Cofounder · Communication

My co-founder is bad at product management


Last updated on November 6th, 2018

Hi everyone,

I'm the technical co-founder of a 2 years old startup and I have some issues understanding the role of my non-technical co-founder around product management.

He had the original idea and I took him up on his challenge while traveling, as a side project. Upon my return, we thought the prototype had some value, signed a co-founders agreement and we have been slowly growing our customer base (15 customers, 300 users).

The product is a B2B SaaS in a sector that my co-founder knows particularly well and we are mainly drawing customers from his network. I have no network in that sector.

We work from 2 different locations, adjacent time zones, one-hour skype call per week. We are both freelancers/consultants and can work on this part-time while bootstrapping and keeping costs to a minimum.

I have 10 years experience as a dev, mainly in startups but this is my first rodeo as a co-founder. So far, so good.

My problem is I think that

(he has a consultant/service background so product might not be his strong suit) :

  1. he is not good at features specifications: his features specifications are never well-defined. They are "can we just add a button here" kind of ask with no concern/thought for the consequences on the whole product. No quick sketches or wireframes. I explained to him several times how hard this is for a developer and how a little bit of planning/thinking on his side could save me hours/days of work.
  2. he is not good at testing (caring about?) the product: he will not take the time to test the web app after I implemented these vague ideas to make sure that it complies with his understanding... and sometimes that shows in the product post-release, which means an unpleasant hotfix for me and a bad/changing UX for the customers.
  3. he is not good at relaying customer feedback: he does all of the talking to customers but will rarely relay the feedback he learns unless I almost beg for it or if he's trying to make me build a feature that I think is unnecessary. I again explained to him how I hate "coding in a vacuum", how am I supposed to develop a technical vision for the app if I don't know where we're going?
  4. he's unwilling to be data-informed in his decisions: I've setup MixPanel and Intercom to help track users and start getting insights on their behavior and improve UX, even for such a small size. Several times now, he has dismissed trends or insights gathered on these tools to arbitrarily kill or add a feature. He argues that such a small customer base is not significant enough... several times now, the "data was right" and we ended up hearing complaints or feature requests from customers months after the decision.
  5. he seems very disorganized. I'm often surprised by the lack of automation in his workflow. He is a regular user of modern web services so I know he knows and can understand how to set up a Zappier or a Slack integration ... but he doesn't and his manual approach sometimes ends up with me stressing out about a data source not being updated, a client not being emailed, etc. I'm concerned that we keep missing insights and opportunities because of his lack of organisation.
  6. he often takes shortcuts but is unwilling to deal with the consequences. For instance, when we set up our free trial + subscription page, I wanted to take a couple days to integrate the subscription service with our database so that customers who pay can access the app directly. He argued that we could easily keep track of the new subscriptions, flip the switch manually. I caved. As a result, we had 2 instances of clients paying and wondering why the hell they cannot see an update in the app... which ended with me (he was not available) dealing with the manual data update.
  7. he is not willing to learn the skills he doesn't have: he's good at sales and customer research, refining the value proposition ... but I sometimes feel that a lot magically becomes a "tech thing" that falls on my lap (building the marketing website, adding Zappier/Slack integrations to automate a workflow, setting up the billing portal, etc).
  8. he doesn't want to be a CEO: he keeps saying that, in the future, he will not be the CEO but will "hold the vision". I know CEO and founder are 2 different things for 2 different kind of people, and thats ok, but right now, we are (I am?) in the weeds, and I don't need an "idea guy", I need someone who gets shit done!

I'm still keen on developing the company, the technical challenges & sectors are exciting and I'm having a lot of fun coding it & learning. I take pride in my craft and it bothers me that (what I see as) his shortcomings show in the final user experience.

Technical co-founders, have you been in a similar situation? How/should can I convey my needs better? Have you had to train you cofounder in working with you?
Non-technical co-founder, am I unreasonable? What do you think a non-tech co-founder should be accountable for on the product side?

Any articles, books, resources I could send him to teach him better product management? Or is it a lost cause?

EDIT : To anyone who advise to hire a QA or PM or "someone to complement his skills", this is not in the cards for now. We are going the bootstrap route and are mainly working with a UX/UI guy friend in exchange for a small amount of equity.

Thanks for reading me, looking forward to your answers!

Steve Owens Startup Expert

November 5th, 2018

Its not about what he is NOT good at.

Find out what he IS good at.

Make sure he primarily works on what he is good at.

