What 'Making Partner' Means at a Startup

Author: Lloyd Tabb

"It's easier to ask forgiveness than permission." 

— Grace Hopper

When he led the Netscape Browser team, Tom Paquin used to repeat this quote all the time. I was right there with him, on a large team of very smart people operating autonomously. This was Tom’s hands-off way of saying, “I trust you to figure stuff out, and if you blow it, I’ll forgive you.” And other leaders I’ve admired shared this confident, laissez-faire approach, too — and it worked.

 


When I left Netscape for LiveOps, then-CEO Bill Trenchard started introducing me as his ‘partner.’ And immediately that moniker felt right. Even though the company was organized as a traditional corporation, the driving force among management was partnership — partners who valued and trusted each other. Bill labeling me as a ‘partner’ was both inspiring and motivating.

Based on this experience, when I helped found data modeling startup Looker, we decided to build the company’s culture on the principle of partnership.

What is a Partner? 

Partner (n.) A person who takes part in an undertaking with another or others, especially in a business or company with shared risks and profits. 

In theory, a healthy partnership has these attributes:

  • We're all in it together. If one person wins, we all win.
  • We only hire people we can respect as peers.
  • Everyone who joins the team shares the commitment everyone else feels.
  • We trust our partners’ decisions implicitly. 

But this can be a tall order.

That’s why, at Looker, we work hard to avoid titles. They’re something the outside world wants in order to categorize people, to get a sense of who’s who. But inside, we have ‘Looker names.’ I’m ‘First Looker,’ while my co-founder Ben is ‘Second Looker.’ We have ‘Out Looker,’ ‘Looker Afterer,’ ‘Dirty Looker’ and more. But the point is that our titles have nothing to do with rank. We’re egalitarian. No one has an office. We all share a space, a strategy and a goal. I sit smack in the middle. 

Most importantly, we treat new hires as new partners. This changes the recruiting process — it’s a littler slower, more careful, a bit more like dating. We ask a lot of questions like: “What would you do in your first week on the job? The first month? Your first day?” Successful candidates have strong opinions. They know our business already. And very quickly, even during interviews, we learn a lot from them. They come to us, wanting in. 

All of this helps us create a culture of ownership. People own the problems they work on. Others can lend a hand or give advice, but if you’re in charge of solving a problem, you own all of the decisions that get made. 

This is where partnership structure comes in. When everyone’s a partner, they’re all potential resources and there’s no reason to keep secrets. Everyone knows what’s going on. And, ultimately, everyone feels like the company is theirs. There’s nothing more galvanizing. 

Investors as Partners

At Looker, we chose our VCs for partnership not price. We probably could have raised more money from other firms, but this wouldn’t have mattered without solid working relationships. 

We chose VC partners we knew very well — Bill Trenchard and Tim Connors — so we could and can have very frank and very productive conversations. When things get tough, as they often do in the startup business, these are the guys we want in our corner. We picked them because we respect their abilities. 

Making our investors as successful as possible is just as — if not more — important to us as making our partners at Looker successful. Our investors are our partners. They give us their time, tackle major problems, take chances, and trust us to do the right thing. 

The Most Important Partner of All

It might sound trite, but Looker’s most important job is to help our customers win. Really. If that doesn’t happen, nothing else matters. 

We’re deeply invested in our customers’ success. That’s the only way we will survive and thrive. When you look at your customer relationships as partnerships, everything clicks into focus. You see the value of a strong feedback loop, of innovating fast to meet their needs, of pushing the envelope on features, and admitting fault when need be. 

We trust our customers to give us good, honest constructive criticism, and we share their commitment to great software. This is why Looker provides unlimited support and consulting services for clients. We don’t turn on a timer when someone needs help, or charge by the minute when a customer is struggling. That would be creating unnecessary tension in a relationship that should be all about mutual benefit. 

A lot of companies out there call themselves client- or customer-centric. But in order for this to be true, a partnership approach needs to be taken inside and out. It’s the only way to rally many people — on all sides of the equation — behind a single goal: the success of your business. 

Partners all around, and everyone wins.

 

Lloyd Tabb is Co-Founder of Looker, a data science company. Previously, he was the CTO at LiveOps and Principal Engineer at Netscape.

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