The push and pull of productive partnerships

Posted 04 January 2024
Henry headshot
By Henry Oliver
Contributing Author
Branded EF image of DNA

The cautionary tale of Maurice Wilkins, lone laboratory wolf

Maurice Wilkins had the chance to discover the double helix structure of DNA. He didn’t lack the right ideas or technology. He wasn’t in the wrong places. Indeed, he had everything he needed. He even had the chance to collaborate with James Crick, Francis Watson, and Rosalind Franklin—the three other scientists involved in the race to discover the double helix. But he declined to work with any of them. That was why Wilkins lost his lead.

The discovery of DNA is a case of multiple discovery—when two groups of scientists make the same breakthrough independently. The two groups involved, one in London and the other in Cambridge, knew each other, and a comparison of how they worked is a lesson in the fact that who you work with is just as important (if not more) as what you work on. London had all the essential information, thanks to the work of Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, but it was Cambridge that made the final step, due to the now-famous collaboration of James Watson and Francis Crick.

James Watson first met Maurice Wilkins in the spring of 1951—before he had ever heard of Francis Crick. Watson was working on biochemistry and Wilkins was the leading molecular DNA researcher. They were at a small scientific meeting in Italy. “There was seldom any chance,” Watson later wrote, “for anything other than banal remarks.” However, Wilkins gave a talk about crystallography and DNA. Watson was hooked.

Watson went up and introduced himself the next day, overflowing with enthusiasm, and hoping to work with Wilkins. Watson’s sister Elizabeth was with them and Watson even thought Wilkins might be interested in her. But neither Watson’s enthusiasm, nor his sister, made any real impression on Wilkins, always a lone wolf. He passed Watson with a nod the next day, and that was that.

Wilkins also lost the chance to work with Francis Crick, who was frustrated that Wilkins didn’t understand the importance of moving fast when you are “holding dynamite like DNA.” 

Wilkins did  have a colleague, Rosamund Franklin. But they didn’t work well together. Both believed themselves to be in charge. Eventually, their boss, John Randall, sidelined Wilkins and transferred his research assistant, Raymond Gosling, to Franklin. 

Gosling and Franklin took the crucial X-ray of DNA in May 1952. But the picture sat in Franklin’s drawer until 1953, while Wilkins was sitting down the corridor, uncommunicative. By contrast, Watson and Crick were going to the pub and talking about DNA each afternoon. When Franklin left for another job, Wilkins showed the picture to Watson and Crick, inspiring  their final breakthrough. But the crucial element was their collaboration, something Wilkins didn’t have in London.

Wilkins had the chance to work with all of these researchers, and he declined. Historian of science Robert Olbay called Wilkins “his own worst enemy” and said he should have insisted on staying part of the team with Franklin. If he had, London might have kept their lead in the race to discover the double helix.

The push and pull of productive partnerships

What Wilkins lacked was not ability or insight or intelligence or a good idea. He lacked a partner. It is, of course, quite possible to work as a lone genius. But it’s much easier to work in a pair. Far more success stories are about partnerships. The writer Joshua Wolf Shenk has even gone so far as to say that,

The pair is the primary creative unit — not just because pairs produce such a staggering amount of work but also because they help us to grasp the concept of dialectical exchange. At its heart, the creative process itself is about a push and pull between two entities, two cultures or traditions, or two people…

The push and pull is exactly what Watson and Crick developed, and what Franklin  and Wilkins lacked. The same material, given to a different team, creates different results, and on a faster timeline. 

In entrepreneurship, you see the power of two everywhere you look. Time after time, businesses are not founded by individuals, but by pairs or groups. People come before ideas. In Jessica Livingston’s Founders at Work this comes up frequently. Founders often find their partner(s) before they find their idea. Without the push and pull of a partnership, it seems likely that many of them wouldn’t have found their idea—or not as quickly, or not as good a version of the idea—at all.

The first company to produce spreadsheet software, Software Arts, was set up by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston. Bricklin and Frankston worked in a lab together at university and began socialising. Frankston had a car, which meant a group of graduate and undergraduate students could go out together. Both Frankston and Bricklin had come from entrepreneurial families. Bricklin told Jessica Livingston that “Bob and I were sort of  looking for years for something to go into business with together.” 

Joe Kraus, one of the founders of Excite, an early web search technology that was one of the four most popular websites of the late 1990s, told Livingston that “We decided to start a company together before we had any idea what we were going to work on. But we were so committed to the idea of starting something together that we knew we were going to figure it out.” Arthur van Hoff quit his job to found Marimba, a software distribution company, before he had the idea. His former colleague, Jonathan Payne, had quit his job and when Hoff tried to persuade him to come back, Payne said he didn’t know if he would go back, but “I’ll do a startup with you.” The partnership led to the idea. Four of them started the business. It was a big risk, Livingston said, to start a company without an idea. Not really, thought Hoff, “if you are part of a core team and you leave together, getting an idea is not that hard. Anybody can have good ideas.” The first idea, he continued, is never the right one, but it’s a catalyst. 

What you need, though, is that core team, the push and the pull. TiVo started out, indirectly, as an exodus from HP. Mike Ramsey and a group of colleagues left HP to go to another company. Some of them then went their separate ways, but later on Ramsey and Jim Barton reconnected by “happenstance”. “We ended up going to lunch and we kicked around a few ideas.” They kept going to lunch, and eventually converged on a home entertainment idea. It started out as something far too complicated, a “flamboyant home network server” but eventually the concept of TiVo was isolated from all the noise, from the constant push and pull of Ramsey and Barton. 

Finding the right partner

The London team lost their lead to discover the structure of DNA because they lacked the right partnerships. The relationship between Franklin and Wilkins was not productive. The stories we know of successful entrepreneurial partnerships are only the successes. Many others end up like Franklin and Wilkins—they reach a point where they cannot work together any more. And the business flops. Choosing who you work with might be more important than choosing what you work on. It doesn’t just give you someone to have the push and pull of ideas with. A company without a productive partnership is likely to fail. Just like in a marriage, you cannot bicker your way to success.

We all know Lennon and McCartney, Jobs and Wozniak—but we don’t see the partnerships that flamed out. Not everyone is lucky enough to meet their creative partner at school or college. These partnerships are what EF refers to as “cofounders of convenience”. They are the relationships more likely to deteriorate when exposed to the pressure of starting a business. You join together out of convenience and end up not being analytical enough about how well you would work together.

To find the right cofounder, you have to go looking. 

But cofounders don’t walk past you in the street everyday. There’s some chance you can find your cofounder the way Brian Armstrong did, by putting out an ad on Hacker News. More likely, you need to do what James Watson did—network. Watson tried to network with Maurice Wilkins, and it didn’t lead anywhere. This wasn’t networking in the calculating, mercenary sense. Watson was part of the same group of scientists as Wilkins, found his work interesting, and tried to discuss it, to see if they could work together in some way. Remember, Wilkins failed to make a partnership with Crick also. They were friends, but not colleagues. 

Watson and Crick have something in common with all successful startup founders: they waited until they found the right person. They didn’t give up too early, but they didn’t do what Wilkins did, and became isolated, either. Wason and Crick shared an ambitious vision: they worked so well together, exchanged ideas so effectively, because they were both so driven. It was a partnership of vision.

And so, once they found each other, the push and the pull did its magic.

Henry is a writer, with a book about late blooming talent coming out next year. His Substack, The Common Reader, focusses on biography, literature, philosophy, and talent. In 2022 he was awarded an Emergent Ventures grant.