Startup Lean Coffee

Co-founders, Brands, & LSD

Published on
August 16, 2019

In true startup spirit, the July Startup Lean Coffee was held on August 1st; 18 of us enjoyed an amazing breakfast and an engaging conversation! The topics that we discussed included:

  • Curated networks
  • Setting up co-founder relationships for success
  • Do I need a technical co-founder
  • The most daunting aspect of brand development
  • Why is micro-dosing getting press in 2019
  • Artwork

We had some incredible epiphanies covering fundraising, marketing, brand strategy, sales, lean product experiments, and building a team, including many resources that participants found helpful. Here are some of the highlights.


Betaworks Studios is an example of an amazing curated network to which I belong and which graciously hosts Startup Lean Coffee.

One theme from our discussion was the importance to the health of the community of managing expectations of its members. For example, healthy communities have a clear purpose (e.g. to make connections with people who share specific interests or to provide office space for startups). The organizers of the community often provide structure, like consistent location, time, format, rules of engagement, and sometimes facilitate introductions of mutual benefit to community members. Members are often drawn together over common values and abide by an explicit code of conduct.


Co-founder relationships are critical to the success of startups.

"Research by Michael Gorman and William A. Sahlman found that 65% of startups fail as a result of cofounder conflict."

Bretton Putter

One of the most common causes of co-founder conflict is deciding how to fairly divide equity. Using a mutually agreed upon framework to inform this decision often helps reduce the emotional cost that often comes from disagreements about relative ownership. Here’s a sample equity distribution framework that you can customize for your situation.

Another common cause of conflict is dealing with the departure or change in work commitment of a co-founder. People’s personal situations often change during the course of starting a company. People also make mistakes about their interest or personal ability to commit to starting a company. And sometimes, people don’t end up being as capable of doing a particular job as everyone initially expected. These are just some of the reasons that a co-founder might end up leaving a company.

All of these situations should be covered in a professionally drafted, legally binding operating agreement between co-founders. Such an agreement should articulate the mutual expectations of the co-founders, such as any capital contributions, pre-existing IP contributions, expected working hours, and what happens to shares when a co-founder leaves.

And speaking of vesting, co-founder shares should always vest, usually over 4 years. While I’m on my soap box, evenly distributing equity across co-founders is a recipe for disaster.

Spend money on a lawyer to get the operating agreement right. Some startup-friendly law firms like Foley Hoag LLP offer business terms to qualified startups that even bootstrapped founders can afford, so don’t let lack of money be an excuse for ignoring this.


Most people think of logos, colors, and fonts when they think of a brand. These are elements of the visual representation of a brand. This visual identity should evolve from a cohesive brand strategy.

Many startups need to evolve their brand as they experiment and learn about their business, so spending a lot of money on mainstream brand agencies would be a waste. Instead, consider developing a “Minimum Viable Brand” and iteratively improving that brand over time by following lean principles, like the 3 Hour Brand Sprint, by GV.

And of course, I often cite Simon Sinek’s “How great leaders inspire action” TEDx talk as the best 20 minutes a leader can spend. Period.


A recent Business Insider article entitled Here are the books that startup founders highly recommend to other founders included an book called How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, by Michael Pollan. I was curious about why startup founders were reading about psychedelics in 2019, and why, coincidentally, it seemed like my news feed was full of articles about micro-dosing psychedelics; so I asked the group. Some suggested that the various social media platforms may have just accurately profiled my interest in psychedelics :-)

Later discussions revealed that the dissolution of ego that is often associated with psychedelic experiences may help founders balance their necessarily absolute commitment to their startup vision with the need to treat the path to realizing their vision as a series of hypotheses that should be validated through a series of experiments.

The question of how to acquire LSD or psilocybin was asked but not answered. It’s interesting to note that the cities of Oakland, CA and Denver, CO both decriminalized possession of psilocybin in 2019.


Last but not least, were graced with some incredible artwork (see the picture of the board, above)!

About Startup Lean Coffee

Startup Lean Coffee is a monthly gathering of founders, early employees, advisors, investors, and anyone involved or interested in joining the startup world in any capacity. Our sole purpose is to help each other improve by sharing questions and experiences. All you need to bring is your attention, curiosity, and willingness to share.

We follow a Lean Coffee meeting format, a lightly facilitated meeting where participants democratically build an agenda and discuss each topic for a fixed time, voting to continue discussion or move on to the next topic after the time runs out.

Feel free to continue conversations that were started at our meetings and start new ones on our  Startup Lean Coffee Slack workspace. Please treat our Slack space like our in-person meetings: ask questions, share interesting information, create channels.

Startup Lean Coffee is graciously hosted by Betaworks Studios. Participation is free; but space is limited. We usually meet on the 4th Friday of each month. Sign up for the next Startup Lean Coffee, which will be on Friday, August 23rd at 9am.

I provide advisory and consulting services that accelerate your growth by streamlining strategy, marketing, sales, design, engineering, and operations.