Ignore what he is not good at.

Find other people to compliment his skills.

Jothi Kumar Bio

November 6th, 2018

My point of view

Since you are the technical co-founder you should be the Product Manager (you are just a person who writes code) as he brings in the business he should take care of business which he is good at.

Get the data what he has and you need to build on it, if needed request for customer meetings to review, most of the customers if they are really interested in product they would spend some time with you on their expectations.

As a outsider I feel all the things or most of it could be taken care of by yourself as a technical person. Provide a framework and process for him to follow make it easy for the business person. It would not be a lost cause if you are taking step up and fill the void.

Good luck. Let me know if you need to discuss further.

Craig Conlee

November 6th, 2018

Share this with him, immediately or it will get worse. I am sure there are books and whatnot that can help, but, you just answered your own question by sharing this with us. Seriously, you had crafted this message to all of us perfectly. Communication is key and you are doing it well enough for us to read and understand. Most of the time like any relationships, being upfront and forthcoming with issues is the “captain obvious” thing to do. Yes, you can buy books on this sort of stuff, but you are wasting your time. Just be honest. If you get push back, run.

Damilola Boiyelove Growth, Kazien

November 6th, 2018

Here's my thought on the subject. You've made a good point of evaluating your co-founder to clearly layout his short comings and how to would affect the product growth. What I think you need is a quality assurance officer and another product manager. It occurs to me like your visionary has either lost his vision for the product or is not inspired by the quality of progress you both have accomplished over the years. Not wanting to be the CEO is often a request made by visionaries with multi visions. They often have multi-ideas they are looking to explore. They are what we'd call the adventurer; they journey with you for a while and often Branch out to explore new paths. Here's what you could do. Understand your Co-founder's interests and find a way to tie this product to it. Let's rephrase the problem What you think you have is an unparticipating co-founder. What I think you have is a #1 customer who has lost interest in your product line but is still sticking around to see if anything would spike their thrill. How you can fix this Marketing; Before then strategically take all heavy chores off his hands and delegate to specialized persons. This is so your co-founder can be able to experience the product as a customer. He is your now your main test subject. If you can wow him to regain his interest in the product-line, you can wow any customer you hit anywhere

Dory Zidon CEO at SafeWallet

November 5th, 2018

Great question man!

So many points too.

@Steven Owens great answer!

Ok maybe start by listing all that he is doing well, I would even dare to say that some of these weakness also have brought you guys to where you are.

However I don't know the situation well.

So maybe start by focus on 1-3 main good ones, and 1-3 bad ones.

Then do a little RoR chart, this way you re-group on what he does best and find others to do the other 1-3.

Good luck!


Last updated on November 6th, 2018

Thanks all for all the answers, this is already super helpful!

Hiring someone is not an option at this stage. We chose the bootstrapping route and we've been getting help from a couple friends in return for small equity, on a project basis.

We could potentially bring a QA/PM/UX type person as a cofounder, I'll keep that in mind.

The UX person we worked for in the past few months mentioned a few times that he also needs customer feedback in order to progress & a better approach to data. But that person had to leave us due to personal reasons.

I guess what is puzzling to me is the mismatch in philosophies between him and I ... I'm the kind of person who will always make sure that my coworkers knows/can search for information they need so that I'm not a bottleneck, no silos.

It seems that this is not a priority for him, am I supposed to guess the product roadmap and UX feedback?

I'm afraid I'm going to burn out trying to solve this issue and deep down, I don't really feel anymore like its my problem to solve.

This article was an eye opened too

Jothi Kumar, I have tried to "train him" into writing user stories, created a shared spreadsheet for features prioritization, created a few slack channels to post customer feedback, etc... It seems to work for a couple weeks/months and then, we revert to the old way. I feel like I really try to make it easy for him and be respectful of his time and needs, but I don't feel like mine are being taken care of. Which starting to makes me think that he'd rather have a code monkey rather than a cofounder.

As for stepping up and become the PM, how would you go about that without knowing the sector, the lingo and the customers? This is what has been stopping me so far.

Craig Conlee, you are right. I should share my concerns with him and I will. This whole thing made me self-doubt my abilities as a dev and product person, and I wanted to check that I wasn't being unreasonable or self-centered. By the look of responses, it doesn't look like I'm expecting anything out of the norm.

Sunil Gupta Product Manager

December 22nd, 2018

TL;DR: I think he doesn't have it in him to do the grungier part of the work that is required to reach "end game".

