Yikes, there’s nothing fun about this topic. Co-founder relationships are unlike any other work relationship. It’s the closest thing to being married, only you work with your co-founders, and you don’t get to register for cool new home gadgets.
The startup journey is extremely stressful. You’re on a rollercoaster and you have no idea what’s around every corner. There’s only so much you can do in the way of planning. This takes its toll on any relationship, and the one you have with your co-founder is no different. Not only is money at stake, so are your biggest and brightest ambitions. That’s a lot to deal with.
It doesn’t matter whether you come together with your BFF to launch something or team up with a partner—it can all easily become a dramatic mess. Co-founders have fallouts for a variety of reasons: personality conflicts, lack of trust, lack of accountability. These issues with stew; over time you’ll have a build-up of resentment. And, there’s no way the rocky nature of your relationship won’t impact your product development or the broader team.
So, what can you do about it, before throwing in the towel and giving up on the relationship altogether?
Be honest about your weaknesses.
They say to hire for your weaknesses. A lot of co-founder relationship issues can stem from weaknesses, like disorganization, chaotic project management, or even bad spending habits. Rather than get angry with your co-founder, maybe you can look to hire help to fill in the gaps and keep the ship afloat. Don’t like how your co-founder spends the cash? Look to hiring a finance director, even on a freelance basis, to help manage the flow. Do you feel like there are constant rushed projects, and lack of communication? Don’t just chalk it up to the flow of startups; hire a project manager who is trained and skilled in seamless project execution.
You may find that your relationship with your co-founder improves at lightning pace, simply by hiring the right talent.
Think about your needs.
And don’t half-ass it — give it some serious, brutal, honest thought. What do you really need to survive startup life? Is it money, is it having a Friday night to breathe? Hell, maybe you just desperately need that Monday morning staff meeting to kick your week off right. Do you need your founder to stop erasing your shit on the whiteboard? It could be big or small, but you need to put it all out there. After all, until you understand your needs, you can’t look to your co-founder to help you realize them.
Get comfortable with feeling awkward.
Start to get super comfortable with having awkward conversations about work, work style and money. Learn to talk things out, even if you hate doing it. They key to communicating is believing that yes, you can find common ground. Now, if your co-founder is avoiding you and refusing to talk, that’s a whole other problem.
Worried about who is pulling their weight?
It doesn’t have to be an even split. If you feel like your co-founder isn’t pulling their weight, fine, maybe they don’t get a full share of the equity. It’s okay to not having everything even and perfectly shared; startups are messy! If your co-founders aren’t doing as much, then have a talk with them and perhaps they’re fine with not taking an equity percentage that more accurately reflects their contributions.
If these strategies don’t work and you’re still at a loss, then perhaps it’s time for the toughest conversation of all: the co-founder breakup.