Startups and Family Relations: An Analogy

[Editor’s Note: I’ve been digging through old blog drafts a lot lately in my effort to find topics I can write about to keep up the blog-a-day pace while still leaving at least some time for a life. This blog post was from back in January 2006. At the time Masten Space Systems had been around for only about two years, it was still Dave, Pierce Nichols, me, Ian Moore, and Michael Mealling (the original crew). We were still up in Santa Clara, regularly driving up into the mountains east of the Bay Area to test our rocket engines. We didn’t move down to Mojave for another six months. I’m not entirely sure what triggered this blog post, and it wasn’t finished so I’ll have to give it a new ending, but I enjoyed some of the stories, so I figured I’d try to polish this off. I should clarify that at least right now I’m not finishing this off because I’m in the middle of some interpersonal drama, but because I think it’s a useful subject, and a post that should be completed.]

While I was on my mission in the Philippines, one of the lessons I learned was that if one is observant, you can find useful stories or analogies for teaching gospel principles from your every-day experiences. Since my mission, I’ve found that the general case of that statement is also true–many times you can gain insight into one area of your life, your work, or something else via analogy from another experience. In fact, I’ve noticed many times how supposedly “religious” principles often have useful secular analogs.

Before I get to my point I have one quick digression. One of the dangers of analogical thinking was illustrated quite well in a history class I took at BYU. The professor, Dr. Griggs was a world renowned Egyptologist and a Mr. Rogers-esque genuine nice guy, with a very, very dry sense of humor. We were taking a literary approach to studying history, and he was trying to explain a little about Plato’s concept of “forms”. At one point he decided to give an analogy. So, he walked over to one of the guys in my group, Ben. Now, other than myself (I was 16 at the time), Ben was probably the youngest guy in the class. He couldn’t have grown so much as a whisker of facial hair if his life depended on it. But here Dr Griggs starts off: “Ben here is a man”. Obviously flattered, Ben makes a “you heard what the Dr said” kinda look. The teacher proceeded, “if I cut off Ben’s arm, is he still a man?” The class nodded. He continued, “if I cut off Ben’s leg, is he still a man?” Once again, assent. “How much of Ben do I need to cut off before he stops being a man…” All of the sudden, the professors eyes go very wide, but without missing so much as a beat, he goes on “that’s where that analogy breaks down”, and went straight back into his lecture as though nothing had happened.

The moral of that story is to beware of the limitations of analogies.

That caveat out of the way, here was what I was thinking. Today at church, we were discussing how to have harmony in the home, or in other words how to avoid letting normal disagreements ruin a family or a marriage. As we discussed various ideas, it dawned on me how similar a family is in some ways to a business partnership, or the founding group of a business. In a previous post, I mentioned how a lot of business revolves around deal making–arranging contracts that aren’t just mutually beneficial, but a clear win-win (not just financially I might add, there is often an emotional/psychological side to deal making too, but that’s a topic for another day, or a more competent writer). I think one of the other key dynamics, especially in small businesses and start-ups, are the interpersonal relationship of the founders.

To give an example, my dad has started up several ventures over the years. Most of them have failed for one reason or another, but one of his few successful ventures he ended up having to walk away from. The company was a commercial mortgage processing company, an area that he had gained quite a bit of experience in. He decided to bring on one of his best friends as a partner to help run the show. His friend while being very competent, had some real differences in opinion about how certain things should be done, and how valuable certain other things were that clashed fairly strongly. In the end, they weren’t able to resolve their differences, and my dad realized that he could either have a successful company, or he could stay friends with this guy, but not both. So he walked away. In hindsight, many of the very problems that led to the breakup of that company are the same things that lead to the breakups of families and marriages, and most of them center around a few common issues: pride, poor communications, inability to admit mistakes, lack of empathy, anger, contention, etc.

That’s where the original post from 2006 trailed off. I can’t remember what point I was trying to make at the time, but it’s been another nine and a half years, and I’ve seen a bit more of human experience and interactions. I still think that relationships between founders and members of a startup are often very important in the success of the organization. A couple of common issues I’ve seen with strained relationships both in the business world and the family include:

