How to Keep Your Co-Founder Relationship from Sinking Your Startup: Advice from Executive Coach Alisa Cohn
On the one hand, startups with co-founders tend to be more successful. On the other hand, bad relationships and unresolved tensions with co-founders can sink your startup.
As an executive coach who works with startups, I see co-founders at their best and at their worst. And I’ve been brought in multiple times to do some co-founder triage—emergency couples counseling it has often been called.
Building a great co-founder relationship is simple; simple but not easy. The secret is to choose this person wisely. Here’s what to look for:
It’s amazing to me how people can get into business together without a thorough discussion of values. Shared values are a starting point to co-founder success and without them you pretty much have a non-starter.
Startups are fun, exhilarating and wonderful. They’re also turbulent, difficult, long hours and hard work. Having shared values helps you bond and focus on what’s important when the going gets tough—and you can count on the going getting tough.
How do you know if you have shared values?
- You each have a strong sense of your own values
- You’ve talked through the things that are most important to you, your “non-negotiables”
- You know that you can make a decision that your co-founder will agree with without even asking them—you know how they think
- You each are obsessed about building a successful business
Proactively discuss your values with your potential co-founder and see where you’re aligned. Also talk about how you’ll deal with areas in which you are misaligned. It’s particularly important to discuss how you’ll make tradeoffs when you need to and what your most important “guiding north star” is for your relationship and your company.
Founders are, by nature, confident, optimistic and at least a little bit eccentric. It takes audacity and a healthy ego to think that you can successfully weather all the difficult experiences to build something from scratch.
That’s why it’s so important to be able to respect your co-founder. You won’t be able to trust them, to listen to them, or to at times go along against your better judgment—all of which will be necessary at some point or another—unless you respect them.
How do you know you have mutual respect?
- You want each other’s point of view because you know it’ll be valuable
- You genuinely appreciate each other’s unique strengths and skills, and you know they make you and the company better
- Each of you can be direct with each other and not walk on eggshells
- You each think of limitations and failures as opportunities to learn
When you’re thinking about starting your company with a potential co-founder, choose someone who is as intelligent, driven and hard-working as you. Find someone who brings different skills to the table and thinks differently from you, but whose opinion you respect and will want to turn to over and over again.
Productive communication is critical. You have to communicate to stay aligned, to work out normal tensions and conflicts, to create vision and strategy and plans, and to regroup when things go off plan. During tough moments, if the co-founders are communicating the company has a better chance of making it through more easily.
How do you know you have productive communication?
- You tend to err on the side of telling your co-founder what’s on your mind
- You can debate without having it turn personal
- You listen as well you speak
- You share personal concerns with each other
To make sure your communication stays on track, schedule regular meetings to update each other. It’s also a good idea to have time to catch up informally. Two co-founders I coach make it a point to get burgers together once a week; two other co-founders have lunch together twice per week.
It’s also helpful to schedule specific time in which you can specifically bring up conflicts, disagreements and tensions so they don’t fester. If you don’t have specific tensions, practice as if you did! Many people find conflict hard, so getting in the habit of making space for it will make it easier to bring things up.
Choose a co-founder who lines up with your values, whom you respect and with whom you can have productive communication. Then keep investing in each other to build these attributes together.
The ups and downs of startup life won’t go away, but your business life will go a lot more smoothly with the right co-founder.
Editor’s Note: This article was first published on Inc.
Header illustration by Anna Smith.
This will be a long road, but it’s one we’ve been on all along. Some of us just didn’t realize it. Now that we know, it’s time to commit to the journey and make change together.