Quinn: Silicon Valley, the land of dynamic duos

Quinn: Silicon Valley, the land of dynamic duos


By Michelle Quinn mquinn@mercurynews.com

Saturday, June 21, 2014 - 6:00 a.m.


Steve Jobs delivers the keynote speech at MacWorld in San Francisco on Jan. 10, 2006, in front of a picture of himself and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak. (KARL MONDON/Staff file photo)


Americans admire the lone-wolf myth, and in business that means the bold industrialist creating something from nothing.

But in Silicon Valley, we tend to celebrate duos, cultural icons linked forever like Simon and Garfunkel, or Sonny and Cher.

There's Bill and Dave, Jerry and David, Sergey and Larry. And of course Woz and Jobs.

"The great thing about pairs is that they got each other's back," said Michael Malone, the Silicon Valley chronicler who recently co-wrote a book about the science of teams, which is expected out in early 2015. "Pairs are the most stable of all teams because they are small. They are very resilient. They can move quickly."

I started thinking about this topic after Chad Hurley and Steve Chen, co-founders of YouTube, announced they were going their separate ways after running the incubator.


When I met the pair in 2006 in the early days of YouTube, they had an easygoing, warm rapport that made their endeavor seem more fun than stressful. (The other YouTube co-founder, Jawed Karim, chose to stay in school rather than help run the firm.)

Years later, the Hurley/Chen relationship still seems to be working.

"We'll be fine," Hurley told TechCrunch about the breakup.

"We won't be fine," Chen countered with a smile, adding that they could drop in on each other's work.

Not every tech company is started by two -- there's the Twitter Three and the Facebook Five, for instance. But about 40 percent are, according to Noam Wasserman, a professor of Harvard Business School. "In general, teams should have founding capabilities that cover both their 'build' challenges and their 'sell' challenges, and it's rare that a single person is steeped in both," he said.

In some circles, the co-founder model has become so ingrained that investors require an entrepreneur to find a partner. Indeed, Paul Graham, the co-founder of the incubator Y Combinator, reportedly told Drew Houston, Dropbox's chief executive, that he needed a co-founder to be accepted into the organization. Houston got one.

Tech startups are an "emotional roller coaster of constant self-reflection and self-questioning," said Micah Baldwin, a serial entrepreneur and startup adviser. "That shared experience just makes it easier."

Baldwin tells startups they need a "hustler," essentially a sales/business person, and a "hacker," someone who can solve problems.

"Can you have a child by yourself?" said Jessica Alter, co-founder of FounderDating, a service that helps entrepreneurs and investors match up people. "Sure, but it's so much harder." In her case, her co-founder was "someone to bounce ideas off of, gut check with, lean on, split responsibilities with," she said. They are no longer together.

Jack Al-Kahwati was trying to start a company for about a year before he found Geraldo Barroeta through FounderDating. They launched Velo Labs and just announced their first product, Skylock, a "smart" bike lock.

Although Al-Kahwati is a mechanical engineer and Barroeta an electrical engineer, "we speak the same language and we get each other at a certain level," said Al-Kahwati. "It helps to have someone you are accountable to. And it helps that we are opposites. I'm more optimistic and he's more pessimistic. When an idea comes up it helps for both of us to take a look at it."

Opposite founders are just one of many types, Malone said.

There are mentor pairs, such as Marc Andreessen and Jim Clark when they co-founded Netscape.

Bill Gates and Paul Allen, the co-founders of Microsoft, were similar types who did better together than apart, Malone said.

Wozniak and Jobs are opposites who came together for a common cause, he said.

There are also pairings that occur after a firm is founded that work as well as any founding pair, like that between Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook's chief operating officer, who was not a Facebook co-founder. They are distinct personalities who work well together, Malone said.

Sometimes companies like Oracle that appear forged by one person's will are actually built on a central relationship, with someone running the company day-to-day (Ray Lane) and the other, the public face (Larry Ellison), Malone said.

And when the relationship breaks, as it did in their case, the pain can run deep.

And then there are the soulmates. .

"Hewlett and Packard were the perfect pair," Malone said. "There is no record that they had an argument."

Of course, not many partnerships can be like Bill and Dave's. They showed just one of many ways to start and run a company.

But in Silicon Valley, at least, having two heads is better than one.

Contact Michelle Quinn at 510-394-4196 and mquinn@mercurynews.com. Follow her at Twitter.com/michellequinn.

Famous Tech Pairs

Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, Hewlett-PackardSteve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, AppleBill Gates and Paul Allen, MicrosoftMarc Andreessen and Jim Clark, NetscapeLarry Page and Sergey Brin, GoogleChad Hurley and Steve Chen, YouTubeData from Noam Wasserman, professor at Harvard Business School, on high-tech teams: Solo founded = 17.5%2 founders = 39.0%3 founders = 21.9%4 founders = 12.2%5+ founders = 8.2%