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Skill sets will determine co-founders’ duty splits

Co-founders with similar skills and/or experience may have difficulty deciding who should do what when. If the co-founders’ skill sets are very different, the demarcation line is clearer.

So, how can co-founders forestall lost business and tension?

Leigh Steere, co-founder of Managing People Better LLC, a Boulder, Colo., management consulting firm, previously co-owned a training company. She recommends advance planning to cover all necessary skills to avoid deficits, especially when you have no plan to hire a contractor or employee. She advises being “exhaustive and detail-oriented” in developing two lists: functions, such as administration, operations, marketing, sales, finance, legal, human resources and research and development, then individual tasks for each general topic heading applying to the specific business.

Her method works when co-founders are honest about their strengths and weaknesses.


Laura Zander, a 2013 SBA Small Business Award Winner for Nevada for her woman-owned Jimmy Beans Wool, a Reno crafts supplies retailer, launched in 2002. She says co-founders who break new ground may not do advance planning.

“If we’d done this 50 times and known the formula,” she says, “we could have planned. We didn’t know what we were good at. Having worked in a business isn’t the same as owning one.

“We react; we try stuff,” she adds. “We do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. The division isn’t a straight line. Doug and I live in the gray area.”

Her lack of detail imperiled their 401(k), so that responsibility shifted to her co-founder.

“He pays bills, manages cash flow and handles the bank account,” she says. “I like to look at trends, so I manage our books, P&L (profit and loss), the bookkeeping, budget and the spending. I spend the money and he counts it.”

Jimmy Beans’ co-founders share a vision and goals, which enables them to “maximize the strength and minimize the weakness,” Zander says. “We just do what needs to get done. Having complementary skills allows you to work well together in the gray area” — which she advocates when a business can’t afford to hire.

Leslie Ungar, president of Electric Impulse Communications Inc. in Akron, Ohio, endorses this pragmatism.

“If the skills are about the same,” she says, “it’s no longer about skill set but what needs to be (done).”

She cautions people not to “dabble in another bucket” without being asked for help to maintain clearly divided responsibilities. She says this labor division is particularly helpful if a co-founder becomes sick or sells out. It also applies when hiring and training new people to assume identified functions.

Steere says passion and resentment can undermine a business when a co-founder loves to do something but dislikes something else, only to be covering the less enjoyable task.

“When starting an enterprise,” she says, “you can’t do the work you like 100 percent of the time. Be aware of what that is and choose (to do it) while reminding yourself that you’re making the decision to take this on instead of hiring someone. That’s far better than feeling resentful about it.”

Assigning responsibilities to co-founders may be largely a pen-and-paper task for established business owners. Similarly, making decisions on the run may work with first-time entrepreneurs. Whatever you decide, follow through.

Keep communicating as the co-founders gain experience working together and learning new skills. Ensure that the division is based on current knowledge and experience, not past history, as the business grows.

Dr. Mildred L. Culp welcomes your questions at culp@workwise.net. © 2013 Passage Media.

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