The cofounder relationship is a special one. It’s one of implicit trust; of relying on another person in almost every way possible; and of constant communication. A co-founder relationship requires hard work and can at times become turbulent.
And it is that potential turbulence that makes it so important for co-founders, no matter how well they know each other, to invest in the relationship. A successful business partnership is in many ways like a marriage. To thrive, both parties must work together, recognize their symmetrical values and complementary skills, and communicate their needs clearly on a daily basis.
When approached with the reverent care that a true relationship deserves, a co-founder relationship will be stronger and in turn, so will the business. Let’s look at some of the strategies you can apply to ensure this is the case for your business.
Daily Touch Points to Maintain a Strong Co-Founder Relationship
For co-founders to work well together, they need to invest in their relationship consistently. That means frequent one on ones for at least 15 minutes between founders, ideally every day. In a high stress environment, it’s common for issues to arise and for the seeds of resentment to sprout. A daily meeting addresses these issues immediately and keeps them from festering. Moreover, make sure both parties are 100% clear on the desired outcome of a conversation. A literal approach is recommended, asking “Are we clear?” when discussing a potentially thorny topic. Only when the other party says “Yes, we’re clear,” should the issue be settled.
Fifteen minutes a day can go a long way in strengthening the bond between co-founders and keeping them on the same page, but it’s important to carve out larger chunks of time every few months for deeper introspection. Quarterly founder retreats are a perfect time to discuss subjects like the co-founder relationship, company mission, vision, and other higher-level items that might have changed in the last few months.
The Roots of Conflict in a Co-Founder Relationship
Limited resources, uncertainty, a high likelihood of failure – these are just some of the daily hurdles you and your co-founder will face. Because of these stressors, this environment can bring out the worst in people. But behavior driven by fear response is often a zero sum game. Conflict can sprout from almost anywhere. It can center around everything from personal relationships to business decisions, but will almost always manifest in communication, power dynamics and trust.
The secret to managing these challenges is to strive for healthy disagreement that is solution oriented and leads to new ideas. In an ideal situation, in which a strong relationship runs smoothly, there are certain best practices you should aim to follow:
- Limiting Hyperbole – Stick to the facts. It’s easy to become emotionally engaged in an argument and use extreme examples. This can be disingenuous, however, and push away the other party. Moreover, it doesn’t accurately frame your concerns. It’s more of a distraction than a help.
- Using I-Messages – Focus on your feelings and beliefs rather than those you might attribute to your co-founder. It’s easy to fall into a habit of blame based on assumptions about the other person. Instead share how their actions make you feel and what your beliefs are about the current situation.
- Addressing Behavior – In conflict, speak to the actions and behavior with which you have an issue, not the character of your co-founder. Make this about the issue, not the person.
- Open Ended Questions – Encourage communication and discussion with open-ended questions that draw meaningful responses from each other. The goal of your questions should not be to solicit regret or apology, but to understand the other person’s perspective. In business this can lead to new and exciting ideas that help both you and your partner grow alongside the business.
The relationship with your co-founder will have ups and downs. Engage in open-ended dialogue daily to avoid issues that could undermine what you’ve created together.
The Evolution of Co-Founder Dynamics as a Company Grows
Co-founder relationships are apt to change with time – evolving to reflect the current state of your business and the strengths or weaknesses of each individual.
Scale is a prime example. The problems a company faces when they have 10 employees are very different than the ones faced when it has 50, 80 or 150 people. A technical cofounder might be a phenomenal software engineer but struggle in relationships. In the early days of the company, they can focus exclusively on code and building the best possible product, but when it comes to managing large teams, they might struggle. If one co-founder scales well into leadership and the other struggles to adjust to a larger company in which their time is less hands-on and more focused on interpersonal relationships, tension can develop.
These pivotal junctures in the growth of a company can break a co-founder relationship. In situations like this, the co-founder who is struggling will ideally accept help and be open to coaching as they learn to fill a new role in the business. In the short term, however, they may have to be flexible and tolerate the introduction of new executives in the org chart for the health of the company.
There are plenty of situations that may arise, depending on the individuals involved and the unique nature of their relationship. The key is to remain open minded and accepting of outside support and advice. It’s important to stay open to feedback from one another and keep the lines of communication open so it never feels personal when you receive criticism or development opportunities.
Learn more about how to build, manage, and maintain the health of a co-founder relationship in our upcoming webinar, featuring Torch CEO Cameron Yarbrough and co-founder of Justin.tv and Twitch.tv, and current Atrium CEO Justin Kan, The Secret to Successful Co-Founder Relationships: Webinar Presentation with Justin Kan, September 25, 2018, 11:00am PDT / 2:00pm EDT