I think you're suffering from working with someone that is not willing to roll up his sleeves and reach "end game" (i.e., has what it takes to reach 100% instead of trailing off at 90%, or 50% in this case). He seems to be willing to do the "fun" part of the work but not the grungier back-end part of the work. For example, he talks with the customers but doesn't have it in him to succinctly document the valuable feedback and convey it onward. He's willing to postulate about feature specification but not get detailed enough to have a high probability of being right. He's willing to (vaguely) offer product specifications but doesn't bother to actually open the product, test it, and be familiar himself. That last one to me is a classic sign of a PM that doesn't do the less glamorous, second part of the job.

I personally don't think this is the type of nature you train. It's not impossible, but being like this is a sign of what he's disinterested in doing, and that's innate.

Maninder Gill Founder CEO,

November 6th, 2018

There must be a very clear division of work between the 2 of you. I have mostly seen that product is generally handled by the technology founder, but I think it should be handled by the person who understands the customer and their needs more. The one who's been closer to the problem you are trying to solve. The other benefit of keeping product and tech in different hands is that it allows less room for bias. In your story one must focus on business and the other on tech. My comments on your points:

1. Feature specification - understand the problem/use case from him and writ the spec yourself.

2. Testing - If he is defining the problem statements then to must test to ensure it solves the problem as well.

3. Relaying customer feedback - there is no way around this. He has to learn how to be good at this. In software, particularly SaaS - companies who come on top are the ones who can articulate their customers problems the best. A gap here is bad.

4. Not Data-Informed - there are people who like data and then there are who don't - its generally good to have both numbers and some gut feel mixed into all decisions.

5. He seems very disorganized - Its also probably why he does not want to be the CEO :) because in my opinion the CEO is the "Chief Organizer". Here also, there are people who are organized and other who are not. Some of my best creatives team members are the most disorganized chaps I have worked with. Ask him to be organized enough to not let his work get affected.

6. Shortcuts - all early stage companies take shortcuts. As long they are not creating a large fires, they are probably helping you run faster. Also never take shortcuts in something that is fundamental. But yes - you must deal with all shortcuts that you have taken :).

7. Not willing to learn - He sounds like the type who is not good with technology. You will be surprised how technical "setting up a billing portal" sounds to a sales guy. My best sales guy (heads sales) and I were taking a coffee from the fancy vending machine we bought for the team - All different types of coffee and tea - the works. You know what he said to me - "Why can't they just put one button on this damn thing" :). If you are drowning with work ask him to take up a few simple things.

8. He does not want to be CEO - he does not sound like the type to me. Now here is the problem. I think one of you must be the CEO for the short term - at least until your company is taking shape. A CEO must be able to relate to the vision of the company a and build upon it, has to be organized (and super organized when you team grow bigger), must know how to sell/pitch (CEO may not necessarily do sales but for sure do a lot of selling).

Hope this helps !!

Tanishq Ambegaokar CEO, Skyber Cloud Technologies Private Limited. Dreamer. Achiever.

November 6th, 2018

Hi there, I understand your plight here. It has always been a thing. I am Tanishq btw, I am Founder and CEO of Skyber, we are also a B2B based Fintech company. To be honest, the first things you need to get right is your team. Your mindset needs to be stable and both of ya'll should be on the same page. Tbh, I have interesting prospects for technical co-founders, probably we can connect and discuss on certain aspects. Feel free to get in touch with me via mail - or via Whatsapp/Call - +91 9987868736

Dom DaFonte I build products and see if they stick.

Last updated on December 23rd, 2018

I am the technical co founder of an app alongside my cofounder, who is a marketing and sales guy. I act as the product manager because as the developer I have a better idea how the pieces connect. I also steer the technical direction and build out the project deliverables and set their due dates.

he Still gives me deliverables and New features (as a partner in the business he has every right) and I either embrace them or offer my guidance on why it doesn’t make sense from a technical perspectivE.

My feedback to you? Sit down with your cofounder and layout who will take on which role and the time commitment from each of you. It sounds like you have an underlying issue with his commitment compared to yours.

You could take on the delivery, peogram management and feature specification and he could take on sales and marketing and help with testing (with a test plan you both agree to)

You may not agree with me but sales and marketing does take a lot of time and a certain skill that us technical guys may not have or appreciate. Having 300 customers (even if they are from his inner circle) is a big feat That shouldn’t be slighted.