‘Heated Debates’ and ‘Mutual Respect:’ 17 VC Founding Partners on the Keys to a Better Partnership
Last week, my colleague Lucinda asked me whether we were doing anything fun in Term Sheet for Valentine’s Day. My immediate response was, “What in the history of venture deals do you think Term Sheet could do that would be considered Valentine’s Day ‘fun?’”
Well, turns out there is at least one thing (that we thought of).
We asked a number of venture investment firm co-founders to weigh in on what they think makes for a great business partnership. In other words, how on earth have you been able to stand each other all day every day for so long?
Josh Wolfe and Peter Hébert, co-founders of Lux Capital:
“Turns out we’ve been friends for over half our lives and co-founders and business partners for nearly as long. In hindsight we were lucky the early days were defined by disagreements, conflicting ideas, fraught with fights and frustrations. It takes years of situational iterations and negotiating to go from an irked “What were you thinking?!” to an inspired “Agreed” or “Yeah, you were right”. If two people are identical—one of them is unnecessary: one of us sought out the best that could happen and wore bright colors, the other expected, protected from the worst and wore dark; one of us was more socially aware and easily befriending; the other more impetuous and distrusting; one prepared for speeches, the other winged it; one got up early, the other stayed up late; one was extroverted—preferring people, the other introverted—preferring books. One’s strength was the other’s weakness and eventually a healthy yin-yang balance found its harmony from shared long-term ambitions, shared struggles and a few common foes. Our wives and families play a key role, not just admiring each other but giving us independent personal lives and sounding boards. We pick our battles and let the small things fade. As Lux grew and the stakes got higher, just like the view out of a plane window, the trivial little things that don’t matter got smaller so we can focus on the big ones that do!”
Anu Duggal and Sutian Dong, founding partner & partner of Female Founders Fund:
Anu: “Great partnerships happen when you have two people who share similar values and ethics, but respect each other’s differing perspectives. A mentor once told me that when you think about a partner, most people are smart enough, the more important question is do you have fun and get along? Finding someone who you can spend hours and hours with on planes, trains and automobiles is key. We’ve created a working environment which is fun, flexible and supportive which has worked out for us so far!”
Sutian: “A great partnership is like a marriage — you have to love working together and commit for the long term. As with any partnership, communication is key. Anu is my first call — for any news, good or bad, and just to have a conversation. In any good partnership, the question of, “Am I excited to work with this person, not just today, but for the next 10 years” should be a resounding YES.”
Ken Lerer, Ben Lerer, and Eric Hippeau, managing partners at Lerer Hippeau
“A great partnership comes from a diversity of opinions, mutual trust and respect, and love for what we do. We came together naturally and the team has grown bigger over time, so when we’re looking at a company, there are more points of view. Having worked together for years now, we have a good understanding of what every partner’s interests are and what they’re passionate about. When we disagree, we talk it out. Not everyone has to agree, but we do have to respect each other’s opinions and trust that we’re all on the same team and have each other’s backs.”
Pocket Sun & Elizabeth Galbut, co-founders of SoGal Ventures
“A great partnership is built on the foundation of a mutual North Star — a mission that is driving both of your ambitions in the same direction towards shared goals. At SoGal, our mission is to redefine the next generation of diverse founders and funders. By consciously building a deep level of personal understanding and empathy through friendship, you reinforce the trust and respect of each other as individuals. There are so many ups and downs in building a business! And if you’re doing it right — you’re both personally learning and growing rapidly. It’s important to share the glory, but even more so cheer the other person on in the tough times. By appreciating each other’s strengths, you can defy mathematics and make 1+1=5.”
Brian Singerman, Lauren Gross, and Trae Stephens, partners at Founders Fund
“The best partner is one who earns your respect rather than asking for your validation. It’s someone independent enough to succeed on their own but smart enough to seek out people who challenge them. Good partners aren’t afraid to disagree with each other, and they don’t shy away from a heated debate. You can struggle to see the world from each other’s point of view, but if you never get tired of trying, the partnership works.”
Shripriya Mahesh, Rob Veres and Ha Nguyen, founding partners of Spero Ventures
“The three of us have worked together since 2001 as part of the early product team at eBay, so there is a lot of trust and history. When it comes to decision-making on potential new investments, we vigorously debate, but we also listen and respect each other’s perspectives. Everyone brings a unique perspective and strength to the table: Rob is highly analytical; Ha is customer-empathetic; Shripriya drives for clarity around what the future will look like when the startup reaches scale. These diverse perspectives help us better evaluate different opportunities across the spectrum that we see. We don’t always agree when it comes to evaluating investments, but we agree to back each other when one of us has unusually high conviction around a deal. Once we agree to invest in a company, all three partners get behind the founders 100% to do whatever it takes to help them succeed.”
Zack Bogue and Matt Ocko, co-founders of Data Collective (DCVC)
“One innovative thing that we do for dispute resolution, that may be useful to other folks in long-term business partnerships, is to give each other a ‘silver bullet’ on some key decisions, like one investment of a certain size regardless of whether one partner thinks the other is crazy. Ironically, we can’t guarantee this actually works, since our partnership is strong enough that neither of us has ever used our bullet. Finally, humor is really important — a good joke can really defuse tension. That’s why we keep telling Ocko to learn how to tell one, someday. Kidding aside, neither of us really takes ourselves that seriously, and there’s a lot of good-hearted give and take that diffuses tension and lets us re-focus on the genuinely life-changing technologies we help bring to life at scale. We’re also different people, which we see as a strength in a partnership. The key is to each be confident enough and happy enough to recognize and celebrate each other’s strengths, and at the same time help support each other on things we can do better.”
… and Polina Marinova and Lucinda Shen, co-authors of Term Sheet
“Though Lucinda and I might be the most underrated pair in business, we, too, have some thoughts on what makes a great partnership. For one, we believe in cross-border communication at any time of day or night. We have coordinated Term Sheet at 3 a.m. between New York and China far too many times and never been afraid to send a frantic message when one of us is MIA. We also believe in healthy competition. Lucinda and I are currently locked in a bitter Apple Watch Activity rivalry, so I know exactly how many calories she’s burned from vigorously working on Term Sheet. But the biggest lesson we’ve learned about a successful partnership is that we’ll always have each other’s back — even in the depths of despair.”
This article originally ran in Term Sheet, Fortune’s newsletter about deals and dealmakers. Sign up here.