Culture Startups Workplace

The Anna Karenina Principle For Tech (Or, How To Cultivate A ‘Happy Family’ For Your Startup)

By Saanya Ojha

Whether you’ve read the novel or not, you’ve likely heard the opening line of Leo Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

In other words, there’s only one way to be happy, but there are infinite ways to be unhappy. It’s an idea that captures the truth of many relationships — and many startups. Who knew Tolstoy translates so well to tech.

In my career so far, I have invested across a variety of verticals, stages and geographies — from fintech to software infrastructure, incubation to IPO, and from the U.S. to Latin America and Asia. With every context switch comes a fresh set of considerations.

There are, however, a few fundamental drivers behind a company’s performance. Let’s discuss two of these all-important “happy family” factors.

A co-founder relationship with clearly defined roles

For startups with two or more founders, the fundamental building block of success is the co-founder relationship.

Saanya Ojha of Bain Capital Ventures

The single biggest killer of startups is interpersonal conflict. Research suggests that 65% of startups fail due to founder feuds. That is why most seed investors say their job can seem eerily similar to that of a marriage counselor.

An instant red flag for investors is sensing tension between the co-founders during a pitch meeting. I was in a meeting once where in the first five minutes of the call one of the co-founders introduced themself as CEO and the other immediately cut them off to say they hadn’t decided on titles yet. That brief interaction had more impact on our investment decision than the rest of the presentation.

Startups can crumble under the weight of founders’ egos.

There should be no ambiguity in the roles and responsibilities of the founders so the team can get on with the important work of building the business without distractions. The later in a company’s life such issues surface, the harder they become to untangle.

An exec team that covers the founder’s blindspots

After a certain stage, it’s not a flex if the founder knows every single fact about their business better than anyone else on the team — rather, it indicates a failure to hire and/or delegate. You can not and should not wear every hat in your company because that isn’t a scalable mode of operation.

FTX has become a cautionary tale of what such a failure of leadership can look like at a grand scale. At FTX, not only did senior leaders lack relevant experience for the roles they occupied (failure of hiring), none of them were empowered to challenge the CEO (failure of delegation).

On a more positive note, if we look back at the corporate history of Google, we see a founding team that recognized and accounted for the limits of its skill set. As Google grew, technical founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin saw the need to bring in external leadership to manage the growing company and hired Eric Schmidt as CEO in 2001. This decision was crucial in transitioning Google from a startup to a global tech leader.

In other words, the team that gets you to one stage isn’t necessarily the one that will take you to the next.

Ultimately, the story at the heart of technological progress is a very human one. The co-founder relationship, akin to a marital bond, requires trust, respect and a clear division of roles to thrive.

The executive team, much like a family unit, must complement each other, covering blind spots and building on each other’s strengths.

This human element is the real crucible where the fate of a startup is forged.

Saanya Ojha is a partner at Bain Capital Ventures, where she leads growth-stage investments in cloud infrastructure, cybersecurity and the developer ecosystem. Previously, she was a partner at Coatue focused on growth investments after having started her career as a hedge fund analyst at Goldman Sachs Investment Partners, a long/short fundamental equity fund.

Illustration: Dom Guzman

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