Note to Estranged Co-Founders: Settle Your Baggage First, Pitch Reporters Second
I posted a story earlier today about a cool company called Bonobos, which makes better-fitting hipster pants and just raised $18.5 million in funding. I did an extensive interview with the founder and CEO Andy Dunn last night and asked a lot of detailed questions about how the company was founded and the early days. At the end, I asked if there was anything else I didn’t ask that I should know. His answers were reflected in the story I wrote and posted this morning.
And then all Hell broke loose in Bonobos land. As far as I can tell, Dunn didn’t say anything inaccurate, and so I didn’t write anything inaccurate. But by all accounts the details of his co-founder’s role in launching the company were glossed over. To Dunn’s credit, he was the first one to call me this morning and ask me to make some changes to reflect what he’d left out. I’ve since updated the original story to explain that Brian Spaly was really the one who designed the pants in the early days, and the idea for how to fix the problem with how pants fit were his. Afterwards the two had a falling out, the accounts of which are mixed and I won’t hash out the he-said/he-said debate that I’ve been dragged into today.
None of this is uncommon when two friends or roommates start a company. Startups are pressure cookers, and in the early days there are daily forks in the road that a lot of founders disagree about. And it doesn’t distract from how impressive of a job Dunn has done taking Spaly’s designs and building them into a burgeoning brand that captured a large funding round from two of the most prominent VCs in the space. And Spaly himself has gone onto fund a new company called Trunk Club.
But what was uncommon about it was that Dunn didn’t lay his cards on the table in the interview, and that I have been dragged into a nasty aftermath, instead of the two handling the disagreement between themselves before or after the fact.
I bring this up to clear up any confusion, first of all. I’m not comfortably continually tweaking a story that dramatically without an explanation, especially since a lot of our stories are syndicated right when they are published, and other things are written based on what we write. But I also bring it up, because it’s an important lesson for every founder team. Lately, I’ve been hearing some anecdotal accounts of co-founders doing everything with a handshake and having huge misunderstandings later on. Have we learned nothing from Facebook’s lawsuits?
Even if you are best friends and will be forever, formalize relationships on paper. And if one of you leaves the company, negotiate what that means, who is called a co-founder and who isn’t, what each of you gets credit for and how you will handle it when someone asks you about it. Because if you are successful, someone will. Neither Dunn nor Spaly should have been surprised this would become an issue when the company was raising large amounts of money and seeking press as part of its customer acquisition strategy. “Why’d you start this company?” shouldn’t be an unanticipated question when you’re pitching TechCrunch, and if your answer isn’t the unvarnished truth, at least make sure you’re all on the same page about what that answer is.