Lessons from Stan & Ollie for startup founder duos

I went to the cinema Friday evening for the first showing of Stan & Ollie, a biographical comedy-drama based on the lives of the comedy double act Laurel and Hardy. Starring Steve Coogan and John Reilly, the film pays tribute to the beloved entertainers with an affectionate recreation of their final, ill-fated UK tour of 1953.

A moving look at the burdens and blessings of a creative bond between the two, for much of the time watching the film you feel it’s the real duo, so thoroughly conceived are the actors’ physicality and performances. The film is sincere, reaffirming the charm and inspiration of the greatest comedy duo of all time, the simplicity of their slapstick humour and routines is just so funny – time after time!

Watching their films with a child’s optimism, I always think everything would work out well for the duo, and they wouldn’t get pied or smacked in the face, or poked in the eye. Their catchphrase – well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into – seems to sum up a pair whose friendship survives the severest trials. There is a warmth and companionship to them that is universal and as emblematic of the duo as their bowler hats and their Dance of the Cuckoos theme song.

After a long spell in separate acting careers, they made more than 100 short and full-length films together. Stan and Ollie created a weird, beautiful ballet of physicality and humour. I marvel at Stan’s quiet grace and Ollie’s perfect timing. Their film partnership lasted from 1927 to 1951, but at their very best – with masterpiece shorts such Towed in a Hole, Tit for Tat and Big Business and longer movies such as Way Out West and Sons of the Desert – they created sublime and timeless works of art.

The Music Box, which won the 1932 Oscar for best short comedy, sums up the futility of much of human endeavour. It is a modern-day Sisyphus tale, as two men, totally unsuited for the task, have to move a heavy mechanical piano from the bottom of a steep hill to the top. Each time the piano slips away and goes bouncing back down the 147 steps you laugh as much as you cry. Do they succeed? Well, of course not!

Ollie had a superb repertoire of close-up expressions: his eyes speak of his stoicism amid the despair, registering disgust and frustration at Stan’s blunders.  Hardy’s skill was no accident: it was founded on paying close attention to fellow humans. As a youngster, he had helped his single mother run a hotel and liked to sit in the lobby and watching people walk by.

My favourite scene is the epic custard-pie fight in The Battle of the Century. They bought 4,000 pies – genuine cherry, blueberry and banana –and devised a stunning sequence, which brought pie-throwing to apotheosis. There was nothing but pie-throwing in it, nothing but thousands and thousands of pies.

The modern comedy double act has its origins in C19th music hall and vaudeville. Initially, a man would ‘stand up’ with a comedian, and simply repeat the comic’s lines, developing into what we know as a straight man today.

When Weber and Fields emerged in the late 1800s, the first famous comedy duo, the dynamic had evolved into two individuals bantering and cross-talking. Often, things got rowdy between them and slapstick violence featured. Indeed, Weber and Fields were particularly adept at arguing, and this became a common element of double act routines. The characters on the stage just never got along no matter what, and audiences loved it.

In the early C20th, things took a shift, with Gallagher and Sheen the leading duo emphasising less slapstick and more singing. Then along came Stan and Ollie, initially paired together in 1927 and the inter-play of their double act reset the format.

Their characters were clearly friends, and as unintentionally destructive as they were, you knew their friendship would be intact at the end of every film, despite the frequency with which their efforts met with failure, resulting in many a ‘fine mess’.

The Stan and Ollie model stuck, for Abbott & Costello, Morecambe & Wise. They set the formula for those duos we’ve latterly grown up with – Mel Smith & Griff Rhys Jones, French & Saunders, Dan Akroyd & John Belushi, to Vic Reeves & Bob Mortimer.

I’ve always enjoyed comedy-duo double acts, and I’ve recently been researching the psychology and relationship in them, and parallels with startup co-founder dynamics. Will it be bonding, soul mates for life and success, or the start of melancholy, cold winters of recriminations, slammed doors and sending emails in a cold silence?

Hooking up with a partner launching a new business is just like a comedy duo, you embark on a joined-up hope-fuelled journey towards a bright and optimistic future. Great co-founders can make even the worst times feel fun and bearable, they will sit with you at the bottom of the pit on your lowest day and tell you that it’s going to be okay. This relationship can determine the success or failure of your business.

Many successful companies were built by productive co-founder relationships, their combined skill-sets a successful collaboration. Many were long-time friends, but there is a common trend: the most well-rounded co-founders recognised their individual limitations and respect what the other brings to a partnership. Let’s look at a few examples.

Larry Page and Sergey Brin founded Google (1998), meeting at Stanford’s PhD program in 1995, but they did not instantly become friends. During a campus tour, Brin was Page’s guide and they bickered. Despite their quarrel, they worked on a research project together, The Anatomy of a Large-Scale Hypertextual Web Search Engine, which became the basis for Google.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple (1976). They became friends at a summer job, Woz was busy building a computer, and Jobs saw the potential to sell it. Why did their partnership work? Woz admits that he never thought to sell his computer model, that was all Jobs. Woz’s technical skills paired with Jobs’ business foresight makes the two an ultimate business match.

Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard came together in 1939. Classmates at Stanford, following graduation, they went on a two-week camping trip, and became close friends. Shortly after they started HP. Why did their partnership work?  They were best friends that clicked because they had complimentary strengths and were driven by joint-achievement, not personal success.

Francis Jehl was Thomas Edison’s lab assistant at the Menlo Park research facility as an eighteen year old, straight from school. After the completion of Jehl’s first assignment, Edison noticed Jehl’s work ethic and was so impressed that he started to work collaboratively. Whilst Edison regarded Jehl as a co-founder, not all entrepreneurs need an ally.

Research shows start-ups with co-founders are four times more likely to be successful than those going solo – a strong case for forming a double act. Going it alone it’s easier to make decisions quickly and go for it, and generally you can’t fall out with yourself, and you also learn more – by necessity.

Alternatively with a co-founder you have the benefits of ‘two heads are better than one’, improving decision making and being more likely to reach the right outcome faster. With a co-founder, you’re also not spreading yourself too thinly, taking responsibility for everything, and working with complimentary skills and doubled bandwidth, more gets done.

So, everything considered, what are the attributes you should consider when seeking a co-founder for your startup, and why will it work?

Aligned motives If one founder wants to build a cool product, whilst the other wants to make money only, it won’t work. Pay close attention and unearth true motivations, which are revealed, not declared, it’s better to get that out in the open early and talk it through.

Personal compatibility Play a couple rounds of monopoly together, just to see how they react to opportunity and adversity – and if there is humour in the relationship. There are of course other such ways to gauge this but don’t co-habit without dancing together socially first, doing something outside of work with your potential future partner may be eye-opening.

Future skills matter more than present skills It’s impossible to judge the potential skills of a person day one. So instead, while we don’t predict future skills, avoid giving too much importance to current skills. Startups demand different sets of competencies at various stages in their journey – being a CEO of a startup means being the Chief Everything Officer initially – co-founders need to be fast learners in order to acquire new in-demand skills.

How will decisions get made?  This is a fundamental tenet of the relationship and operating model. If it’s tied to voting the number of shares, you’re on dangerous grounds. Common areas to address are decisions around hiring/firing, pricing and employee salaries. If it’s by discussion and logic, things will work, it one wants control, it won’t

Focus on what you’re good at Dividing workload based on complimentary yet different skills gives focus and productivity, effort based on mutual strengths means you’re able to progress the day-to-day work while continuing to evolve many aspects of the business. A co-founder can help complement your skills and fill in the skills gaps in a way you’ll never be able to do on your own. It’s just one more weapon on your arsenal.

Double your odds Having a business partner doubles your odds of being in the right place at any given time. Whether it’s an important event where you need to talk to dozens of people or simultaneous meetings on opposite sides of town, having someone you can trust with the same level of integrity and passion as you is a huge advantage and enables a ‘I’ll work on whatever you’re not working on’ philosophy to getting two things done at once.

Provide you with a sounding board Starting a business means a bumps may appear on the horizon at any point, and it can be a lot easier to handle unexpected hurdles and have more fun with a co-founder. Advisors and mentors are great, but there is nothing like being able to talk to someone that is going through the exact same process as you are, facing the same risk, the same problems, and the same potential upside.

Serve as a backstop when you have an off day We all have days when we are just not at the races, having a co-founder provides a backstop for those days, even for the simplest of matters. Sharing both the physical and mental workload with someone you can trust, and is just as invested as you, makes the journey slightly less frantic.

Balance the extremes and point out the blindspots Entrepreneurs just want to get things done, often in a hurry and always moving forward, but they can also face obstacles. It helps to have someone to balance the extremes we all face along the way. We all have blind spots in how we manage and implement projects. Having a co-founder gives you a peer that can point out these blind spots so you can improve, opening your eyes to things you might not see.

What it’s like to share the highs and lows, the successes and the failures, and the feeling of having someone alongside you, shoulder-to-shoulder all the while confident they think the same way? By merging their disparate talents and idiosyncrasies, effective co-founders sync when it comes to the course they co-charted. That kind of strategic cohesion is often behind successful startups, so try to create that serendipity in your own startup enterprise.

In reality it is the shared mind-set that captures the essence of what makes entrepreneurial duos work – in comedy or in business. Everyone talks about the ‘one builds, one sells’ complimentary skillset, but it’s really about the mind-set.

You may not want the tomfoolery of Laurel & Hardy, the anarchy of Reeves & Mortimer, the frenzy of Morecambe & Wise nor the jukebox antics of Akroyd & Belushi in your co-founder business relationship, but if the strength and purpose of startup co-founder relationships is as innovative and productive as these comedy duos, then you’ll have created something special.

One thought on “Lessons from Stan & Ollie for startup founder duos

  1. An excellent summary of why we all need partnerships, in business and in life and further encouragement to go and seek out “Stan and Ollie”, especially being a fan of Steve Coogan. Keep up the great work.
    Cheers
    David

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