Today’s Founder Friday post comes from Devon Tivona, co-founder and CEO at Pana (Boulder ’14).
For the first six months of our relationship, my co-founder, Lianne, and I struggled to work together. When things were good — they were great. But when they started falling apart (as they do in the early days), disaster struck.
We were at each other’s throats. Everything was the other person’s fault. The server crashed again? It was because she was a bad developer. Our sales deck wasn’t working? It was because I was a shitty CEO. Our customers hated our product? I didn’t know how to listen. Weren’t hitting our KPIs? She didn’t put in enough hours.
One of us was a moron—and we were both convinced it was the other.
After the tenth or eleventh heated argument that ended in tears, we knew that just “pushing through” wasn’t going to work. If we didn’t make a change, we would be part of the terrifying statistic that all founders know: over half of failed startups end because of founder conflict.
So, we asked for help. We reached out to one of our most impactful mentors of our career—Sue Heilbronner. I met Sue several years ago in a college entrepreneurship program. Over time, she has grown from a mentor to a friend to an investor to a board member. Sue offered to help us as a “founder coach.” Yup. We were going to couples therapy.
Our first conversation did not go well. Sue ended the meeting like this: “It is clear there is a lot of pain here. I can try to help, but I will only do so if you are both willing to try to make this work.” After that session, it was still hard to look each other in the eye, but we agreed we wanted to try.
Sue began to teach us how “conscious” leaders succeed together through an intense commitment to curiosity, candor, and self-awareness. Slowly, we began to crawl out of the emotional prison that we had locked ourselves in. Lianne and I began to rediscover the intense care, respect, and devotion that had inspired us to embark on this crazy journey together in the first place.
As part of this process, we encountered the 15 Commitments of Conscious Leaders. For me, the most impactful was #15:
I commit to seeing that the opposite of my story is as true or truer than my original story. The source of interpretation is in me.
The source of interpretation is in me. No statement has ever been as transformational to me as this.
Everything — literally, everything — I think, feel, sense, and imagine is processed through my brain, making it my version of the truth. Not surprisingly, this is the exact same thing happening every day inside everyone else’s head. No two people think, feel, sense, or imagine exactly the same, so, as a result, no two people’s truths are the same.
Only when we are conscious of the stories we tell ourselves (and, conversely, the stories others tell themselves), are we able to think and act with empathy. As Sheryl Sandberg writes in Lean In, “when we recognize that we can see things only from our perspective, we can share our views in a non-threatening way.”
So, next time Lianne and I fought, we paused for a second. I had my truth. She had hers. Mine was true for me; hers was true for her. Instead of shaking our fists, stomping our feet, and arguing until we were blue in the face for our truths, something beautiful happened:
We began to try to understand each other. We allowed ourselves to be curious about the other’s perspective. “How did your opinion form?” “What did I do to influence that perspective?” “How is your opinion truer than mine?” “Why do I feel this way?” We began to show empathy.
What unfolded was a series of realizations about ourselves, each other, and the situation at hand. We built a shared truth rooted in our combined interpretations. Most importantly, we began laying the foundation for us to feel comfortable being honest, vulnerable, and candid about our truths with each other.
I have no idea if my company will succeed or fail. I have hopes and dreams about it, but that’s not why I endure.
Long after those dreams fade, I will never forget how we turned a seemingly impossible pairing into one of our strongest and most trusting relationships.
That’s why I choose to be a founder.