  1. Keeping score–a common thread with both families and businesses is that you’re going to be surrounded by imperfect individuals, many who have different ways of looking at the world, different neuroses, different strengths, different annoying ticks. Inevitably, even the best coworkers or family members are going to annoy you, disappoint you, or in some way do something you disagree with. One of the best ways to destroy any relationship is not learning to let go. Which in some ways leads to the next observation.
  2. Assuming ill motives–humans tend to be pretty crappy mind-readers. It’s natural when someone frustrates you to assume that they know they’re doing something that annoys you, and are doing this for malicious reasons. Unless you’re working with or married to a genuine sociopath, you’re probably wrong. When you give people’s motives the benefit of the doubt, and try finding ways of interpreting their actions assuming good motives, more often than not you’ll find out that their motives weren’t as bad as you thought.
  3. Assuming perfect knowledge–many of the most tragic fallings-out I’ve seen in my life involved one or both parties assuming they perfectly understood the situation, when in reality they had seriously misunderstood some key point. Humans tend to be very prone to misunderstandings, miscommunications. Assuming you’re immune to that failing is really foolish. In many cases, a little humility and making sure that the other person really is on the same page as you are, and trying to understand where they’re coming from can show you that you or often both of you were not seeing things the same way, and that once you understand where the other is coming from, the problem is much easier to solve.
  4. Not controlling ones emotions–something that often compounds many of these other challenges is letting oneself get angry. Most people think that any indignation they feel is by definition the righteous variety. But I’ve found very few situations where I “vented my spleen” where I didn’t end up regretting it later. Emotions and passions are an important part of who we are as humans, but unlike most if not all other animals, we have a mind that’s capable of taking control. The scriptures talk about “bridling” our passions, and whether you’re religious or not, I think you can likely see the wisdom in making sure that we don’t let strong emotions drive our actions.
  5. Failure to see the good in others–Related to items #1 and #2, if we don’t remind ourselves of the good in others, it’s often easy to misinterpret motives and keep score. If you find yourself feeling negatively about a family member or coworker, take a break and force yourself to remember a few good things they’ve done. You’ll almost always be able to find several without too much effort, and you’ll find that it’s hard to keep assuming bad motives about another when you’re thinking about the good another has done. Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is to shift your perspective.
  6. Failure to communicate–also related to #1 and #2, a lot of the time when people annoy us or let us down, they don’t actually know that we feel that way. Just as a robot can’t react if it isn’t getting data from sensors, people can’t even try to change if they don’t realize they’re doing something you feel needs changing. Sending angry vibes at someone isn’t a very effective way of letting them know what’s going on. Taking the time, usually best in private, to let people know that what they’re doing is causing you frustration, and to discuss why they’re doing it, and trying to come to an agreement is almost always better than letting something fester.
  7. Selfishness–a lot of times it’s really easy to see things entirely from the angle of how it negatively impacts yourself. This often leads to a lot of the other issues. Not everything is about you, so learning to “not take things as personally” is usually a good life skill.
  8. Lack of empathy–being able to understand where others come from isn’t something that comes easy for most of us. But it’s a really critical life skill that’s tied with a lot of these others. Just as it is important to force ourselves to remember the good in others, it’s often important to remember that people usually do things for reasons that make sense to themselves. When in frustration we see someone do something, and we’re wondering “why on earth did they do something like that?” it’s actually a good question. We can often learn a lot about how to resolve conflicts with others by taking questions like that seriously. A lot of the time this requires talking with someone and genuinely trying to understand where they’re coming from, what they’re feeling, etc.
  9. Using shared information to hurt–in any work or personal relationship, you end up having to lower your defenses a bit to work effectively with others. That means that if you want to hurt someone you work with or live with, you often know how to far more effectively than someone who doesn’t know them as well. Especially if you’ve taken some of these other steps to try and talk with people and understand their feelings, you will often learn things that could be twisted to hurt. For instance, if someone confides in you a weakness, you should never use that as a club, especially in public. When you’re frustrated and feel hurt, it’s often tempting to try and hurt them back. Trust me on this though–you absolutely do not ever want to do this, no matter how tempting. Those kind of injuries are often the ones that are hardest to forgive.

There’s probably more ideas out there, but I wanted to share a few that I’ve observed professionally, personally, etc. It is true that there are sometimes that you legitimately are in a relationship (professional or family) that is unhealthy and that the only safe solution is to end the relationship. But I think that in many cases, people end up destroying relationships unnecessarily because of some of the issues I’ve highlighted above. Just as these sorts of issues can tear families apart, they can also destroy communities, startups, and any other entity. On the flip side, many of the same things that can help maintain healthy and happy family relationships are also important for maintaining healthy founder teams.

Anyhow, I hope in the rambling at least one of you got something useful out of that.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and is the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup in Broomfield, CO. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
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3 Responses to Startups and Family Relations: An Analogy

  1. ken anthony says:

    I considered the analogy of business partner vs. mate when I was just a lad. I have not been successful at finding either. I am quite aware of my faults, but one in particular is being too generous regarding the motivations of others. Some people really are not good partners. People can build up or tear down.

    My experience is it just isn’t worth the trouble to have ‘tear down’ people in your life. Be kind, but avoid them.

  2. James Robertson says:

    Thanks Jon, this post helped me.

  3. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Thanks James! Glad it helped.

    ~Jon

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