Co-founders, partners, friends, and family

Avinash Raghava

24 November 2022
#Culture #Hiring #Leadership

Raghuveer Kancherla leans to the side and smiles. He’s listening to his co-founder Girish Redekar talk about him. They’re not in the same room. They’re not in the same pin code. But Raghu leans towards Girish on that Google Meet call. The chemistry across the pixels is visible. 

“He has no ego. None. He’s just very easy to talk to,” says Girish. Raghu smiles self-consciously. The two have been friends for over two-and-a-half decades and co-founders across two startups since 2010. They built RecruiterBox and sold it. Now, they’re building Sprinto. Girish and Raghu are a rare founder group that has stayed together. Their story is similar, if not the same, to Rocketlane’s Deepak Bala, Vignesh Girishankar, and Srikrishnan Ganeshan. But these stories are rare. 

Founders after building out their company tend not to stay together. Be it friends or spouses. There are no numbers, but anecdotally, we all know of those who have fallen away. There is a simple reason: building a company is hard. It takes a toll and people react to the pressure and the struggles differently. This causes fault lines that always existed to become wide valleys. And if the company fails, it’s like the death of a child. The incident is so traumatic, partnerships of any kind melt away. There’s no one at fault here. It’s the risk you take. 

But that doesn’t mean you do it all alone. Starting up is hard. Doing it alone is harder. It gets lonely and there’s no one to volley problems with. Even the senior-most leader won’t be able to be that sounding board and confidant that a co-founder can. So, what’s the middle ground? Are there first principles to this? Is there a right way to co-founding? In my conversation with all five of them (small sample size, I know), I think it all comes down to one thing: trust. 

One of the reasons Girish claims Raghu has no ego is because of trust. Raghu invariably trusts that Girish will plot the path through a maze. And Girish trusts Raghu will find the resources to come out the other side and win. 

Deepak, Vignesh, and Sri are no different. The camaraderie that the three share with each other shines in the way they talk to and about each other. “We always let each other challenge our decisions, but we have clear swimlanes on who handles what. There may be strong opinions, but, say if it is a product decision, the buck stops with Vignesh. Whatever he decides, we go with it,” says Deepak. And Sri nods. The three speak almost in unison. 

Founders of Rocketlane — Vignesh, Deepak and Sri

So, what is it that these founders are doing right? How is it they have so much trust in each other’s abilities? One answer lies in the longstanding history that they share with each other. The second answer? It lies in something Sri says. “It is knowing that each one of us is a good person at heart.” 

This is an association that dates back a few decades for Raghu and Girish, who’ve been friends since college. For Vignesh and Deepak, it started when they were precocious 10-year-olds in school. The secret sauce for this easy chemistry the founders share lies in their history. It means they have seen each other through successes and failures. They’ve seen each other fall in love, get married, and burn out but not give up. They know each other’s core. They know each other the way one would know a spouse. In fact, this is a joke shared between Raghu and Girish. Raghu bursts out laughing as he admits, “my wife says Girish is my first wife”.

Don’t be afraid of a fight

People are afraid of fights. They feel it is the start of the slippery slope. It’s fear. And like many fears, it is unfounded. But you can’t ask someone who is afraid of the dark just to stop. They need to emerge from those fears themselves. Fights are one of those fears. Founders need to understand that it helps creativity, it encourages people to express themselves and be vulnerable. 

But let’s frame fights differently when it comes to solving a business problem. There’s a popular phrase in Zomato, which has now become part of folklore. “Argue with the whiteboard or the problem, not the person.” 

It is something that requires maturity of mind and thought to follow through on. Though they don’t follow the precise Zomato model, they have their own thumb rules. 

“We have something we believe in. Whatever we do, we have to do it well. If that is happening, we know how to not let the rest bother us,” says Raghu. 

The team at Rocketlane has a similar idea. The arguments from the evening before are killed by the morning light. This doesn’t come naturally. The founders at Rocketlane had loud, angry arguments many years ago. 

In the early years, before the trio even started conceptualising Rocketlane, they were building a B2B product called Phone On. Their visions for the product were aligned. But the product failed. It didn’t deliver the results they were hoping it would. They had to figure out what went wrong with it. So, they returned to the basics—first principles thinking. When they broke down their product building into pieces, they realised they weren’t as aligned with their ideas for the product as they thought they were. And arguments ensued. 

