A customer-centric approach to founder-alignment

One of the main causes of  team failure is team members with misaligned goals. If the co-founders or team members want similar things, they will pull in a similar direction. If their goals are misaligned, they won’t. The longer it takes to discover conflicting vision and motivation among team members, the more painful the breakup that inevitably results.

It is never too early to have an open conversation about what each team member, or co-founder is seeking from being in the team or business. When you do this you need to go deep – find out what is really motivating yourself and your team mates. Get clear about what kind of team endeavour or business will satisfy that motivation. It might sound hard but the tools you need are sitting right under your nose.

You face exactly the same challenge learning about your customers. You need to know what motivates them, and what will satisfy them. You know how to get out of the building, step into their shoes, iteratively test your hypotheses with MVPs. (You do know that, right?) You can apply the same approach to yourselves.

The most important customer of your team or business is you – you and your team-mates or co-founders. If you don’t buy what the team or business is offering you, it’s sunk.

Perhaps you’ve heard a conversation like this…

This investment is just what we need to grow dramatically. We’ll have a smaller share but of a much larger business!

Yeah nah. I’m really happy with the way it’s going now and I don’t want some outsider telling me what to do.

or this…

OK so there is no validated market where we thought there was but we found this amazing one over there. Time to pivot.


What do you mean no? This is the opportunity we need to grow our business!

True, but all I want to do is to help the people in that first market.

or maybe just…

I thought you wanted a technical co-founder but now I realise you want to run this thing yourself and have me do what you say.

Some of the co-founder stories I’ve heard sound like romantic trajectories. Co-founder meets co-founder…

Wow, you were the CTO on that!

Cool, you have all these contacts in the green-tech sector!

Intoxicated with the possibilities, these star-crossed lovers get on with the entrepreneurial equivalent of having babies, day jobs and a mortgage. All the while they are basing the most important asset of the business, their relationship, on the worst possible thing: assumptions.

When your team members get meaningful value from the team or business, they will do everything they can to contribute to its success. This means that your team or business must produce whatever it is that your team members want. This is the first thing to get clear about when you are forming a team, and to keep checking.

Of course, when you form the team, the thing you are building doesn’t exist yet. Your motivation does, but not the thing to satisfy it. All you have is an idea about the kind of team or business that will satisfy your motivation – a vision for it. Or a hypothesis. Whatever you call it, if you aren’t all envisaging a similar thing, you have a problem.

So how do you find out what kind of enterprise your team will try to create and why?

Exploring founder motivation and vision in action

If you asked me to help you, I would probably facilitate a participative investigation using enactment. We’d have a person or object to be the business. Each team member would come to work at it (with their passion, skills, experience and contacts) and carry some taonga (a treasure) home to use in their ordinary life. It might be  money. It might be a sense of accomplishment or fulfilment of  life purpose. I would invite each team member to bring, dramatically, their significant others into the room and explore the influence of those people on their motivation. What would your spouse say to you about this? And your kids? What about your parents, that teacher or grandparent? Who are your role models? What are the life events that formed the way you think about business?

Then we’d create a living instance of the kind of business that would satisfy those motivations. We’d enact events in the life of the business, interactions with its customers and investors that typified how each team member would find life-scale fulfilment. We’d have fun and do a proper job. Each team member would witness and assist their colleagues in a thorough exploration of their motivation. You’d learn about yourselves and each other. You’d learn to see things through each others’ eyes, and to speak in each others languages. By revealing yourselves to each other in small steps and receiving positive response, you would build trust – things that will get you through tough spots again and again. We’d document.

But if you are a fledgling startup or team, you probably can’t afford this. You can’t afford to do nothing either. Here’s how you can research your founder motivation and vision on your own.

Think about your team members as customers

Your team makes products or services for users, and customers pay for those. You are used to thinking about your business model in this way. Apply that same thinking to your team members. Your team members pay with their time, expertise and enthusiasm. What does the team produce that each team member takes with them into their life? They take some home every day or week, and take some when they leave. Some teams pay their team members. All teams create intangible things for their members.

Document a profile of your team members. Describe the problems that they have and what they do now to try to solve them. Learn the terms that they use to talk about what they want and why. This is regular customer research.

Catalogue the things that each team member is seeking to take from the team. Just like with regular users, understand how the team members will use what they take from the team. Sam wants money to buy a house. Nic uses evidence of the social good created by the team to gain a sense of meaning. Jo is starting a new career and needs a track record to get it moving. Some people want to help a community they care about or fulfil a dream they grew up with. Some people respond to the influence of others in their life — a partner, parent or role model.

Then make an MVP. Write a description of what the business looks like when it’s done. Get each team member to write one. Interview each team member to find out how the business described creates the things that will satisfy their motivation. Compare them.

You could even use a lean canvas to document this. I haven’t tried that out but if you have, or would like to try together, let me know.

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