The secret to successful and lasting co-founder relationships
Building a business is hard as hell. Keeping it afloat is even harder.
One of the biggest causes of startup deaths is co-founders not getting along with each other, arguing, drifting apart and ultimately splitting up. According to Paul Graham, founder of Y Combinator, “Fights between founders are surprisingly common. About 20% of the startups we've funded have had a founder leave.”
And there's no lack of co-founder conflict stories from all kinds of startups:
- Tiny bootstrapped startup: Co-founder wants me to leave but won't entertain a buy out offer
Imagine spending 11 months building a company, and then your co-founder trying to push you out, offering you a "take 3% equity or own 40% of nothing" kinda deal. Yeah, not good. That's a co-founder relationship that should have been worked on long before it got to that point.
- Unicorn co-founder conflict: Ousted Snapchat co-founder goes to court
The case got settled, so one can only speculate, but again—if it goes to court, that means things got ugly.
- Legendary co-founder conflict: Zuckerberg vs the Winklevosses.
- Cruise, which got acquired by GM for reportedly more than $1B, had to deal with a co-founder claim that they've tried to cheat him out 50% ownership.
That’s why the quality of the relationship among co-founders is one of the most important elements of successful startups.
For the past 6 years, we’ve had plenty of highs and plenty of lows. We’ve run out of money. We’ve raised money. We’ve had to fire people. We’ve hired people. We were almost bankrupt. We turned a profit.
We were faced with a lot of business challenges. But also with a lot of individual challenges.
Despite all of this, the relationship between myself and my two co-founders today couldn’t be more functional, happy or successful.
The secret to building a successful relationship
There are a few secrets to building a successful relationship that are universal. They don’t only apply to the relationship between co-founders—they apply to every single relationship.
Human relationships need maintenance. They won’t stay functional and happy without putting work into them.
To maintain healthy and productive relationships with your founding team, here’s what to do.
Spend quality time with your co-founders
Once a week, we used to do a founders’ dinner. Just the three of us would get together over dinner.
In the beginning, we spent most of our days together. We worked together and ate all our meals together. So having a founders’ dinner seemed kind of ridiculous.
But we also knew that forming habits early would be important, and as we grew and scaled the business, these habits would stay with us forever.
Every Thursday at the same time, we’d sit down together for our founders’ dinner. The format was always the same.
Part 1. Friendship: Catching up, having fun
Anything goes. We’d talk about the business in general, our private lives, whatever came to mind. Just sitting there and having a conversation between friends, telling each other about what’s going on in our lives.
Part 2. Business: Concerns, challenges and fears
This is when we’d talk about whether we were concerned about certain people in the business, the direction we were going in or any other challenges we were faced with. We would honestly and transparently talk about our concerns, no matter how trivial they seemed.
We wouldn't just talk about facts and figures, but also the emotional side of things. How were we feeling? Did something create stress? Did something create anxiety? Not just what we were concerned about and how it made us feel, but also how it impacted our lives at any given time.
Part 3. Individual relationships: Have I pissed you off?
There’s no such thing as a small issue. Nothing’s too small to be brought up and talked about. A relationship doesn’t end over one argument. It deteriorates as all the little things over time build up to the point where you can no longer salvage the situation.
That’s why this part is really important. This is when we’d ask, “Did I do anything to piss you off, confuse you or annoy you that created any form of stress or negativity in your life?” No matter how silly it would seem, we’d address it immediately.
Talk is not cheap
It’s far too common to say, “Oh yeah, it pissed me off for a while, but it’s okay now.” You think you’ve just brushed it off, and that you’re over it. You’re not. Those little things have an ominous way of resurfacing. Over time, they will accumulate and put your relationship at risk.
Whatever it is that bothers you. Talk about it as soon as you can. Because a year from now, two years from now—that thing that you “brushed off” will be brought up one way or another. It’s because we don’t forget. We may have found a way to be okay with it, but we never truly resolved the issue.
If you want to maintain a relationship and keep it healthy, you have to bring up the tiniest issues. Does that make you feel stupid or petty? Get over it. You’ll be in a much better place five years from now if you do.
Confront the conflict, resolve it and move on.
Form habits early
We maintained this tradition for over three years (until our company became more and more remote) and it’s been one of the most important things to the success of our business.
There were times when shit hit the fan and we were truly challenged. During that time of extreme turmoil, if we hadn’t created an environment where we could talk about the issues we were facing, not only with the company, but also with each other—it would have destroyed the business.
In the beginning, it might feel unnecessary, but do it anyway in order to form the habit. Because once the business grows, and the structure of the company becomes more departmentalized, you won’t be working together as closely as you once did.
As you spend your days not interacting with each other as much as you used to, setting some space aside to spend time with each other becomes even more important.
Co-founder diversity and building trust
Between my two co-founders and I, we couldn’t be any more different. Trust me. What we do have in common are the same values, goals and sense of humor. And that’s why we’re working together in the first place.
Having a diverse co-founder team is a good thing, but it could also be a potential source of friction unless you learn to accept each other the way you are. That means the good, the bad and the small things that sometimes drives you crazy. You have to accept it all.
Ultimately what you’ll learn is that you’re much better together than you are apart. At the end of the day, that’s what not only makes the relationships work, but also what makes the business work.
Now, if you’re a founder yourself, make sure that you spend quality time with your co-founders. Pick a day, time and place when you’ll all get together and have an open and honest conversation about the business and your relationships. Make sure you stick to it—no rescheduling allowed.
As time passes, you’ll find yourself in a trusting, transparent and honest relationship with your co-founders, which will hopefully lead to a transparent and successful business.
Do you have any secrets to share on how to maintain healthy relationships with your co-founders? Make sure to share them in the comments, I’d love to hear them.
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