Investing In Your Co-Founder Relationship To Weather The Storm

Photo Cred: Ulises Baga

What if I told you that you could have a healthy and trusting co-founder relationship? What if I told you that you could meet any roadblock head-on? What if I told you there were simple practices to create a stronger union with your co-founder? Here’s the good news: this is all possible.

I’ve been working with co-founders as an investor and coach for a decade, and while I’ve helped many co-founders improve their communication and deepen trust, I’ve witnessed countless co-founder splits. This includes numerous clients, friends, and even my wife. I’ve seen close friends, college roommates, and former colleagues come together only to drift — or break — apart. I’ve seen long-time and close relationships end sadly. I’ve also seen the conflicts among co-founders damage and sink companies.

The majority of startups fail due to business partnerships that sour. According to Noam Wasserman, a former Harvard Business School Professor, co-founder conflict is the number one killer of startups. His research suggests more than 65% of startup failures are due to co-founder issues.

Why?

Every partnership experiences conflict. It’s inevitable. Oftentimes co-founders see and feel conflict but fail to engage in the conversation or rituals needed to move past the conflict. Organizations, individuals, needs, wants, values, and life circumstances all change, but we can be resistant when things change around us, and even create conflict where there could be a conversation. Keep in mind that while conflict itself is unavoidable, you and your co-founder can put in the work that will turn those conflicts into opportunities for growth, and expressions of empathy and mutual respect.

We need to start seeing conflict as the starting point of a better, more honest relationship. A good co-founder relationship is not only crucial for the success of your company, but for the health and safety of you, your partner, and the rest of your team.

What is conflict?

In short: conflict in relationships is common and can even be healthy and respectful. Every relationship has its challenges. A lack of open conflict can be a sign that big issues are festering beneath the surface. And there are different shades of conflict. It’s not always this explosive situation where two people are battling with each other. It can also be not agreeing with a certain decision but not speaking up about it. Conflict can manifest in different ways.

Even the healthiest partnerships have ups and downs. That’s natural. Ask anyone who is married or in a long-term partnership. The key is figuring out how to communicate with each other through conflict in a way that honors the relationship and the company.

Importance of Maintenance and Investment

Think of your co-founder relationship like a car. It needs gas to get from point A to point B. Without fuel, you won’t arrive at your destination. Furthermore, it needs a tune-up and oil change every 5,000 miles. Without regular maintenance, the engine will cease to work properly and you’ll break down. Finally, your car requires a wash when it gets dirty. Without this, your vehicle will have dirt and grime all over it and you won’t fully appreciate it.

While taking care of your car might seem like a chore and pain in the ass, it’s always well worth the time, energy, and money. It keeps your car on the road, prevents breakdowns, and lowers your total cost of ownership.

Your co-founder relationship is no different. The more you neglect your relationship, the more problems you’ll likely run into. The more you invest in your relationship, the more you’ll be able to solve even bigger problems. And think about how much you can do to keep your car in shape, and put it back in shape after you roll over a curb or after a hard winter rusts the undercarriage — it’s ok to need help.

I can’t stress the importance of investing in your co-founder relationship. Do this while things are solid — investing in a relationship is about maintaining the good as much as shoring up against the inevitable bad. Start as early in the relationship as possible. Just because you only have 5,000 miles on your car doesn’t mean you don’t take it to the shop to get that first service. You do it because you know your car needs this to function well.

I’ve written this post to help you and your co-founder build a relationship that can weather just about any storm. You’ll walk away with more than a dozen practical tools that you can immediately practice with your co-founder. In other words, I’m giving you the car maintenance manual to increase your odds of staying on the road together. My goal for you is a strong and healthy partnership so you can show up authentically and honestly and transparently for each other and your company.

Risks of Not Doing So

On an individual level, conflict can suck the life and energy out of you. It consumes a tremendous amount of mental bandwidth and time.

I recently helped a founder who was feuding with her co-founder. It was a tough situation because they had just closed a large seed round. She could barely focus on the business because all of her brainpower was focused on resolving this situation. She was also out of alignment because what she felt inside didn’t match her actions. She was afraid this conflict would lead to a breakup. It became a massive distraction.

Unresolved conflict, or conflicts that are ignored, will pull you away from what matters most: focusing on the business, doing your job, and building a thriving company.

On a collective level, conflict can impact and jeopardize the performance of the company. It leads to poorer decision-making, gunks up the flow of information, and deteriorates the culture.

Companies are complex human systems that co-founders are responsible for creating, managing, and guiding. They collectively set the mission, vision, and values. They determine the strategy of the business. They raise the cash from investors. They hire the team. They bring the initial idea into existence and ensure the company has the appropriate resources to scale and thrive over time. The co-founders set the tone of the business in many ways. When the relationship is not healthy, efficiency and consistency are jeopardized, and all the success of all these activities is put at risk.

I helped a founder a few years ago who was afraid to challenge his co-founder. He struggled to be heard and would often relent to his co-founder because the amount of energy it would require to make himself heard. He felt important decisions were getting watered down.

I’ve also seen how conflict can impede the flow of information. When facts, thoughts, and feelings are withheld serious problems can arise. Issues and opportunities in the business can be neglected and missed. That can be the difference between success and failure.

