This article, written by Laura Holson, was published in the New York Times on April 17, 2015
Over breakfast at Cafe Mogador in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Ilan Zechory couldn’t stop talking about the complicated relationship with his best friend, Tom Lehman.
Mr. Zechory has known Mr. Lehman since 2002, when they were freshmen at Yale. They work together, go to yoga together and even take vacations together. And though not a couple in any sense of the word, they often fight like they are.
As Mr. Zechory dug into a plate of hummus and eggs, he described a blowup the two had last year in a taxi on the way to Penn Station. Traffic was stalled with only a block to go, and Mr. Zechory was afraid they would miss their train.
Mr. Lehman needled his friend about how late they were. Mr. Zechory, more and more agitated, told Mr. Lehman they should get out and walk the rest of the way. He paid the fare, opened the door and charged up the sidewalk, leaving his friend behind. Mr. Lehman felt a little hurt that Mr. Zechory had gone on without him.
They boarded the Amtrak train minutes before its departure. And as it moved toward Washington, D.C., where the two had a business meeting, they were both fuming. So Mr. Lehman asked his friend if he wanted to talk it over. They ended up huddled outside a train-car bathroom, where they had what Mr. Zechory described as an hourlong “emotional conversation.”
Tom Lehman, left, and Ilan Zechory brought in Russell Farhang as director of operations. “Their relationship is the centerpiece,” Mr. Farhang said.CreditDina Litovsky for The New York Times
Now, whenever they irritate each other, they use the phrase “Amtrak bathroom” as code to talk.
Mr. Zechory and Mr. Lehman, both 31, are the founders of Genius.com, an ambitious Brooklyn-based start-up that allows its users to annotate song lyrics and any other text available on the Internet.
And that’s why things can get really complicated: If something goes wrong with their relationship, something could go wrong with their company.
A month after their blowup on the way to Penn Station, they decided to go to couples therapy.
Counseling has become a popular way for young technology entrepreneurs to work out their differences. “Except for the sex, founders have the same interdependency as married couples,” said Peter Pearson, a founder of the Couples Institute in Menlo Park, Calif., who holds that businesses and romantic relationships fail for similar reasons.
Some founders are interested in learning how to maintain their friendships in a stressful environment. Others are just trying to avoid the feuds and legal battles that disrupted Facebook and Twitter.
Every Thursday at 5 p.m., Mr. Zechory and Mr. Lehman see a therapist in Brooklyn who counsels individuals and couples, with a few business partners among his clients. (He declined to be interviewed or named for this article.)
Mr. Lehman usually takes off his shoes at the start of a session, and sometimes he will poke a sock-covered toe into the cactus plant that sits on the coffee table, eliciting worrying noises from Mr. Zechory. Then they start into their latest personal and professional grievances.
“When you have no boundaries and you are totally enmeshed and it gets bad, it can be devastating,” Mr. Zechory said. “So the therapist is trying to work with us on that and figure out what types of boundaries are healthy.”
Continue reading the main story
Richard Hagberg, a psychologist and leadership coach who has clients in San Francisco, said that counseling for those working in start-ups is now so common that he recently visited four young tech entrepreneurs in one day.
“A lot of these people have never worked for anyone,” he said. “They have no effective models of what leadership is.”
Mr. Lehman and Mr. Zechory seem bound together because each has traits the other one needs to succeed. Their differences explain why they complement each other but may also figure in why they sometimes drive each other crazy.
“Tom has this manic energy that will drive us forward but will also create wreckage,” Mr. Zechory said. “I will come in and say, with my broom, ‘I want you to know I have the broom and I am going to go clean up the wreckage.’ ”
Mr. Zechory grew up in suburban Detroit, an accommodating middle son sandwiched between two sisters. He majored in religious studies at Yale before moving to Los Angeles briefly to write for television.
He is a trained hypnotherapist and immerses himself in 10-day silent retreats. He said he suffers bouts of depression and started individual therapy in 2008.
Mr. Lehman, whose face is framed by a crown of wiry black curls, graduated magna cum laude from Yale. He is a programming whiz who grew up an only child in Miami.
“I used to think it was called ‘lonely child,’ ” Mr. Lehman said. He was afraid of the dark as a boy, which led in part to his first visit to a therapist, whom he called “the feelings doctor.”
“I had a stuffed animal,” he said. “I remember using a scissor to cut holes in his little tunic, and my mom was like, ‘Moths must have gotten this.’ And I was like, ‘Yup.’ ” Later, his social anxiety influenced his friendships, which he described as “very close, serial relationships with brother-esque potential figures.”
The two formed a fraternal bond after their time at Yale. “What I remember liking about Ilan when I first started hanging out with him was here is this, like, you know, tall, handsome, alpha guy,” Mr. Lehman said. “But when you talk to him, he says, ‘I’m insecure like you.’ ”
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” Mr. Zechory said. “I feel like I spent a lot of time alone, a lot of time playing online poker, blogging.”
“You did surround yourself with flatterers,” Mr. Lehman replied. “Admit it.”
They once shared an apartment in New York and created two web businesses before starting Genius.com (formerly known as Rap Genius) in 2009. They currently don’t have girlfriends. “We’ve had periods of girlfriends and non-girlfriends, and those interactions have been mixed,” Mr. Zechory said.
