4 LA startups that believe two leaders are better than one

September 22, 2016

The dynamic between a leader and their employees is often discussed, but rarely do people talk about how leaders interact with each other. No two tech companies are alike, especially in LA, and many startups are eschewing the traditional CEO, CTO and CMO system for something that highlights how strong the relationships between people are. 

Leaders from four LA tech companies shared why they chose their leadership systems, and how their relationships with other leaders in their organization drives innovation.

 

Since Thrive Market was founded in 2013, the LA company has operated independently of what may be considered a traditional business structure. Co-founders Nick Green and Gunnar Lovelace share CEO duties, and the two bring a passion for making the world a better place that has the company in the news on a regular basis.

From Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Nick Green 

When did you decide the position would involve two people?

We decided to split the Thrive Market CEO role as soon as we realized the scale, scope and rate of change of its responsibilities. We're both serial entrepreneurs, so the challenges weren't entirely new, but they were certainly more demanding from day one. Dividing and conquering was rooted in many of the same compliments we found in each other as co-founders. Nick could focus on operational efficiencies or fundraising while Gunnar landed partnerships or honed our affiliate marketing strategies, to name just a few. Essentially, the co-CEO title was merely an outward identifier of the internal delegating we were already doing by choice and by necessity so that we could keep firing in all cylinders. 

How are the roles differentiated?

The "who handles what" question is one that, understandably, we get a lot. Everyone's heard of businesses (or been part of a business) where there are constant power struggles at the executive level. Having built organizations at a smaller scale, we were sensitive to the effect this could have on the morale and culture of the company, so as co-CEOs we've tried to be explicit in delegating based on whose skill set is most appropriate at that moment for a team, project, or individual. At a high level this has meant that Gunnar oversees anything related to digital marketing, affiliate or brand partnerships, and social advocacy while Nick manages the operational, merchandising, member services and investor relation portions of the business.

From Co-Founder and Co-CEO, Gunnar Lovelace 

What is communication like between you and Nick?

The success of our partnership and ultimately the success of the business is derived from a deep mutual respect we’ve carefully nurtured and developed, and our willingness to talk through any issue fully and completely. We have a fundamental understanding that our decisions are always grounded by a desire to do the best thing for the company. Over time, this created a bedrock of trust that when issues arise, as they inevitably do because we’re human and making complex decisions in a very fast moving environment, we talk through it. We’ve built up such a high level of trust and respect for one another, that we’re uniquely able to quickly, honestly and methodically make decisions that have significant impact on the business.

How would your day-to-day change if there was just one leader?

The dynamics created from our relationship allow us to do so much more and with so much more speed. Specifically, our relationship has really informed Thrive’s culture, which we credit with much of the business’ success. As we’ve brought on other co-founders and senior leadership we’ve been mindful to continue to nurture a culture of personal responsibility, active listening, positivity and performance that’s grounded in honest and direct communication. Giving and receiving direct feedback is sometimes difficult to do, but it’s essential to our ability to work through the challenges that exist when you’re operating at scale. The trust and respect Nick and I have developed together serves as a tuning fork and guiding principle for the culture of the business. There is absolutely no way that, as a business, we could move as quickly and efficiently with one leader.

 

FieldTest, a marketing technology company focused on innovating content marketing strategies, has a truly unique co-founding team — brother and sister Peter Luttrell and Heather Luttrell. To this day, the founding team is focused more on the product than individual titles.

From Co-Founder and CEO Peter Luttrell

When did you decide the position would involve two people?

Day One. We’ve always been a divide and conquer type of team.   We work for outcomes not for titles. We both have strengths and interests and that usually drives how we decide to task ourselves. We often joke with each other that our titles should be swapped.   We both take on leadership roles appropriate to the chief executive and the chief of operations. For us the title of co-CEO felt like an optics headache. We prefer to share responsibility but carry titles that reflect the greatest amount of cross over with our day-to-day jobs.

