With a shared vision, irrefutable trust, and a skiing trip under their belts, the cofounders of Voucherify demonstrate what kickass cofounder relationships look like and how they’re built.
Mike Sedzielewski and Tomasz Pindel first met at the University and became friends. They went on to join the same organisation after college, and left their jobs together to start a business of their own. Two years after launching Rspective, a successful software house, they decided to pursue their own product.
Today, their friendship has culminated into a partnership that helms a profitable, bootstrapped company running for the last 5 years. They are the makers of Voucherify — a platform that gives marketers a dashboard to manage and track their coupon campaigns on their own, and offers an API which enables developers to integrate coupons into company software.
Mike speaks to us on the dynamics of the relationship shared by the cofounders — what drives them and what doesn’t, how they communicate, how they approach distribution and ownership of work, how they engage during conflict, and what they’d do differently if they had to start all over again.
Choose the right person to partner with, and invest into the partnership
Finding the right cofounder for your business has always been a tricky job for entrepreneurs. Having something in common other than the startup can be even more difficult, albeit crucial to the partnership. Therefore, it’s easy to presume that Mike and Tom are lucky — they have known each for more than a decade, and Tom was Mike’s best man at his wedding. But every partnership, like any other relationship, needs nurturing.
“It’s way easier to have a friend as a partner. It’s also easier to run the company in this setup. But it’s super important to do something else together. For example, a few weeks ago we went skiing to the Alps — we took our wives, which is good because they forbid us to talk about everyday work! It’s easy to work 100% of your time but that can’t be a healthy thing in the long run — it’s good to take time off from time to time — do sports, have a beer, go for a trip with family.”
Take time to identify and articulate your vision, then stick to it
For Mike and Tom, launching a software house has been a stepping stone towards attaining their larger vision; which is to build a product-based company. They shared the dream of leveraging the programming skills and talent available in Poland, which was mainly being outsourced due to the large number of outsourcing companies in the country. Herein lies the first lesson of a successful partnership — a shared vision. They have always been very clear and agreeable on where they are headed. They want to build and scale a product company which gives them more autonomy, allows them to shape their ideas in ways they think are best, and provides the opportunity to work in a more challenging environment.
“We had no knowledge of marketing, but we were skilled when it came to software and that’s why we decided to have our own software house as our first venture. But the idea was always to become a product company. We decided to work with startups to learn how they work — how they generate ideas, how they do product management, how they sell, how they manage marketing campaigns. And while we were involved in the project for one of our customers, we noticed an unsolved problem that we could solve with our knowledge. This gave birth to our first product.”
This shared vision has enabled them to take tough decisions like turning down partnership opportunities or joint venture requests, and focusing on their goals. According to Mike, it is also important to share the vision when it comes to the product, although this is much more difficult, given the dynamic market conditions.
“The vision for our product does vary with time, but we have a foundation that we agreed on in the beginning and we stick to it. For instance, we are a developer friendly company — Voucherify has an API that is well documented, easy to work with, and we will keep it that way.”
If there’s one thing besides the vision that Mike would have liked all co-founders to agree upon prior to launch, that’d be not chasing short-term profits. But he admits that this too is not an easy feat for entrepreneurs.
“Chasing money is not always the best solution in the long run. It’s super important to find how to generate profit, especially for a product company like ours. It’s also important to do it early on — but compromising for a bigger amount of money coming from a big enterprise is not the best way to go. This is something you can learn with time, it’s not obvious when you’re like 6 months into the product. Retrospectively, this is the thing I would have liked agreement upon at the start. But again, it’s very, very difficult to explain this to someone — to talk about the mindset and the cause for this kind of thinking — you have to be in the business to understand it.”
Get the legalities right, but remember that trust is something entirely different
The cofounders of Voucherify entered into a legal partnership right at the onset. This was something that was important to them, not for the trust factor, but rather because they wanted to be viewed as a legitimate business by their clients. According to Mike, the trust has always been there.
“Legal partnership was a must for us, but it wasn’t a case of trust — you should be able to trust your partner before committing to a legal partnership, notbecause of it.”
Role definition and work allocation should be a natural course of events
Looking beyond the legal agreement, defining their roles and dividing responsibilities has been relatively easy for them. While Tom is a technical guy, Mike has always been into writing and they have each taken up what they do best.
