Every human loves a hero. We want a compelling protagonist – a main character that we subconsciously identify with and go through the ups and downs with. Without them a story is weak – mazaa nahi aata (it’s no fun). The case is no different for the startup stories coming out of India – we are primed as people to look for a Renaissance man to reinvent everything from retail to reinsurance. Would Apple's story be as inspiring without Steve Jobs?
Sometimes a founder's counterculture singular journey mirrors the rise of their company. But more often, it's a group of young hostel mates or colleagues throwing around an idea over lunch before finally making the big leap. For me, it was meeting my old college friend Naveen (Tewari, my fellow founder at InMobi) for a drink after work in some Gurgaon mall and ending the evening scribbling down our dream of InMobi while belting plate after plate of anda bhurji (spicy scrambled eggs). Pretty humble beginnings.
But in a society that treats founders like demigods, public recognition is at the level of a celebrity. Once this component of fame kicks on, what you have done together transforms into a tale of personal ownership. Out there, your story is never perceived as a shared success, but an individual one. I remember many of our early media interactions kicking off with the comment that four founders were few too many. It would be better to have a singular protagonist.
But the macho man ideal we had seen in the West just didn’t sit right with me. I had grown up in a collectivist culture in India. Our nation was proudly united in its diversity. Our childhood stories taught us the value of togetherness and community. Our epic fights were won by the strength of our brotherhood. Even our gods came in trios.
My best friends have been by my side for the last 15 years. We made the decision to stay together consciously and deliberately. It’s not that cofounders that stay together don’t have tensions – they just figure out a way to channel that tension. It’s never a one-time effort, but an everyday one.
Like my fellow InMobi employees, I wake up every day wondering, "What am I doing here? Why am I not doing something else?" Then I get out of bed and figure out the answers, along with my co-founders and team. One person is not sufficient to build the world. We all stand on the shoulders of giants. When we're especially fortunate – like I have been lucky enough to be - we get to call these giants our peers.
The opportunity cost is higher for cofounders to exist together, rather than apart. So, why do we stay together? Because leaving would mean never growing, as an entrepreneur or a human being. Because leaving would mean settling for a worldview limited by one perspective for the rest of my life. Because leaving would mean maybe meeting my potential solo but never exceeding my wildest dreams together.
This is not to say that it's easy. We assume cofounders will just work, like we long assumed all marriages just work – without any introspection, communication, and effort.
But much like a marriage, accepting your cofounder for who they are and celebrating it is key to materialising your combined power. Truly seeing my co-founders as the mixed bag of strengths and opportunities they were was a pivotal moment. I began to believe that these people were in my life to help me learn something and be better, not just agree with and facilitate my vision. Every so-called negative turned into a positive. We weren’t just building together; we were growing together. If I had not stuck it out, I would not have had the joy of experiencing the delayed gratification of true personal growth.
This may seem like a utopian ideal to those in the thick of the classic co-founder power struggle. Every company, board, investor, and employee has struggled with it. In a society where we are often written about like Page 3 celebrities, this is a difficult problem to solve. My power is my social currency – why would I give it up?
Moving beyond this fear-generated, superficial mental model is necessary to stay together long enough to materialize the power of co-foundership. Recognizing and defining the purpose of your co-founders beyond what the world tells you is instrumental in making this partnership survive. When we let go of our egotistical desire to be singular successes, we begin to see our co-founders for the magic of their contributions, not as petty competition.
This is not to say that co-founders can’t leave. Or that when they do, it’s a failure or an abandonment. Usually, founders go out to create an even bigger opportunity for themselves or a challenge they can’t resist, like my friend and former co-founder Amit Gupta, who went on to start Yulu which is now revolutionizing the mobility space.
But the reasons for leaving based on your true first principles of co-foundership are what determine whether this is an evolution to be celebrated or an end that will be discussed in newspapers and WhatsApp group chats alike.
Great people leave. But what is the reason you are leaving? What emotions are you carrying while you leave? When you look back 20 years down the line, how would you characterize your exit?
Your reasons for staying together cannot be superficial. It can’t be that you want to be very rich. It can’t be that you want public recognition – you'll get that anyway. It can’t be to get credit for the business you have built together – you are partners, not competitors and your business will suffer if you treat each other like the latter.
It's easy to stay together when times are bad – you need each other. But what about when times are good? That's when your deeper reasons kick in. With superficial reasons, the journey will end because the people involved will always end up feeling left behind. The entrepreneur journey lasts when the reasons are deeper.
Superficial reasons are tempting in a world that finds it easier to measure worth and value using superficial metrics. But superficial reasons lead to real resentments and real breakages. Acknowledging that every founder is the hero of their own story does not mean having to say that they are the only one.
Defining my reasons to stay with Piyush, Mohit, and Naveen for the last 16 years – not because of their superlative skills and intellect, but who they are as people – is the reason we have lasted.
We hadn't come together just to build InMobi. InMobi is a commercial construct. Together, we could’ve built anything. What’s important is that we came together and stayed together to build. Our co-foundership goes beyond the entity we co-founded. It's instead about who we are together – greater than the sum of our parts.
(The article is written by Abhay Singhal, Co-Founder of InMobi Group, CEO of InMobi Marketing Cloud.)