“This was one of our first ones. I left the office wondering what’s going to happen here next?” says Sri. It was an uncomfortable night. He felt the darkness. He entered the office the next day expecting the worst. “But it was like any other work day,” he says. And the trio realised they had stumbled on to something. “The incident set the tone for how we will operate,” explains Sri. Deepak and Vignesh agree. That incident told them the foundation for their relationship as founders was one that would stand the test of time. As Deepak puts it, “there was no looking back.”   

For the founders at Sprinto, there was no one large moment. But a series of smaller things.

“Girish and I argue a lot about things. But then, a lot of times, ‌whatever Girish has said turns out to be true. In moments like these, I pause and reflect. Once you’ve had enough arguments you realise that Girish simply is better at certain things, and it would be easier to rely on him to take those decisions,” Raghu says. 

Lean into your strengths

We glamorise our founders. They’re tomorrow’s titans and we big them up. They’re larger than life. But they go through deep dark cycles of self-doubt. And they come out of the other end by relying on each other’s strengths. Raghu says Girish is more intuitive, so he makes the early decisions, and he takes over when it is time to scale. “Girish got the first 100 customers. Then when it was time to build structures, build a sales team, scale the customer base, I stepped in,” explains Raghu. 

And this comes from understanding how your co-founder operates. Raghu admits that Girish intuitively knows how to work in areas with low information. He needs all the information he can get.  

Founders of Sprinto — Girish and Raghu

At this point, Girish chimes in, but not before apologising for the interjection. He says he would rather have people who are smarter than him managing specific areas of the company and taking the onus of the decisions they make. “Building a startup is like taking a thousand decisions a week. Now you could view this as having more power, or control. But, honestly, it’s just more decisions coming to your plate,” he adds. And states emphatically, “that’s no way to grow a startup”. This conversation doesn’t end without a wise note for other founders to bear in mind. Decision fatigue is real, and it’s best avoided by relinquishing control. 

Sri, Deepak, and Vignesh have a similar way of working. They identified each other’s strengths and then let them run things the way they thought was right. At the end of the day, the product, the customers, and the tech speak for their chemistry. 

It’s not the journey or the destination, it is the people

Everyone has their own way of building a company. Some think of it as a professional pursuit. For others, it is their life’s mission. There is nothing wrong with either. But when it becomes a life mission, work doesn’t stop when the laptop is switched off. It extends to the family. 

Mindtree had this interesting way of maintaining camaraderie. They would organise a monthly dinner party between the founders and their families. Effectively, it would feel like the family was building the company. Because everyone sacrifices a little in the pursuit of a great company. You lose time with your spouse, your kids don’t see their parents as often and your parents don’t get the Sunday afternoon calls. And this helps build a deeper relationship. 

The Rocketlane founders have worked hard to be more than friends and founders. 

Deepak’s mother is Vignesh’s mother-in-law’s friend. The two women, a decade ago, had gone to see an astrologer who informed Deepak’s mother that her son would be cheated out of his company shares by his partners. 

Deepak narrates the story, unable to control his laughter. This became a long-standing joke within the company. It’s an inside joke waiting to come out. But think about this joke for a second. It is a testament to their faith in each other. It’s a relationship beyond that, in the boardroom or on that rickety bench in class ages ago. It has evolved into something deeper. 

For the founders of Sprinto, they say they’re lucky their spouses are friends. They had to make hard decisions when they decided to start Sprinto. Their spouses had to give up on their personal professional ambition because Raghu and Girish wanted to build something. And they understood what needed to be done. Even though Raghu and Girish’s name is on the door, their wives are as much partners in this journey as they are. And that has kept them together. 

But at the end of the day, all of these are small anecdotes in a life full of incidents. My time with the guys was running out. 

And I began to wonder where it all started. Maybe there’s a hidden secret in the roots of this blossoming tree. 

The Rocketlane founders started their company because the three were working together at Freshworks, and were inspired by the fact that Girish Mathrubootham had built a global company out of Chennai. They wanted to do justice to everything Freshworks, working at Freshdesk, had taught them. And Rocketlane was their answer. The clarity of their vision comes from this understanding that this company or product is not something that has brought them together, but that they have come together to build it. 

In the case of Sprinto, the founders knew they had to do something together. Something that would stand the test of time and they knew that whatever they built, they would build it well and make it work. 

Sri, unknowingly, speaks for both sets of founders when he says that there are four pillars a company should stand on: mutual respect, deep friendship, alignment of thoughts and goals, and trust. 

These pillars are unshakable. These companies are unshakeable.