4 Sane Strategies for Maintaining Healthy Co-Founder Relationships
Talking things out in detail beforehand is essential. Learn to be okay with disagreements.
Brian and Mark were like two peas in a pod. They'd known each other for six years, had been college roommates, and even spent a few summers surfing in Costa Rica together. What they both held in common was a zeal for innovation and an idea for an app they were equally passionate about.
In those initial days, they'd brainstorm together at cafes, type out ideas on their iPads and hash out details.
Until boom, they became co-founders with a newly minted startup on their hands.
Everything was going great — they held a similar vision and goals, complemented one another's skill sets and genuinely enjoyed each other's company.
What they hadn't predicted, however, was how to deal with disagreements.
It's a story I've heard often enough throughout the 16 years of building my own company, Jotform — watching co-founders butt heads over something minor.
"Founder drama happens even in situations where you wouldn't expect it to crop up," writes Garry Tan for TechCrunch.
I have gone the solopreneur route, but that doesn't mean I haven't had my fair share of disputes with colleagues. Creating a business is already a challenging endeavor to begin with, and the last thing you want is to have an ongoing conflict with your closest ally. That's why I'd like to share some lessons I've learned along the way. Here are four sane strategies for maintaining healthy co-founder relationships.
1. Be crystal clear on each of your roles
One of the top reasons new startups get derailed is because each partner was ambiguous about expectations before things began. That's why it's necessary to get as detailed as possible and put it on paper. Who is in charge of what, exactly? What happens if one of you becomes seriously ill? Or if your values become incompatible?
I remember a good friend telling me how important it was for people considering marriage to go over things like how many kids they wanted to have, what their financial goals were, how they would handle family conflicts, etc. I thought to myself, That makes perfect sense for the business world too. Co-founder relationships involve a level of commitment not unlike marriage, which means you want to be on the same page.
I believe that like dating, there's a honeymoon phase with startups as well, where you just have faith that things will work themselves out because you're caught up in the rush of excitement. But the reality is, being super clear on what each of your roles will be can help prevent myriad issues down the road.
Clarifying your roles will also help you both avoid confusion because you each agree on what responsibilities the other will be in charge of.
My advice? Explore different scenarios that could come up — you can even rehearse these like exercises. The point is to each get on board and hold productive dialogues before diving into business together.
2. Learn to be okay with healthy disagreements
I like to talk about transparency a lot because it's often the key to collaborative conversations. Startups are tough just by their nature, and when you're both in the midst of your "What happens if..?" discussions, I find it's essential to speak openly and honestly about any concerns at that moment. As Alisa Cohn explains in her story for Harvard Business Review, "Even though you can't fully predict how you'll feel in the future, covering scenarios before they happen helps each of you think and talk openly about how you might react to lay the groundwork for a good process."
She adds that it will also help "maintain your strong relationship, even during high-pressure, quick-turnaround decisions."
Choosing the right co-founder is one of the most impactful decisions you'll make when it comes to your business, so you want to get comfortable knowing that disagreements will crop up and that when they do, you'll be capable of talking things through productively.
3. Keep cultivating your relationship outside of work
It's no surprise that building a startup can become all-consuming. When I first started out as a young entrepreneur, it was all I'd talk about with colleagues. Inside and outside of the office. It happens subconsciously — there's a lot to think about, and it's easy to become obsessed.
Over the years, I've taken a much more moderate approach and have realized the need to cultivate my relationships outside of work meetings. I agree with Cohn when she recommends co-founders spend unstructured time together to help both of you feel more relaxed and at ease. "It builds trust, and trust is essential to making sure you work together, support each other's decisions when you hear about them from others and handle conflict," she explains.
One of my favorite ways of connecting with colleagues is by going on bike rides, taking hikes and sharing meals outside of the office. Regardless of if you're both starting out or have been in business for years, this is one of the most important aspects of maintaining harmonious ties.
4. Don't rule out seeking outside help
I'm just going to put this out there: Conflicts are inevitable. Even when it seems like you're putting in all the effort to get on the same page, things might not necessarily click.
In his book The Founder's Dilemma, Harvard Business School professor Noam Wasserman asserts that 65% of startups fail because of interpersonal tensions. It makes sense; there are a lot of ups and downs when building a business.
If you're struggling to see eye-to-eye, you don't have to try to resolve it on your own. There is a myriad of coaches and consultants for business partnerships that can help co-founders going through recurring conflicts manage tension and successfully get on the same page.
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