Is it the boardroom where you discuss company valuation or is it the funeral ground where you show up, cancelling all priorities and stand next to your partner? Does trust get built at the company offsite where you play outdoor team games or at the burnt-out warehouse of the client where all the fingers are pointing at your partner for blame? The answer is very obvious. Trust is built at ground zero. But what may not be all that obvious is this: trust is not built when things are going well. In fact, when the going is rough, everyone gets busy fighting the common enemy, but when the dragon is slain, lo and behold, fissures begin even as “acche din” have arrived. And this is often triggered by a very innocuous thing: it is in the act of credit taking. Imagine this use case: there are four founders in our two-year-old company and you are the first among equals. You get a phone call, the ‘Mint’ team wants to do a story on you today, they want to send a photographer just now, and your co-founders are away. What do you do? Tell ‘Mint’, come another day and risk losing the story? Or, have the story, give the others a lot of credit while speaking to the reporter so that your acknowledgments make it to print, but go along and get yourself pictured with the story? While many of your co-founders may be very mature about the nice, but solitary photograph in the newspaper the next day, you have no idea that their spouses and children are asking why their picture isn’t there? The first time, your buddies just explain it away, the second time they shrug and the third time, the bug gets them. While building pillars of steel, be wary of the air bubble.
On that parting note, let me say this, give me a trusting set of founders and I shall part the sea; take trust away and even the Gods would fail. But I am not done on the subject yet. We will dwell some more on the idea when we meet again the next time.