Something that has always fascinated me about startup life has been the view that startups are marriages between co-founders. It makes sense. If you decide to go full-time on your startup idea, you’ll be spending an inordinate amount of time with that person; you might even be living together. Unlike romantic relationships, you can’t run away from your problems — your personal livelihood via your career is at stake.
Romantic relationships, unlike most other relationships, aren’t governed by logic — they are driven by passion and commitment. They can be roller coasters with blissful highs and heart-wrenching lows.
So what is love? One of my favorite representations of love is “The Triangular Theory of Love” developed by psychologist Robert Sternberg. He theorizes that love is made up of three components:
1. Intimacy (attachment, closeness, connectedness)
2. Passion (sexual attraction, limerence)
3. Commitment (short-term: the decision to stay together; long-term: plans made with each other)
With all three components, you have love; any other mixture is a subset of love — like infatuation.
The Triangular Theory of Startups
Given the relationship between startups and marriages, the Triangular Theory of Love can be applied to startup co-founders with a few adjustments to the definitions:
1. Intimacy (attachment and closeness with your co-founders)
2. Passion (for the idea and the startup itself)
3. Commitment (short-term: to stay together as a team; long-term: incorporating the startup into your personal future)
A) Non-startup (N/A)
You don’t have intimacy, passion, or commitment. Non-startups make up most of our relationships; they are simply casual encounters. This could be anyone you met at a networking event, cold emailed, or went to a conference with.
At this stage, it’s important to not write people off. This person can potentially turn into a friend, mentor, or co-founder; you just don’t know yet!
B) Friendship (Intimacy)
You have intimacy. You act warmly towards the person and there’s a bond, but you don’t share an intense passion or any long-term commitment. This might be a fellow founder you openly discuss your problems with over the occasional coffee. Maybe it’s “that person” you always run into at events and can always count on to fill awkward voids. Regardless, you genuinely enjoy talking to them and seeing them and have a relationship, but you’re passionate about different topics and there are no expectations of staying in touch.
At this stage, it’s important not force your startup idea down someone’s throat. Too often, I see enthusiastic entrepreneur hopefuls try to “sell” friends on ideas and bring them on as co-founders.
C) Infatuated startup (Passion)
You are both super passionate about a particular idea, space, or product — and you just met! You don’t have intimacy or commitment but who cares, you’ve been dying to do this idea since forever, and so are they! You’re still learning about the person but isn’t it amazing to meet someone who “gets it” and understands why you’re so excited about the space? It feels awesome talking to them and you can’t wait for the next time you chat. Infatuated startups often turn into romantic startups over time if intimacy develops, so try working with them — this can be the beginning of a beautiful thing!
At this stage, it’s important not to jump into any long-term commitments without better understanding each other. Here, it’s key to build intimacy to determine whether there’s a long-term fit going forward.
D) Empty startup (Commitment)
You are committed to each other but there isn’t any intimacy or passion. In marriages, this is typically the stage where, “even though we hate each other, we better stay together for the kids.” But how did you get here? Maybe you had a falling out with your co-founders, lost passion for the idea, or the startup pivoted to a new vision. Either way, you feel the need to stay with your startup because it’s turning revenue, for equity cliff/vesting purposes, or the fear that you’ll destroy your reputation with the community or investors.
Worse, you might be motivated to stay due to the sunk cost fallacy. Entrepreneurs, unlike most other occupations, require a certain irrational. Some founders don’t know when to walk away, especially if they’ve spent a lot of time on their startup, and would rather go down with the ship.
At this stage, it might be a good idea to consider whether your startup makes you happier or makes you a better person. A lot of first-time entrepreneurs get stuck in this trap, especially if their startup is doing well.
E) Romantic startup (Intimacy+Passion)
You’re passionate about the idea and you have intimacy with your co-founders. This is the startup ideal that’s romanticized by your corporate world friends. You’re living the life! The idea is awesome and you love your co-founders — hopefully you’ll get acquired within the year! You hope the startup does well but if it doesn’t, it’s ok since you’ll have a good story to tell and it’ll open a ton of other opportunities.
At this stage, I think it’s a good idea to make sure everyone’s on the same page. Are we sticking together through thick and thin? What happens if we pivot? What’s our runway? Having these conversations early on, especially when things are sunny, sets expectations and lowers the risk of co-founder meltdowns when you eventually run into speed bumps.
F) Companionate startup (Intimacy+Commitment)
You’re intimate and there’s commitment, but you’re not passionate about a shared idea or startup. This is either a close friend, an awesome co-founder, or likely both. How did you get here? You likely had a startup with co-founders you think are awesome, but ended up pivoting to an idea that you’re less passionate about, but that has better product/market fit. Alternatively, you applied to an accelerator with friends using an idea that had huge potential, but you didn’t really care for. You get in, so you feel committed to the idea despite not being overly passionate about it.
Here, it might be good to figure out whether there is a different startup idea that really ignites your fervor. You love your co-founders because they’re awesome and you want to stick together because you’re a great team, so why not build something you love? Life is short. As Alexis Ohanian says, “[your] resources are best used to help projects that make the world suck less.”
G) Fatuous startup (Passion+Commitment)
You’re passionate and committed, but lack intimacy; it’s a “whirlwind marriage” where your commitment is based of your passion. You just met but you’re willing to commit to them as co-founders because you think the idea is just that awesome. With each other, you have to be unstoppable, right? Maybe your enthusiasm for the idea gets you into an accelerator, funding, or some other traction figure, either way, you’re committed to making this work — despite only recently meeting each other.
At this stage, you should try to build intimacy. Do you actually like being with each other? Does every word that comes out of their mouth piss you off? This might turn into your dream, or your nightmare.
H) Consummate startup (Intimacy+Passion+Commitment)
This is the ideal startup. You have intimacy, passion, and commitment. This is the true ideal that entrepreneurs should strive towards. These are the startups where you can tell the founders are as passionate about the idea on Day 900 as they were on Day 1. They love their co-founders and can’t imagine themselves happier over the long-term working with anyone else. They’ve been able to overcome their few difficulties gracefully, and enjoy being together as a team. This makes me think of Drew Houston and Arash Ferdowsi (Dropbox); Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google); or Brian Halligan and Dharmesh Shah (HubSpot).
If you’re lucky enough to have this type of startup relationship, keep note that it’s harder maintaining it than achieving it. You have to continually strive to translate these components — intimacy, passion, and commitment — into actions. Consummate startup love isn’t permanent; as originally theorized by Sternberg’s Triangular theory of love, “without expression, even the greatest of loves can die.”