“Tom is responsible for the product mainly, and as a Product Manager, his primary task is to listen to customers — clients are always more willing to share their insights with a CEO, so we put the label of CEO to Tom. That is all there is to it. Both of us have a lot of tasks that are common and lot of responsibility. But he’s more into the technical part of the product and I’m more into marketing and on-boarding. The labels are not that relevant to us. When it comes to ownership and our day to day tasks, they result from our expertise and previous experience.”
Since the basis of work segregation is product and marketing, the ownership of the two departments rarely overlaps. Although Tom and Mike spend significant time discussing, aligning and refining their strategies, in the last 5 years of running Voucherify, they have not had to reassign work areas to each other.
“I believe that product and marketing are the foundation of every startup so role definition is usually a one time thing. If any new areas emerge, like business intelligence or data analytics, our rule of thumb is to delegate it to our current employees or take on a new person for the same.”
To manage conflict, revisit your shared vision and values
The idea that everything needs to be decided by co-founders together despite both having different viewpoints seems to be necessary but challenging in a startup. Cofounders often find themselves conflicting while dealing with these situations. Research states that 65% of startups fail because of co-founder conflict. Do Tom and Mike have a significant advantage as they are friends or does work take a toll on their personal bond?
“It’s easy to work with a friend because you know everything about him, you can assume how he’s going to behave in certain situations, and you know what his values are and what’s important to him. The stage when you figure all this out with a new partner can be troublesome and very demanding. I see that happening with our clients. This is easier — you can focus on the business and on the goals. But it’s not to say that we don’t argue once in a while.”
It is often the nature of these arguments that determines how necessary and integral they are to the startup workings, and if they would eventually benefit the company and the cofounder relationship. Mike believes that the arguments he engages in with Tom are natural conflicts between product and marketing.
“Tom is a product person, so he’s not that open to, for instance, increasing pricing for something because he feels we shouldn’t charge customers knowing that it is something that should be refined or improved. I’m from marketing so I don’t see any obstacles in doing so — we can increase pricing for certain features because I can see that they give so much value to our customers and it would be quite easy to do so. But again it’s talking about stuff from two perspectives — and it’s going to get heated no matter who is talking about it — even if we have two employees talking about it, it’s a hot topic.”
At Voucherify, strategic issues are resolved one-on-one, and usually an agreement is reached to relatively quickly. Besides friendship, what really helps achieve this is their shared vision and the fact that they’re a bootstrapped company. Mike advises budding entrepreneurs to talk through the vision prior to getting into a legal partnership, and lay the foundation of the business on each others’ values. He also believes that running business becomes easier and devoid of conflict in the absence of VC funding.
“You may not be able to put a roadmap for 5 years, that’s almost impossible especially if this is your first company but this foundation and values are very important. I’d suggest reading some stories of startups — how they began.”
“The other thing that helps us is that we’re a bootstrapped company. We don’t have a 3rd party that has interests which are usually short term. We can slowly create a company as we want. Even if there is trouble, we have some buffer coming from the software services part and the idea of failure is not earth-shattering. We can feel the cushion, we’re not going to be left with debts and problems, and we don’t have to work for 12 hours/day (although we do sometimes!)”
Many founders turn to seek external advice for building strong partnerships with their co-founders. However, choosing the right mentor is crucial to the success of this exercise. For Tom and Mike, mentorship came from one of their clients, who encouraged and guided them in a number of ways, even without having anything formal in place. Mike believes that this advice was useful mostly because the mentor knew their values, their vision, and what they were trying to achieve at a personal level.
“A mentor can teach you a lot about different things but when it comes to conflict management, its better they know the persons involved, and the values they share. If they don’t know that then their advice is pretty much useless.”
At Voucherify, the cofounders put down the final decisions in front of the team, so what the others usually see is a united front.
“We convey the decision to our team but it’s not set in stone — the team knows our thought process behind the decision, how we agreed on it. And they can also influence it, because we are not experts and everybody is welcome to provide feedback.”
The founders of Voucherify run their business on the foundation of friendship, trust and shared passion. They’re committed to prioritising their vision over everything else, and doing everything possible to realise this vision. They do not have an exit strategy in place, they’d rather focus on their commitment strategy. For Mike, Voucherify is a successful product, but if it were to fail tomorrow — that would be just another thing in life. What is important to him is to work with committed people, like the team at Voucherify. It doesn’t matter what they’re working on, as long as they’re honest about it and together in it.
Niti Sharma – wingify / Photo by Ryan Tang on Unsplash