Paul Biggar’s first startup failed spectacularly and publicly. He and his co-founder Nathan Chong had made the rookie error of trying to help journalists develop niche publications, a YC venture they called NewsTilt. As a result, when everything imploded, their unhappy customers simply turned around and vented their frustration publicly. Everyone from Poynter to the Columbia Journalism Review wrote about it.
To stem the overflow of negative press, Biggar penned a post-mortem blog dissecting what went wrong with NewsTilt. There were a lot of issues, but first and foremost was the dysfunctional co-founder relationship. In Biggar’s own words, he and Chong let resentments simmer without discussing the problems they had with each other.
They did not communicate well, which led to a huge amount of tension. Biggar served as the CEO, handling customer relationships, and Chong served as the CTO, doing the technical work. After talking to journalists and finding out more about their needs, Biggar’s vision for the product changed. He then offloaded that work to Chong who didn’t believe in the new vision, and didn’t particularly want to start programming from scratch.
“Just like it’s difficult to sit down with your girlfriend and say these are things we need to change, it’s difficult to do that with a colleague or a co-founder as well,” Biggar says. “That difficulty means we didn’t bring things up and address things as quickly as we should.”
The duo broke up, messily and spectacularly, much like a failed marriage.
Fast forward a year, and Biggar was staring down the gauntlet of his next venture. He wanted to build a service that would do continuous integration, testing code for companies before they push it to the public. He knew he needed a co-founder for the undertaking, and a work contact — fellow YC grad Lloyd Armbrust of OwnLocal — had recommended an Austin-based programmer named Allen Rohner. Rohner and Biggar had similar product ideas, and they had separately and coincidentally pitched Armbrust the same week.
Much like a burned lover, Biggar didn’t want to jump into this co-founder relationship too quickly. “I was very cognizant that nothing else in the startup matters if you can’t make the cofounder relationship to work,” Biggar says. He and Rohner decided to each draw up a list of questions, send them to each other, and then go through them on the phone.
“This is like when people talk about having kids together,” Biggar says. “You’re both trying to be very careful that you don’t scare the other person off, but you’re trying to make sure that what you’re saying is compatible with what they’re saying.”
The phone conversation lasted over an hour, and they covered everything you could imagine. Whether they would bootstrap or take venture capital in the early stages, at what point they would consider selling the company, how they would deal with hiring and who owns the intellectual property if they decided they couldn’t stand each other. Basically, who gets custody of the kids if they divorced.
Biggar wanted to do everything in his power to make sure the monumental mess-ups of his first co-founder relationship didn’t happen again. That first phone call was instrumental to laying the groundwork. “The big conversation didn’t solve anything, but it demonstrated we were both willing to work at it,” Rohner says. How were they feeling when they hung up the phone? “Relieved,” Biggar says. “Optimistic,” Rohner says.
Now, two years later Biggar and Rohner’s company — Circle CI — is well on its way to success. The duo has only raised a $1.5 million seed round, but they charge for their service, and they’ve bootstrapped their way with paying customers like Kickstarter, Shopify, Red Bull, and Brightcove. Biggar says their revenue has grown 20 times the size it was last year, although he wouldn’t give specific numbers. They aren’t cash-flow positive since they’ve used their revenue to hire six other staffers. The co-founder relationship is working.
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing. During beta testing, the product they had created was essentially broken. It operated way too slow, and the companies they had on boarded to test it didn’t want to use it. “That was a difficult time because things were in the shitter,” Biggar says. But instead of folding under the pressure, as Biggar and Chong did when the going got tough with NewsTilt, Biggar and Rohner worked through it.
“We were often very bad over email and IM, anything involving typing we would escalate on and get angrier and angrier,” Rohner says. “Then we would walk around the block. We’d realize we had miscommunicated.” Because they had prioritized communication early on, they were able to clear up tense moments without letting resentments fester.
Biggar credits the communication in the cofounder relationship for the company’s success. Rohner credits his pre-marriage counseling he was going through with his wife while starting Circle CI with Biggar. The marriage counselor gave him a packet of expressions to use to communicate more effectively. “It’s about ways to express yourself without pissing off the other person,’” Rohner says. ” I didn’t give Paul the packet, but I started using it with him.”
Rohner didn’t need to give Biggar his packet of communication expressions, because Biggar had his own marriage tools up his trick. “In YC they suggested books to read which were basically how to make a marriage work. A marriage advice book,” Biggar says. “They tell you it’s exactly like a marriage and it really is.”
[Image courtesy Mark and Allegra]