Navigating co-founder conflicts
Co-founder conflicts have more to do with marriage dynamics than with business negotiations. What if we approached them as such?
Conflicts between co-founders are a major cause of startup failures. Starting a business from scratch is already challenging, and co-founder disagreements can further worsen the situation. The emotional stress and practical difficulties that arise from such disputes can easily ruin a potentially successful business.
Co-founder conflict is not necessarily a problem on its own. The real issue lies in how we handle the conflict and navigate through our disagreements and differences. It would be unrealistic to expect that co-founders, who embark on a long and challenging journey together, would never face any conflict.
Rob and I, co-founders at Makers, faced disagreements over money, equity, and roles. Despite this, we remain best friends. How Rob and I faced challenges over the years helped us maintain and deepen our relationship.
In this essay, I’ll share what I learned about co-founder conflicts and how to approach them.
Do you really want to solve it?
When I talk to a founder who is having trouble working effectively with their co-founder, I always wonder what they truly want. On the surface, they may say they want to improve their relationship with their co-founder, but what does that entail?
Often, their desire to resolve the conflict is accompanied by unspoken expectations.
I want to solve the conflict, as long as I am right.
Or, I want to solve the conflict, as long as my co-founder changes, but I don’t.
Or, I want to solve the conflict, as long as I don’t have to face my feelings.
Or, I want to solve the conflict, as long as I meet a certain emotional need.
Or, I want to solve the conflict, as long as I don’t have to work too hard.
The best way to sabotage conflict resolution between co-founders is to pretend to solve the conflict without acknowledging other important factors.
During co-founder conflicts, unspoken conditions can hinder progress. Therefore, it's crucial to express your needs to move forward.
It is important to understand that when dealing with conflicts with your co-founder, the actual problem might not be the conflict itself. There might be an underlying issue that you want to address, but the conflict is obstructing your path to achieving it. Therefore, it is crucial to identify what it is that you want and why you want it. This will help you navigate the process with ease.
Upon reflecting on your goals, you may realize that you want something entirely different - such as asking your co-founder to leave the business. However, if that prospect is intimidating, you might avoid facing the problem altogether, which will only create more tension. It is essential to be certain that you want to work on your relationship with your co-founder before taking any steps towards resolving the conflict.
Don’t negotiate, build emotional bonds
We often intuitively think about navigating co-founder conflicts as a negotiation. I will demand this, and give up that, and if my co-founder is willing to give me what I want and be satisfied with what I’ll have to offer, we’ll have a compromise and we’ll work together happily ever after.
It doesn’t work like that.
The dynamic of co-founder conflicts has more to do with marriage dynamics than with negotiation. It’s a close, high-stakes relationship that evolves in the context of intense pressure.
Let’s borrow a lesson from Emotionally Focussed Therapy (EFT), an approach for helping couples improve their relationship. Before the introduction of the EFT by Dr Sue Johnson a few decades ago, many relationship therapists focused on helping couples bargain with each other, which didn’t always work well: each partner might have gotten what they wanted on the face of it, but without forming a strong emotional bond, how strong would their relationship be?
A better way to think about navigating a co-founder relationship is through building a strong emotional bond, rooted in mutual respect and understanding, enabling communication from a place of genuine empathy and care.
Put simply, you don’t want to get what you want. You want to feel safe, seen, understood, respected and valued. And, trust me, when two co-founders feel this way, they find a way to meet each other’s needs.
How to build a better co-founder relationship
Here are six simple, although not easy ideas, that can help you navigate a difficult co-founder relationship.
First, let go of your need to succeed. Often, we’re so terrified that the relationship breaks down, that we try to hold on to it so tightly that we strangle it. It can be very counterintuitive, but acknowledging that if the co-founder relationship breaks down you’ll still be fundamentally ok will help you relax the grip. This step is particularly important if it feels impossible to do. If you feel like the world will end if you and your co-founder break up, you might well be making the situation worse. Let go.
Second, understand your motivation deeply, especially your emotional needs. It’s easy to make fun of psychotherapists who seem too keen to talk about your childhood, and yet that’s when most of our patterns of behaviour were defined. The better you understand what is it that matters to you, what gets under your skin and why, the easier it will be to navigate any relationship, including with your co-founders. Journalling, therapy, coaching, meditation — all of that can help.
