Partners in Growth: Founders & Operators Must Work Together
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak at the Fintech is Femme event put on by Nicole Casperson who writes the WTFintech? Newsletter. Nicole is part of the superstar team of content creators at Workweek and she’s building one of the fastest growing newsletters covering the fintech space.
Nicole asked us to talk about our personal journeys. As I thought about what to say, I realized that I don’t think of my journey as an individual one. I think about the partners I’ve had along the way and what we were able to create together.
I also realized that the way I want to work with my colleagues perfectly aligns with how we work with our customers at Lithic. I guess that explains why I felt so welcome and comfortable here from the beginning.
Whether you’re charting a career path or laying the foundation for a brilliant new company, teamwork is good but partnership is what really makes the difference.
Let me share a bit about my journey along with some tips for founders below.
Is your vacation really a vacation?
Here’s a typical vacation. I spend the night before I leave staying up late to tie up loose ends. I may do some more work on the plane. I usually spend at least some time every day responding to questions, reviewing things, making sure that all the right people are in the loop. Responding to slacks that need immediate attention. And there are almost always a few meetings that I make sure to join.
But I recently took a vacation that was completely different. No one called, emailed or slacked me. There was nothing I needed to deal with. After a few days, I wasn’t even thinking about work at all. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had a vacation like that.
But back at work, my team was killing it. They were launching integrated campaigns, creating amazing new assets, and shipping things at an incredible pace. And this was a group of people who all worked remotely and who had only worked together for a couple of months.
This can only happen when everyone trusts each other and themselves.
I had added my value before I left and they were doing their parts - and brilliantly - while I was out. It’s what can happen when you have a team that’s a true partnership.
My journey is a story of partnership
When I was thinking about what I could say that would be interesting about my journey, I realized that I never think of it as MY journey. And that’s because the parts that have been most rewarding, the most interesting, and most fun have been when I’ve been working with great partners.
In putting these thoughts together, I’ve been thinking a lot about teamwork and partnership.
Teamwork is great. We all know what it feels like to be on a winning team when everyone is working together to accomplish a goal. And we know what it feels like when it’s not working. And it usually happens when people have different personal objectives. At work, we’re all members of a team, often multiple ones. Sometimes we get to choose our teams; sometimes we don’t.
But I think partnership always involves making the choice to be a partner, to work together for a common goal. A great partnership isn’t necessarily comfortable because partners are, by definition, equals and that means making room for ideas and opinions that aren’t yours. But we do it because we know that together we’ll do something better than we could do individually.
Changing the discussion
This isn’t the way we usually tell our stories. We look at CEOs and entrepreneurs as heroes. We idolize VCs. We live in a country that mythologizes rugged individualism. We measure success as the personal achievements of one individual.
I want to change that discussion.
Great leaders accomplish great things because they have great partners who help them turn ideas into something real and durable. I’m not a CEO or founder, and probably never will be. But I am one hell of a builder. And the most powerful and durable things I build are partnerships so that we can accomplish amazing things together.
This partnership approach ties into something much bigger: how companies approach building their business. And I think that’s why I’ve felt so at home at Lithic because we take a partnership approach to how we work together internally and how we work with our customers.
Lithic’s manifesto resonated with me
When I started at the beginning of January, one of the first things that was shared with me was a document, really more of a manifesto, that the team had put together a few weeks earlier explaining how we work with customers.
Here’s an excerpt:
Communication. Customers want to know that we care about them, and how we communicate can make or break that feeling.
We cannot always guarantee perfect execution, but we can ensure great communication. This means being proactive with updates, transparent with information, empathetic in tone, urgent in pace, and highly responsive.
If it takes longer than we expect to get an answer, we keep the customer in the loop, and never go silent. All of these things are critical to showing that we care.
Professionalism. Card issuing is hard, and our customers need to know that "we've got this” for them. We're detail-oriented, competent, and accountable. We're on time for meetings, plan ahead for milestones, and take care to avoid careless mistakes. We are professionals building a company, and not just "playing startup."
Customer Orientation: What's best for the customer is the north star in our decisions and priorities. We trust that growth will follow if customers are successful and happy with us.
The results of this approach came through loud and clear in some recent customer research. Our customers love our technology but equally important to them is the level of partnership that we deliver.
Building a new fintech company is incredibly complex. Compliance, regulation, flow of funds, there’s a lot to master and the consequences of getting things wrong can be severe. If you’re looking to launch a card program you need a partner who can help you get things right at every step of the way.
I can enjoy the lone hero story as much as anyone but I don’t want to be out there on my own like Lara Croft. I want to be part of Ocean’s 11, where a group of very different people with different abilities and talents come together to pull off something completely impossible. And the only reason they can do it, is because together they are far, far greater than the sum of their parts.
And that’s what our customers value when they work with Lithic.
Lessons from my journey
Sometimes we show up at a new job and find that great partner. That’s amazing when it happens but it’s not guaranteed. I’ve learned that the best way to find great partners is to be a great partner. I think being a great partner comes down to three basic things.
Create - together
Make sure people have a chance to share their ideas, opinions, and perspectives, and make sure they feel heard. Even if you don’t necessarily agree, engage with those ideas, perspectives, and opinions and take them further.
Take the improv approach and say “yes and.” Forget you ever learned the word “but.” If the goal is to create something new and exceptional, you’re going to need people to push you to new places and challenge your thinking.
Do what you commit to. Nothing undermines a partnership or a team more than people not doing their part. You can always move out deadlines. If you communicate. Which brings me to my last point.
When we get busy it’s easy to let communication lapse but this is when people need it the most. Bring everyone together regularly. Reiterate the objectives. Clarify things that may have changed.
When you ask a question, provide the bigger context for the ask. I’ve found time and again that when everyone understands the big picture AND the details, they can create amazing things that are far beyond what anyone thought of at the beginning of the journey.
And that’s why I do this.