Finally, employees can sense the tension and notice a lack of alignment among co-founders. I’ve seen situations where employees begin to wonder what’s going on between the co-founders, or who they’re supposed to be taking direction from when visions conflict. In many ways, co-founders model the behavior that employees will emulate. Unresolved or ongoing conflict can erode trust, impact the culture, and harm the environment

Here’s my point: conflicts among co-founders that aren’t resolved in a healthy way or treated as opportunities for growth can not only lead to bad decisions for the direction of the company but create a toxic environment for employees.

Common Issues and Red Flags

  • The CEO is not sharing the spotlight
  • There’s a lack of alignment and agreement on the business strategy
  • One co-founder, often the non-CEO, can’t scale with the company
  • A CEO was never named so there’s management by committee
  • Roles and responsibilities were not clearly defined and there’s overlap
  • One co-founder is putting in more effort and hours
  • The CEO makes unilateral decisions without key execs being aware
  • Equity splits don’t feel equitable based on contributions
  • The non-CEO co-founder would like to be involved with fundraising

I could go on and on. Relationship therapist Esther Perel suggests there are three categories of hidden issues: power and control, care and closeness, and respect and recognition. Many of the issues that I’ve observed over the years fall into one of those categories.

I’ve also seen a number of red flags that might suggest a much bigger problem brewing underneath the surface:

  • You stop speaking candidly to each other to avoid conflict
  • Your trust battery falls below 70%
  • You avoid talking about difficult topics
  • You avoid each other in the office and can’t be in the same room
  • You stop spending time together outside work
  • You don’t intentionally reflect on what the relationship needs
  • You withhold thoughts, emotions, judgments, and ideas
  • You spend countless hours obsessing over what to say
  • You spend countless hours obsessing over what’s been said
  • You can never get in a word or don’t feel heard
  • You have the same fight over and over again

Psychologist John Gottman can predict the end of a relationship with incredible precision. He discovered four negative behaviors, or “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” that spell disaster for any relationship. These include criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. These four negative behaviors can also destroy a co-founder relationship.

Gottman also developed the four antidotes which can help any relationship get back on track. These include a positive need, appreciation, responsibility, and psychological self-soothing.

In addition to Gottman’s antidotes, there is a range of tools and tactics that can help mitigate these negative behaviors, and help co-founders work through issues when they occur. That’s what the next section covers.

Investments You Can Make

You’ll spend more time with your co-founder than just about anyone in your life. Having a strong co-founder relationship is possible, but you need to be committed to each other and the company from day one. And you need to be willing to work on your relationship over and over and over again. You also need to be prepared to feel uncomfortable and face conflict. The key is figuring out ways to weather any storm together.

Below are practical investments and habits that you can begin to implement. I’ve seen these work wonders with teams over the years. These are not a panacea but they’ll certainly help you build a stronger relationship with more intention and trust.

Remember, you invest countless hours and millions of dollars in your startup — investing in your partnership is some of the most important work you can do for the success of that business.

Practice Non-Violent Communication

If You Really Knew Me You Would Know…

Clear Roles and Responsibilities

Be Impeccable With Your Agreements

Note the Positives

Express Thanks and Gratitude

Get Outside Together

I vs You

We Over Me

Agree on Problems Before Solutions

Avoid Absolutes

Separate Fact from Story

What’s Under the Surface?

Create Space

Take a Break

One Session, One Issue

Sharing the Spotlight

Practice Active Listening

Quarterly Assessment

  • How do I feel about my relationship?
  • What are the bright spots?
  • What stories do I tell myself about them?
  • What am I avoiding with them?
  • What have I been withholding from them? This includes information, ideas, emotions, agreements, judgments, desires, comparison, lies, gratitude.
  • Have I kept all my agreements with them?
  • Am I blaming? How?
  • Do I feel like we have each other’s back?
  • Can we count on each other?
  • Can we trust each other?
  • How do I want the relationship to evolve? What do I want?
  • How can we invest in our partnership?
  • What color would you assign to your relationship: red (insurmountable problems), yellow (solvable problems and need help), or green (all good)? Why?

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Putting It All Together

Better communication.

Deeper connection.

More trust.

Tighter alignment.

Greater empathy for each other.

Increased transparency.

Freer expression.

You can show up as yourself and not have to hold back.

Greater risk-taking and psychological safety.

We all want and deserve a partner who will unleash the best in us. Someone who will complement and challenge us. We deserve to be the person who does that for someone else. That’s possible if you’re willing to do the work. Your company depends on the health of your partnership.

When it comes to the tactics I’ve shared here, I wouldn’t try to do everything at once. Start by sending this post to your co-founder and discuss what came up for each of you. Review the tactics with your partner, pick one or two that you can start today, and begin there. The key is to develop a routine that works for the both of you. Have fun with them. Experiment. See what works and what doesn’t. Every team is different.

It’s also critical to view this as practice — not a “one and done” thing but a consistent part of the important work you do for your startup. Remember, just like with your company, the fruits of your labor might not be evident immediately — but they’re taking root underneath the surface, and soon you and your co-founder will begin to see new shoots breaking through. Be patient and trust the process.

As James Clear has said, “you do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” May you build a system together so you can help the company reach its full potential.

The road won’t be easy but the rewards are endless — trust, respect, empathy and appreciation, and so much more. This is all possible if you’re willing to put in the work.

Best of luck!

(Many thanks to Andy Sparks and Rachel Jepsen for reviewing drafts of this post)

Founder & Coach at High Output. Angel Investor. I help the creators of tomorrow realize their potential as humans and leaders.