The balancing act of being business partners and buddies

Foreword: in a previous article, Surer had shed light on how the growth of their startup was accelerated during the COVID-19 lockdown so they could apply their solution to help insurance intermediaries navigate an arduous, inefficient workflow that was made worse by the pandemic.

Speaking of arduous journeys, the business-building efforts behind Surer and the dynamics of working in a three-man team involved a steep learning curve.

Divergence: The unintended first step

My co-founders, Renfred and Gordon, are brothers. Gordon has been one of my closest friends for over 15 years. The camaraderie was there right from the get-go. We often met at our favourite kopitiam (coffee shop) and had fun chatting about our dreams for the business.

The kopitiam we hang out at. It is aptly named 白家, the first and last characters in the Chinese idiom 白手起家, which means starting from nothing. Photo courtesy of the author.

We visited a corporate secretary firm to incorporate the business. I remember the office felt more like a fast-food restaurant than anything else—take a ticket, wait in line, speak to a staff in one of the many booths. No reception, no nice ambient music. This was the first of many mismatches between expectation and reality!

The corporate secretary firm. On the bottom left corner of the picture is a queue ticketing machine. Take a number, wait in line, speak to a person at one of the booths. Photo courtesy of the author.

The first question we had to answer was this: how would we be splitting the equity?

“Equally!” we responded almost immediately.

After that, we put our heads together to work on the business; we did not stop to think about division of labor. We started running in different paths trying to achieve the same outcome.

Divergence.

We soon came to the realization that “equally!” brings about expectations. And when you run on divergent paths, expectations can be misconstrued. The problem was that we placed different weights of focus on any particular task. For example, I might be overly focused on cold-calling and when I saw that Renfred was not doing the same, I jumped to the conclusion that he was not pulling his weight. I did not consider that Renfred was actually looking at our Terms of Service document.

We would literally take nine tasks, and split each of these tasks three ways. We were living in the shadow of when we first shouted “equally!” We had this warped idea that every task had to be undertaken equally.

Everything came to a head when frustrations boiled over. An urgent meeting was called. We met at the same Kopitiam that once hosted our merry chats. This time, things would take a much gloomier tone.

“I think we should relook how we split our equity. It is not a fair reflection of the amount of work we are doing.” We were diverging so far away from each other that it felt like we might be splitting up.

Convergence: The hardest step

That meeting involved a sobering conversation. One of us even suggested ending the business. For a moment, this seemed like a good option.

We were all feeling jaded and stressed out. Everyone was dealing with personal issues as well. Renfred and myself each had a kid on the way. Maybe the entrepreneur life wasn’t for us.

In hindsight, the value of having fellow co-founders shone through. We eventually snapped out of it and decided to fight on. Whenever one felt like giving up, there would be another to lift him up; someone would always remind the others that the only reason we are allowed to give up is when our users tell us that we are not providing value.

While this divergence created many grievances, it felt like a necessary step. It forced us to have hard conversations early on. We decided to define our roles clearly. However, we soon realized that splitting roles was just a practical way of dealing with day-to-day work. Everyone still wanted to be involved in parts of the business that might not fall within their scope of responsibilities.

Convergence.

We agreed that for a defined set of decisions, we all had to come together for discussions.

Not all of these sessions were full of smiles! Photo courtesy of the author.

Convergence is hard. Convergence can mean coming together or the clashing of heads; and clash heads we did. There were so many instances of us spending hours in heated, circular debates.

We were lucky there were three of us—odd numbers make for good voting. We decided to implement the following process:

  • We would each be allocated time to share our reasoning and thoughts.
  • Afterwards, the other two would be allowed to ask questions and seek clarifications.
  • Then, we would vote.

With this, we realized that many a time, we would end up not voting for our initial views. This reinforced my belief in my co-founders; it was never about winning an argument. We also saw how our different character traits allowed us to get a holistic view of our decision-making. I might be the one who constantly wants to do things that were “out of the box,” but Renfred will be there to remind us where the line should be drawn, and Gordon will bring the perspective of executional feasibility.

In parallel: Our future steps

We are currently in the SG5 cohort of the Antler program. While this whole experience of divergence and convergence felt unique to us, we understood that it was part and parcel of a learning process!

Our coaches at Antler literally celebrate “break-ups.” At Antler, the majority of the cohort is made up of individuals looking for someone else to work with. Many will form teams, realize that they were not suited for each other, then “break up.” To our coaches, this was one of the most important steps of building a successful company. This felt like a reflection of our journey; just that we patched back up whenever we broke up.

Antler opened our eyes to many things, including how to manage ourselves. It would have been so much easier if we had joined the cohort right from the start! Photo courtesy of the author.

While we continue to optimize how we work together, we now have a clearer idea for the best way forward.

Running in parallel.

Running in parallel allows us to work alongside each other without getting into each other’s way. When one is laser-focused on running fast ahead, the others watch his back. The business evolves and goes through different stages. At different stages, one role might take on more importance than the other and someone will be required to run faster than the others.

We learned to embrace two very important things—trust and patience.

As I run in my own lane, I might have spent a crazy amount of time thinking about my set of problems and solutions. However, the other person might not have done so. Patience is important to help this other person catch up with my thought process, instead of assuming that he would understand everything.

Ultimately, it boiled down to trust. When my co-founders shout for me to slow down, I need to trust that they did so for good reasons. And when one of us is running slower, it is not due to a lack of effort, but a sign that we all needed to slow down to help him out.

Without trust and patience, it will be impossible to interact with the same person who is at once your buddy and business partner. If you can trust this person with your life, then why not the business?


Derren Teo is a co-founder of Surer, a Singapore-based insurtech startup. Surer is a cloud-based platform with market-first technology that helps all parties in the general insurance segment automate processes and drive network collaborations, enabling them to provide better service and support to their clients. It is the result of a passion to solve the problems of an industry that Teo cares about but sees in need of supercharging. 

Disclaimer: This article was written by a community contributor. All content is written by and reflects the personal perspective of the author. If you’d like to contribute to KrASIA, you can apply here

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