Confounded by Co-founders

1I’ve thought a lot about the roles of a variety of executives in the life of the company for several years now, but there’s still one definition that I struggle with: since it appears that being a company founder is a simple thing, where, exactly, did all of these co-founders come from?

It’s a once-precise term that has become stretched and idiomatic due to circumstance and investment. Certainly, the denotative meaning of co-founder is easy enough: present at the creation. That extends from the Tom and Tom duo at Nantucket Nectars to Ben and Jerry and Seth Goldman and Barry Nalebuff – you essentially start the enterprise together, even if it isn’t simultaneous, it’s still very early days.

But things are getting more complex: I am seeing consultants and investors added as co-founders much later than one would normally imagine, and some ideas that are stretching the bounds of credibility, as well: one consulting company that launched last March has added 17 “co-founders” over the course of the past year, while its husband-and-wife founding team go by “Chief Visionaries.” Which must make for an interesting cap table. You can get pretty far with rhetoric, and we’re all happy when smart people join other smart people, but I worry about that complex a structure when you’re dealing with a relatively small organization.

Not that changes in the founding ranks are unusual as small organizations start to take off – there are many brands out there that gradually shed their initial co-founders as they grow; sometimes they become small notes on Wikipedia or surprising resume lines on LinkedIn. Where they tend to have the most impact is in the ultimate payout for a brand – more than one co-founder has been muscled out of their original company, while sometimes there’s a windfall long after a co-founder pursues something new.

In addition to considerable cash, sometimes there are painful breakups, as we’ve seen from the Ferolito/Vultaggio battle over the legacy of AriZona Beverages. Given the stakes there, it’s understandable, although one hopes it won’t lead to an unsettling Politburo-style scrubbing of some co-founders from company history. (Up here, for example, it’s bizarre to see Eliot Tatelman doing a solo act for Jordan’s Furniture without his brother, Barry; it’s even more bizarre to see them in line for nachos at a Simon & Garfunkel concert, but that’s another story).

But co-founding is more confounding than the term itself. Time, money, and expertise enter the equation. I called up Mike Repole, who is often referred to as the co-founder of Vitaminwater; he’s also known as the the co-founder of alternative sports drink BodyArmor. He wasn’t present for the creation of Glaceau (just it’s biggest brand) or the trademarking of BodyArmor, but he sees the creation of a brand or a company in broader terms. Plants need more than just one root, he told me. Lance Collins was known as the founder of BodyArmor in its earliest days, while Repole was a behind-the-scenes investor. Now he’s running the brand, and they’re called co-founders. Meanwhile, Collins co-founded CORE with another partner, music producer Dr. Luke. (To my knowledge, Collins himself has yet to get a songwriting credit, which smacks of an unfair deal.)

One thing I learned from the discussion, though, is that early on, it’s good to not be so fussy about roles. Clayton Christopher is another co-founder who might not necessarily be an original founder but tends to bring much on board for brands in terms of funding, experience, and connections early on. Especially given the strong innovation pipeline in his hometown of Austin, there’s a lot of opportunity for brands to reach out to him when they’re ready to make the key tweaks to move from “off-Broadway” in Texas to wider distribution. North of the border, Andrew Black’s company BrandProject specializes in the co-investment/co-founder model as well, getting involved with early-stage companies with money and experience.

So the idea behind the growing use of the term may be part of a larger recognition that growing a brand or a company doesn’t just happen with the birth of the idea. It’s one thing to be the entrepreneur who locates the buried treasure, it’s another to be part of the team that digs it up.

And I can understand that rationale – but that doesn’t mean the liberal arts major in me needs to like it. Maybe it’s a reflection of the times, where social media and fake news are making history and truth even more fungible. People don’t necessarily think their beverage is always truthful (notable exception: in vino veritas) but if you get sloppy with your brand’s history, who knows what other unnecessary complexities you’re going to introduce.

Besides, given the challenges in building a winning company, the last thing you need are questions about who did what, when, conflicts over ego or cap tables aside. Here’s a question: Do you think that Eric Schmidt is fuming at night because the historical record hasn’t been recast to put him down as a co-creator of Google, alongside Larry Page and Sergey Brin? Probably not, and with good reason: he knows that a good Googling will reveal the whole story anyway.