How to keep the cofounder spark alive

Patchwork’s Co-Founders, Dr Anas Nader and Dr Jing Ouyang

No relationship is perfect. They all have their ups and downs, but the most successful and long-lasting are the product of a conscious, mutual effort to keep the spark alive.

And this is no less true when it comes to cofounders.

I first met my cofounder Dr Anas Nader when we were both studying medicine at Imperial College London. We hit it off straight away, and ended up deciding to found a business together in 2016 to build a solution to the pressures we saw our frontline colleagues facing.

Scaling to over 100 employees, raising millions in funding… the journey has certainly put our friendship to the test. But seven years on, we’re genuinely still best friends.

The secret to our firm friendship has been a process of trial and error. Here are the most important do’s and don’ts we’ve learnt along the way:

Spend even more time together

A lot of the time, it can feel as though you’re already living in your cofounder’s pocket. But spending time together outside of work is, for us, essential to cementing a cofounder relationship built to last.

Anas and I hang out on weekends, host regular board game nights and even go on holiday together (apologies to Anas’s wife for crashing their latest adventure). We find this time together reminds us of why we became friends and started a business together in the first place. Very few people behave in exactly the same way at work and at home; getting to spend time together in non-work settings reminds you that the other person is funnier and more human than the office can sometimes lead you to believe. It’s the perfect reset from the stresses of startup life.

Claim your individual roles

Cofounders are often working in partnership, but it can be equally important to claim separate, distinct roles.

“Outline your roles clearly and keep the conversation open — you can return to the topic and iterate the approach as the business grows and new or shifting priorities come your way”

At Patchwork, we established our individual responsibilities early. Anas had a wealth of domain experience, having worked in the management of temporary staffing during his time on a leadership and innovation fellowship. This, along with our individual circumstances at the time, meant it made most sense for him to be CEO. Meanwhile, my own experience working as a digital health consultant meant I held the right set of skills to take on the role of COO.

Defining your individual roles early not only helps you equitably share the workload and responsibility, but enables you to play to your strengths and deploy your unique experience and skills in a way that will most benefit the company mission. Outline your roles clearly and keep the conversation open — you can return to the topic and iterate the approach as the business grows and new or shifting priorities come your way.

Let them have the glory

When it comes to building the company’s profile, it’s unlikely that your growth strategy will enable you to keep brand building opportunities completely equitable between founders. It’s important to acknowledge this and make sure you’re both happy with how this may impact your individual roles.

As CEO, Anas is much more the “face” of Patchwork. This is really helpful; it unlocks investor opportunities and instils trust in him as a leader. As COO, I’m more internally focused and therefore you’re less likely to see my face pop up on your LinkedIn feed. And that’s okay.

I’ve seen a lot of cofounders harbour resentment about this because they haven’t had an honest chat about what balance you want to strike when it comes to who does what and is seen where. Putting ego aside and thinking about what will bring the most benefit for the company is the best way to structure that conversation.

Avoid the ‘productivity’ trap

A lot of people think they’re more productive than their colleagues, and when this is the case, it can sow the seeds of resentment between cofounders. When you’re giving your startup everything you’ve got, it’s far too easy to see others’ input through the lens of your own experience.

“There will be disagreements along the way, but the pay-off for making the effort to get things right is immense”

Your cofounder left the office at 7pm, but you stayed until 8pm? Maybe he’s not pulling his weight. Laughing with colleagues while I’m knee-deep in compliance forms? How come I get all the boring jobs? These thoughts can quickly creep in if you’re not communicating properly.

As cheesy as it sounds, you’ve got to develop a dynamic built on trust and mutual respect if you want to stop yourselves falling into the productivity trap. Building a business with a cofounder should be a process of give and take, supporting each other and creating space for each other. It’s not a competition. If Anas and I start to feel any resentment bubbling up, we take a walk and talk about it. Don’t let those feelings fester.

A strong cofounder relationship can be the foundation for your startup’s success. And like any other relationship — it takes work. There will be disagreements along the way (hey, I love him like a brother but we’re only human!), but the pay-off for making the effort to get things right is immense. Nurture that cofounder flame and it will fuel your business through each stage of growth.