In the company’s early days, Mr. Lehman often complained about Mr. Zechory during his individual therapy sessions.
“Finally, the therapist is like, ‘If you are both causing so much pain and drama, maybe you shouldn’t be working together,’ ” Mr. Lehman said. He thought the comment wasn’t helpful, and he stopped seeing that therapist soon after.
Continue reading the main story
“It made me feel so loved that Tom left his therapist,” Mr. Zechory said.
The third co-founder of Genius was Mahbod Moghadam, who resigned last spring in the wake of a scandal over his controversial annotation of a screed written by Elliot Rodger, who killed six people and injured 13 others while on a rampage in Isla Vista, Calif., before killing himself.
Back when Mr. Moghadam was part of the team, from 2009 to 2014, he was a buffer between Mr. Zechory and Mr. Lehman.
“Tom had to face down my capacity to get mired in negativity,” Mr. Zechory said. “In my absence, he could turn to Mahbod for a good time.”
Mr. Moghadam was invited to join them in therapy, Mr. Zechory said, but he declined. Mr. Moghadam said he did not recall being asked, but he knew they had gone.
“They were always talking about it,” he said, imitating his former business partners: “ ‘We’re in couples therapy. You are the best. I hate you. I love you.’ ” He hasn’t spoken with Mr. Lehman or Mr. Zechory since his departure, he said.
Despite the bumps and bruises, the company is expanding: Genius received $40 million in venture capital last June, and has grown to 40 employees, including the pop music critic Sasha Frere-Jones, whom the founders lured away from The New Yorker.
They plan to move their headquarters from Williamsburg to a five-story 43,670-square-foot office in Gowanus this spring. Amid the sudden growth and its attendant pressures, the founders have defined their roles with formal job titles: Mr. Lehman is chief executive; Mr. Zechory is president.
Last August, they brought on Russell Farhang as director of operations. The hire was an acknowledgment that Mr. Zechory and Mr. Lehman needed someone to run operations, so they could focus on strategy. “Their relationship is the centerpiece,” Mr. Farhang said, adding, “Ilan is always simmering. Tom is crackling.”
On a Sunday evening last September, Mr. Zechory and Mr. Lehman were walking home from Yoga to the People, a studio in Greenpoint, after finishing a class.
Three months had passed since they had landed the funding, and Mr. Zechory was airing his latest doubts, while Mr. Lehman was trying to be the voice of calm, although he shared his friend’s anxieties.
Mr. Lehman said, “In this conversation, I am going to be the friend-slash-business partner who’s the more solid one, or whatever, and basically say, ‘Ilan, it’s going to be fine,’ when really what I’m thinking is, ‘Ilan is a persuasive dude.’ ”
A month after the post-yoga walk, Mr. Lehman outlined the company’s strategy in a presentation before 30 Genius employees. As he spoke, Mr. Zechory kept thinking he was overselling the vision.
Afterward, he went to Mr. Lehman’s office and told him so, prompting a chilly response. “I’m like, ‘Why are you mad at me?’ ” Mr. Zechory said. “ ‘I’m just telling you what I believe.’ ”
Mr. Lehman had a different take: At least he was coming up with ideas.
The two went to therapy the next day and talked it over. Nothing was resolved.
Continue reading the main storyContinue reading the main story
Continue reading the main story
Over the next few sessions, they managed to articulate their differences while refining their ideas for the company’s future, and the tension lifted.
The work they put in came to fruition on a Saturday in November, when they were discussing their vision for the company during a long walk through Manhattan.
The talk continued over dinner in Brooklyn, and then they headed to Mr. Lehman’s apartment to wrap things up. By the next week, they had honed the strategy. They announced it to staff members Dec. 1.
Like others in therapy, they find that their old tendencies remain even after a period of progress. Mr. Zechory described a recent Monday when he strolled in five minutes late for a meeting arranged by Mr. Lehman. Making it all the worse, in Mr. Lehman’s view, was that Mr. Zechory arrived carrying a bag from the Strand bookstore loaded with books.
In the meeting, Mr. Lehman was talking to an executive, and Mr. Zechory jumped into the conversation, which didn’t sit well with his partner. “Tom comes to me after the meeting and is like, ‘Your whole butt-in-ski, stroll-in-late vibe, that makes me feel bad,’ ” Mr. Zechory said.
That night, while watching “The Good Wife,” Mr. Lehman couldn’t quit thinking about that morning’s spat. “What possible thing could we be talking about that is getting us both so upset?” he said, turning to Mr. Zechory at breakfast. “Is the world exploding or something? It’s just not worth it.”
Part of their problem may be that they spend so much time together, even when they’re away from work.
“Our therapist rolls his eyes when he sees we are going on vacation together,” Mr. Zechory said. “He thinks we should have our time apart to really appreciate each other and to get breathing room and not be so enmeshed. That’s like his basic message to us.”
Although Mr. Zechory and Mr. Lehman may never stop having disagreements, they say they have learned three lessons: Never let an opportunity pass to say something positive; walking away from a heated conversation doesn’t signal abandonment; and it is better to discuss a problem, because it will surface anyway.
“Any time you feel negatively toward someone you love,” Mr. Zechory said, “it stings a thousand times more.”
~ New York Times Magazine