Navigating the Cofounder Relationship

Co-founders are great. They provide support when times are hard, ideas can be bounced off of them when the rest of the world is asleep, and they (hopefully) have a skillset that is the yin to your yang. But in the life of a startup, the co-founder relationship can become strained, and can even lead to the death of an otherwise successful company. According to an article from Fortune, 23% of startups fail because of team issues, and another 13% cite disharmony on the team as the cause for failure.

When I was running the social polling startup Pyne, I moved in with my co-founder as a way to save money, as well as a way to give us the opportunity to focus on the business as much as possible. Quickly our work and personal lives became inseparable. In a lot of ways this was a good thing; we spent many nights talking until sunrise about the company and we had a massive whiteboard at home where running lists of tasks and ideas could be kept front and center.

One of the best things about living together was that when something wasn’t going right -- or if anything broke -- we could put our heads together and work to solve the issue immediately. And then have a beer with each other to celebrate. But this post isn’t about the pros of the co-founder relationship, it is about one thing that founders can do when disharmony arises.

During the course of living together and working on Pyne, my co-founder and I had discussions ranging from which name and logo we should choose, to how to divide the grocery bill. And as it goes when being in business with someone, or living with someone, there will be disagreements. I remember one of ours very well. We were having a discussion about the best way to redesign the onboarding system for our app. It had become clear that our current process had too much friction, and it was causing users to drop off. This was a major problem for our business and we both had strong ideas on how to solve it.

As we talked about possible solutions, the conversation lead to a disagreement, which then turned into an argument, and before I knew it we were at each other’s throats. What started out as a productive meeting about a real problem, had now become a fight that was quickly getting out of control. It was at that point I started thinking, We never have these sort of arguments… what’s going on here?

Waiting for the next break in the back and forth, I asked a simple question that has gone on to help me several times since: Do we want the same thing?

That simple, yet powerful question turned our argument back into a conversation. What did we want? After a couple of minutes, we both acknowledged that all we really wanted was what was best for the business. This also led us to realize that we had many other stress points on our minds that needed to be talked about. But we were only able to get to that place of agreement by taking a step back.

The key takeaway here? When arguments between co-founders start to escalate, it’s time to take a step back and try to understand the actual factors at hand -- and talk about where each founder sees their future going. Because in the world of startup hyper stress, the issue that is driving an argument may not be the only factor. That is why it is important to gain perspective and re-establish what each founder wants, and determine other things that might be adding to the disagreement.

In our case, we both wanted the same thing, which is great. However, sometimes the answer to the question is not as straightforward. While it’s not ideal if co-founders want different things, at least an appropriate conversation can be started. By re-establishing the long term goals of each founder, the lines of communication can be opened and a solution can be worked toward.

The co-founder relationship is one of the most incredible and transformative experiences that can be shared with another person. By being able to successfully navigate your relationship through the hard times, you will be able to celebrate with each other during the good times.