The founding story of Uncover is long and made up of a lot of twists and turns. It’s always a long and bumpy road for a bootstrapped startup as you work to figure out what you’re building and whom you’re building it with. Uncover was incorporated in February 2012, but work on the product you see today wasn’t started until mid-January 2013. Uncover has replaced an original co-founder, gone through one complete product change and one customer-driven pivot. We’re currently in the process of adding a new component to our successful perks and rewards web app. A lot has happened in what feels like a short time.
This is the story of how I found my Uncover co-founders and what I look for when looking to work with others. Uncover is my third startup and I’ve worked with a total of five co-founders across all three startups. When I first set out to build Uncover, I knew that I wanted to do something in Human Resources. Along with being CEO in my previous two companies, I ran Operations and always found myself infuriated with the web applications I had to use to get things done. I saw a lot of opportunity to make a difference in employees’ lives.
In February 2012, I set out to learn to program and to build a web application for Human Resources folks. Something I always recommend to people looking for co-founders is to “try before you buy” a co-founder. Work on a little side project or hack on something small before you go all in. The guy I founded the original Uncover with was someone I had actually hired at my second startup for a one-month freelance gig. He was a very talented web designer and frontend developer. Not only had we worked really well together during that project, but we also got along well. Not so close that we were afraid of criticizing each other, but close enough to enjoy grabbing lunch and beers together every few months.
He had recently joined Twitter and had just finished dealing with the nightmare that is Human Resources at any big company. He was just as passionate as I was about tackling an aspect of it. We wanted to start small, release something that generated revenue and build on our success. We worked together for ten months on moderately successful application tracking software, but ultimately concluded that this was not the area of HR that we were really enthusiastic about. We wanted to focus on the current employees of companies and not the future ones.
But around this time, he decided to leave Twitter and explore other options. While we had worked well together, this was a natural time for us to go our separate ways, as I had started to brainstorm new ideas for Uncover based on the previous ten months of customer development and research. I just wasn’t interested in tracking resumes and everything that went into that. While I had learned to program from building this web app, my interests lay elsewhere. The two of us at that point actually sold the application tracking software and its client list. It has since been redesigned and re-launched, and three guys are now running it as a side project.
All this while, I had been working out of the office of my current co-founder’s company. The two of us would grab coffee daily – we were the only two coffee drinkers in the office – and we’d share notes. He agreed with my thinking and with the ideas that began to come together in November and December of 2012. I was becoming more and more preoccupied with ways of increasing employee satisfaction. Communicating and finding ways to improve office morale is something that companies forget to do as they grow. They’re so focused on product, they forget that quality of product and their bottom line will improve if their employees’ happiness increases.
Timing is crucial in the process of finding a co-founder, and as it happened my friend’s company was in the process of shutting down. They had had a solid two year run, but they weren’t able pull it off. Over a steak dinner at Quality Meats in New York City, we set out our goals and agreed to work together on the new Uncover. Since we had been “dating” over ~50 coffee breaks during the previous three months leading up, we knew that our thinking on product, team and sales was in alignment.
The two of us took the rest of November and December to brainstorm and figure out just exactly how we wanted to approach building Uncover. We prototyped a few things, did a lot of customer development and used the feedback we received to help shape what we wanted to build. In mid-January, we knew exactly what we wanted to do and began building it. What you see today at Uncover is the first half of the picture. The second half is coming out soon. We chose to split up our vision into two pieces to ensue that we were building something that people loved and would pay for. We’re excited to launch our full vision (hopefully) before the end of the year.
What I’ve learned having had five different co-founders over ten years across three startups is that being on the same page is the most important part of teamwork. It’s okay to have heated discussions and disagreements about product, team, sales and so on, but if you adamantly disagree about the business as a whole, then you’re going to have problems. That’s why it’s so important at the outset and then as you go along to work through all the difficult questions about what each of you wants to do with the business over its lifetime. You can’t wait until you’re months into your relationship to see whether you’re in fundamental agreement. I’m betting my company on the fact that open communication and employee happiness is vital to your company’s success, but you’ll never have a chance to get there if you’re not first in sync with your co-founder(s) about your goals.