How are the roles differentiated?

While there is a lot of overlap we tend to lead where our strengths are. Generally, Peter spends more time focusing on messaging and product while Heather spends more time focusing on the business operations and partners. When you zoom in on our process, we are collaborative and often hand off tasks when it makes the most sense. On all the stuff that matters we build consensus with our team and then put our influence and management behind it.

What is communication like between you and Heather?

Because we are siblings it has always been organic. We get along well and naturally respect the perspective of the other. We’ve worked together now for well over a decade we often think in parallel. We are working to solve the same problems at the same time and come together to compare approaches. We try to be decisive when decisions need to be made and action-oriented in our discussion. Our shared background provides tremendous trust which means we can move super quickly with decisions or with solving disagreements.

How would your day-to-day change if there was just one leader?

It just wouldn’t be as fun. We are in the enviable position that across our company we have a team with so many years and successes together. There is a shorthand that exists between us that could not easily be replicated.

 

Nix Hydra co-founders Lina Chen and Naomi Ladizinsky have built one of the leading mobile gaming studios in LA, and they did so by using a combination of W3 schools and YouTube videos to get to the point where they were comfortable writing code. While Chen holds the title of CEO and Ladizinsky is the chief creative officer, the duo makes decisions on the company's direction together.

From Co-Founder and CEO Lina Chen

When did you decide the position would involve two people?

From the very beginning! We started the company together and have split leadership ever since. 

How are the roles differentiated?

Lina as the CEO is always focused on making sure there’s enough money, there’s a good team and that we are going in the right direction as a company. 

Naomi as the Chief Creative Officer is heavily product focused, but the team and the company direction are very related to product, so there’s quite a bit of collaboration. Also, we like to stay flexible and adaptive so our roles evolve as the need arises.

What is communication like between you and your colleague?

We are very different people, so we make an extra effort to stay on the same page and avoid assuming when we use the same words that we mean the same things. It helps that we carpool to the office together and have known each other for over a decade.

Given that you are both focused on the direction the company is going in, how would things look if there was just one position focused on growth?

It wouldn’t be possible for one person to cover what both of us are doing, but if all the leadership tasks were consolidated it would mean we would have to have a very tiny team! We actually need to break out leadership roles to more people.

 

Helpr isn't the first venture for co-founders Kasey Edwards and Becka Klauber Richter. The two previously ran one of the premier boutique babysitting services in Southern California, and that was preceded by the two growing a babysitting service while college students at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Edwards, the CEO, and Klauber Richter, the president, operate Helpr more as if they are parents, rather than the CEO and president.

From Co-Founder and CEO Kasey Edwards

What separates your role from Becka's? When were the roles decided?

We run our company like a two-parent household, where we are very communicative, supportive and collaborative, but each have our specialty roles. Becka has been our President and leading all efforts in the business development arena. I've been acting as our CEO and handling our fundraising, expansion and strategy. We were formerly co-CEO but in the fundraising climate, you learn to eliminate the details that continuously come up in order to drive VC discussions into fresh and interesting territory. 

What is communication like between you and Becka on a daily basis?

We are both very verbal communicators but since we know each other extremely well, having been business partners for 11 years of our 13-year friendship, our talks are often more abbreviated than they were 6 years ago. We tend to text and talk in person more than we email or Slack to save time, too. And we make a concerted effort to make time for our non-work friendship, which can be tricky but is very rewarding. 

Do you think this system would work for other startups? 

We wholeheartedly recommend folks with great ideas and trusted friendships to start companies together. It's a pleasure to work with friends and it sets up a culture of trust, warmth and honest responsibility for the team. Real friends don't allow each other to develop outsized egos, which is great for long term company building. And they can support each other through the dark days of uncertainty in early stage, which helps prevent burnout. Becka and I are blessed to have such a unique friendship but have earned that uniqueness with years of intentional work. 

Some responses have been edited for length and clarity.

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