Importance of interpersonal communication in a startup

The founders of Reaction Motors, Inc. at their test facility circa 1941.
The founders of Reaction Motors, Inc. at their test facility circa 1941.

It probably seems obvious to everyone that one of the keys to the success of a new venture is effective communications among the founders. However, I suspect many people don’t fully grasp the entire scope of what that entails. While good work-related intra-office communication is essential for a company to not only operate but also grow, there is a much more fundamental type of communication that is equally vital for the founders.

Most startups are founded by a single person or group of friends from childhood or college. This has been the case since the invention of capitalism. One can look at more recent examples such as Bill Gates and Paul Allen of Microsoft, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple and others. One aspect of those founding teams is that the friendships among the founders existed before the business ventures and, in fact, the companies were born out of those relationships. It’s also true that, oftentimes, those friendships bear the brunt of the stresses and growing pains that startup companies, including to the point that the interpersonal relationships between founders is destroyed.

This is an important contributor to the causes why many startups fail. When a business is formed by people who have developed personal bonds, it is vital to keep those extra-curricular relationships healthy. At the core of this is communication, personal as much a professional. If those friendships suffer, it will inevitably adversely affect the business, especially in matter that requires group decision-making. Perhaps more important is the fact that only the founders have the experience of starting the business. There are stresses that affect nobody else except them. The of being able to lean on each other for support, to celebrate the victories and curse the setbacks cannot be overstated.

In the end, from my experience, many startups fail as much due to a breakdown in communications and personal relationships between the founders as for any other reason. This is especially true when trying to forge through the “Valley of Death” when most of Seed or initial funding has been expended and everyone starts worrying and stressing about milestones, progress and next steps. Sometimes one or more founders will hold back on turning to the other founders regarding their fears because one of the things they fear is letting it be known they are afraid. They may also feel it necessary to support the other founders by not letting on how stressed they are out of concern it will only stress out the others even more.

However, that is the time, more than any other, when communications becomes life or death. If the founders don’t communicate – and remember that they started out as friends – the accumulated stress and lack of decision-making is likely to lead to two things. First, the business is almost certain not to make it past Seed phase, even if the founders have a clear path forward. Essentially, people are likely to implode and give up. The other outcome is the high likelihood that the relationships between founders will be irreparably destroyed. Indeed, many founding teams become completely estranged from each other when a venture ceases to exist rather than regrouping and moving onto a new phase for the group, new projects, new ventures.

Does your organization exhibit symptoms of what I described? If it does not, that’s great, but even the closest of teams are susceptible to basic human nature. This is something to keep constant guard against. My advice to all founding teams is to always remember that you had personal relationships before you had a business. Your friendships should survive the end of the business but that will take work. And most of all never stop communicating on a personal level and not just about work but about everything friends discuss in the course of a day. Success of the business venture depends on it.