Drift Compatibility In Cofounders

Posted by Neha Palacherla /August 13, 2013 / FounderTalk

This guest post was written as part of our FounderTalk series by Jimmy Jacobson, a cofounder of Wedgies.com: fast, fun polling for the social web.  He is also Managing Director for FounderDating in Las Vegas.

I get a lot of questions about how my cofounder Porter and I started working together to start Wedgies. I’d like to say it began like the plot of Pacific Rim – giant monsters rose up out of the ocean and we were chosen to pilot humanity’s last line of defense in the form of giant robots. That may sound like a more exciting story than the real one, but it’s not too far from what actually happened.

The reality is, Porter and I worked together on opposite sides of the hallway at a startup that had grown to fifty employees.  He was in business development and I was in tech. Our paths only crossed when both our names were on a JIRA ticket. It wasn’t until we started having after work conversations about our real passions that we realized we might be, as they say in Pacific Rim, ‘drift compatible.’

What does being drift compatible mean? Just as most startups require more than one founder, two pilots are required to operate the giant robots in Pacific Rim.  To attain this unity of purpose and movement, the two pilots must have a deep personal connection and the ability to work in sync with each other.  Pilots with this ability are drift compatible.

Two years after we met, we have built MVPs while working full time jobs, been turned down by investors, got traction, raised a seed round, hired employees, made mistakes, learned, validated, and tried again.  Startups and fighting giant monsters have this in common: they both require pilots or founders that are drift compatible.  If you try and do all of this on your own, you run the risk of neural overload and nervous breakdown.

So how can you tell if you are drift compatible with someone?  

Check your egos

My cofounder at Wedgies told me recently that he didn’t think the tech side of our business was moving fast enough.  Of course, my first reaction was to pull up Trello and show him all the stuff that our little dev team has accomplished and prove that we were moving quickly.  But I took a step back and we talked about it without hostility.  Turns out he was more concerned with the way we were prioritizing work and not with our actual work.

Cofounders are drift compatible when they don’t let ego get in the way of discussing difficult problems. Getting negative feedback is tough.  The natural human tendency is towards defensiveness and hostility in the face of criticism.  You can’t fight giant monsters with someone that you don’t believe in and doesn’t believe in you.  

You have shared passions

One of the ways I knew Porter and I were drift compatible was watching how he interacted with my kids.  They love him and he has an amazing amount of patience for teaching and playing with them.  For me, a job isn’t about leaving the house in the morning and coming home at night.  It’s about working with friends and family and bringing them all together.  I wouldn’t have been able to start a company with someone that couldn’t also be my best friend.

You are going to spend more time with this person that almost anyone else in your life, including spouses, children and significant others.  If your cofounder isn’t someone that you can go on a hike or grab a beer with (or whatever it is you like to do outside of work), it’s going to be a long ride.  

There are no secrets

Porter relocated from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas to start Wedgies with me, leaving his entire support structure of friends and family.  When either of us needs to talk something out, we talk.  We don’t keep secrets from each other, work or personal.  

When two pilots are drifting, there can’t be secrets between them.  To run a startup, you need all the data you can get your hands on and secrets limit the flow of data.  The more you share, the better data you both have to make decisions and steer your giant startup robot in the right direction.

Complementary skills

Developers get pitched all the time to work for free on someone else’s idea. Porter was the first person that didn’t just pitch me on his idea, but was interested in coming up with ideas together.  And with our hacker and hustler skills, we were able to execute those ideas well. Add to that list, Porter’s ability to find designers who will work for beer and we were ready to go.

You and your copilot each need to have a set of skills they bring to the cockpit and those skills have to complement each other.  You can’t have two right arms, or a cofounder that is a mirror image of your abilities.  This is why the Hacker/Hustler/Designer paradigm is so popular in startups.

Depend on each other

At various times in the past two years, either Porter or I have been heads down on projects or problems, but we’re both there to support each other. He tackled all of our legal documents while we were incorporating and closing a seed round, and I had to step up and cover more of customer development.  He understands that I want to be home to tuck my daughters into bed, so he takes the evening meetings and cocktails. We’re there for each other.

Startups are hard.  Life is hard. You can’t control all of the circumstances of either one.  There will be times that concerns from outside your business interfere with your ability to execute: family issues, health concerns, giant dinosaurs.  If you lose the ability to pull your own weight, is your cofounder someone who can drive the robot by herself and get you both to safety? Can your cofounder say the same about you? If so, you are drift compatible.

Porter and I started out on his kitchen table, just seeing if we could build something interesting over the weekend.  Two years later, we are piloting our giant startup robot together.  It isn’t the idea we worked on that first weekend that got us here. It’s the fact that we have been able to work closely together, check our egos and appreciate what the other has to offer. It’s because we are drift compatible.