Third, give up on changing your co-founder. Now, I’m not saying your co-founder is perfect or that you’re the only person who needs to change to improve the dynamic. Far from it. It takes two to tango, and if your dance is dysfunctional, both are contributing to it. However, the less you expect the other person to change, the more likely you will succeed in seeing them change. Paradox, I know.
Fourth, learn to feel your feelings. This is an indispensable life skill, which, in my opinion, is more important in startups than understanding the intricacies of something like SaaS pricing. If you can notice when an unpleasant feeling comes up and let it be, feeling it fully, without acting it out, you have a superpower. This is because if you don’t know how to feel your feelings, you’re condemned to react mindlessly to discomfort. But if you do, you have the power to choose your response. There’s a world of difference between a knee-jerk reaction and a conscious response.
Fifth, learn to communicate better. If nothing else, learn the OFNR approach from the Non-Violent Communication toolkit. I taught it countless times in my coaching sessions and it served me well in my life too (ok, when I remembered to use it, see the previous point!). Just as importantly, learn to listen. Good communication is more about hearing what the other is saying than expressing yourself.
Sixth, say the truth no matter what. No good relationship, co-founder or otherwise, is going to be built on lying to or misleading the other person. However, to say the truth we also need to understand it ourselves. “You’re lazy” isn’t likely to be the truth, but “I feel resentful and underappreciated because I feel I doing most of the work” might be closer to it. Saying the truth is much easier if you aren’t attached to saving the co-founder relationship at all costs, and it is likely to be exactly the thing that will either improve it or make it obvious that it’s beyond salvation.
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What if your co-founder isn’t up for the journey?
It takes two people to change the co-founder dynamic (or more if there are several co-founders). What if your co-founder doesn’t see the problem you’re seeing or only pays lip service to improving your working dynamic?
First, there is a lot you can do on your own. Since a relationship dynamic is defined by all participants, just one person changing can often improve things, maybe even to the point when the other person will be more open to working on the relationship together.
A person who’s in touch with their feelings, is communicating clearly, isn’t attached to staying in the relationship at all costs, isn’t trying to change their co-founder and says the truth no matter what is… difficult to be in conflict with!
Second, sometimes the right thing is to end the relationship. Some co-founder relationships won’t work out and it’s not the end of the world. Maybe the way forward is to leave and start another business. Maybe the way forward is to ask your co-founder to leave the business. Maybe it’s agreeing to sell the business so that both of you could move on.
Maybe it’s something else. However, if your co-founder isn’t willing or able to build a productive, emotionally healthy working relationship, would you want to invest the next decade of your life trying to address it? How long is too long?
What if both of you want to fix things?
However, if your co-founder is up for working on the relationship together, you’re off to a great start. If both of you sincerely want to improve how you work together, you’re three-quarters of your way there.
There are three things that you can do together to dramatically improve your co-founder relationship.
First, agree on what is it that both of you are looking for. Discuss roles, responsibilities, and behaviours that you expect to see from each other. The more clarity you have on what is it that you’re looking for, the more likely you are to succeed.
Second, see it as a process, not as a single event. You don’t “fix” a co-founder relationship once and forget about it for ten years. You work on it as long as you’re working together. Sure, sometimes it’ll occupy more of your attention, and sometimes you’ll focus on other things. However, sitting down together to talk about how the relationship is going regularly can be extremely helpful. We have 1:1s with our team members to stay in sync, as well as board meetings to discuss where the business is. The co-founder relationship is no different.
Finally, if both of you are up for it, consider co-founder coaching. Some coaches, for example, Nathan Parcells or Sanja Moll, specialise in working with co-founders. At times coaches might use tools like Blueprint of We or Tapestry to help both of you get a deeper understanding of what’s going on and of your shared vision. Working with a professional founder coach to help you navigate the dynamic will offer structure and accountability to keep working on your co-founder relationship.
The health of the relationship between co-founders should be a top priority for startup founders as a breakdown in this relationship can easily lead to the demise of the business.
If you sense that your relationship with your co-founder is in danger of deteriorating, take some time to figure out what you want. Instead of approaching the situation with a negotiation mindset, focus on building a more positive emotional dynamic. Once both parties feel secure, valued, heard, and respected, a path forward will become clear.
It is best if both founders are truly willing to work on their relationship, but even one person can make great progress by following six practices. These include letting go of the need to always succeed, understanding your deepest motivations, resisting the urge to change the other person, learning to feel your emotions, improving communication, and always telling the truth. Although these practices may seem simple, they can be challenging to implement consistently.