What if I told you that you could have a healthy and trusting co-founder relationship? What if I told you that you could meet any roadblock head on? What if I told you there were simple practices to create a stronger union with your co-founder? Here’s the good news: this is all possible.
I’ve been working with co-founders as an investor and coach for a decade, and while I’ve helped many co-founders improve their communication and deepen trust, I’ve witnessed countless co-founder splits. This includes numerous clients, friends, and even my wife. I’ve seen close friends, college roommates, and former colleagues come together only to drift—or break—apart. I’ve seen long-time and close relationships end sadly. I’ve also seen the conflicts among co-founders damage and sink companies.
The majority of startups fail due to business partnerships that sour. According to Noam Wasserman, a former Harvard Business School Professor, co-founder conflict is the number one killer of startups. His research suggests more than 65% of startup failures are due to co-founder issues.
Every partnership experiences conflict. It’s inevitable. Oftentimes co-founders see and feel conflict but fail to engage in the conversation or rituals needed to move past the conflict. Organizations, individuals, needs, wants, values, and life circumstances all change, but we can be resistant when things change around us, and even create conflict where there could be conversation. Keep in mind that while conflict itself is unavoidable, you and your co-founder can put in the work that will turn those conflicts into opportunities for growth, and expressions of empathy and mutual respect.
We need to start seeing conflict as the starting point of a better, more honest relationship. A good co-founder relationship is not only crucial for the success of your company, but for the health and safety of you, your partner, and the rest of your team.
What is conflict?
Conflict is defined as competitive or opposing action of incompatibles. The word is derived from conflictus which means "a striking together.” There’s internal conflict when multiple “parts” of you are torn. Conversely, there’s external conflict when multiple people or groups clash. You might not see conflict as constructive, but in certain contexts, conflict can be mutually beneficial, facilitating understanding, tolerance, learning, and effectiveness. Conflict—disagreement—is bound to happen in the process of merging two differing perspectives into a new coherent path forward. It can even be a sign that you’re onto something new and unique.
In short: conflict in relationships is common and can even be healthy and respectful. Every relationship has its challenges. A lack of open conflict can be a sign that big issues are festering beneath the surface. And there are different shades of conflict. It’s not always this explosive situation where two people are battling with each other. It can also be not agreeing with a certain decision but not speaking up about it. Conflict can manifest in different ways.
Even the healthiest partnerships have ups and downs. That’s natural. Ask anyone who is married or in a long-term partnership. The key is figuring out how to communicate with each other through conflict in a way that honors the relationship and the company.
Importance of Maintenance and Investment
All relationships take a significant investment in time and energy. You shouldn’t just invest in your partnership when times are good.
Think of your co-founder relationship like a car. It needs gas to get from point A to point B. Without fuel you won’t arrive at your destination. Furthermore, it needs a tune up and oil change every 5,000 miles. Without regular maintenance, the engine will cease to work properly and you’ll break down. Finally, your car requires a wash when it gets dirty. Without this, your vehicle will have dirt and grime all over it and you won’t fully appreciate it.
While taking care of your car might seem like a chore and pain in the ass, it’s always well worth the time, energy, and money. It keeps your car on the road, prevents breakdowns and lowers your total cost of ownership.
Your co-founder relationship is no different. The more you neglect your relationship, the more problems you’ll likely run into. The more you invest in your relationship, the more you’ll be able to solve even bigger problems. And think about how much you can do to keep your car in shape, and put it back in shape after you roll over a curb or after a hard winter rusts the undercarriage—it’s ok to need help.
I can’t stress the importance of investing in your co-founder relationship. Do this while things are solid—investing in a relationship is about maintaining the good as much as shoring up against the inevitable bad. Start as early in the relationship as possible. Just because you only have 5,000 miles on your car doesn’t mean you don’t take it to the shop to get that first service. You do it because you know your car needs this to function well.
I’ve written this post to help you and your co-founder build a relationship that can weather just about any storm. You’ll walk away with more than a dozen practical tools that you can immediately practice with your co-founder. In other words, I’m giving you the car maintenance manual to increase your odds of staying on the road together. My goal for you is a strong and healthy partnership so you can show up authentically and honestly and transparently for each other and your company.
Risks of Not Doing So
I’ve witnessed the toll that co-founder conflict can take on a founder’s psyche and company. This can take many forms. Typically, the signs only become more acute as the relationship becomes neglected. Here are some of the risks you encounter if you don’t invest in your business partnership.
On an individual level, conflict can suck the life and energy out of you. It consumes a tremendous amount of mental bandwidth and time.
I recently helped a founder who was feuding with her co-founder. It was a tough situation because they had just closed a large seed round. She could barely focus on the business because all of her brain power was focused on resolving this situation. She was also out of alignment because what she felt inside didn’t match her actions. She was afraid this conflict would lead to a breakup. It became a massive distraction.
Unresolved conflict, or conflicts that are ignored, will pull you away from what matters most: focusing on the business, doing your job, and building a thriving company.
On a collective level, conflict can impact and jeopardize the performance of the company. It leads to poorer decision making, gunks up the flow of information, and deteriorates the culture.
Companies are complex human systems that co-founders are responsible for creating, managing, and guiding. They collectively set the mission, vision, and values. They determine the strategy of the business. They raise the cash from investors. They hire the team. They bring the initial idea into existence and ensure the company has the appropriate resources to scale and thrive over time. The co-founders set the tone of the business in many ways. When the relationship is not healthy, efficiency and consistency are jeopardized, and all the success of all these activities is put at risk.
I helped a founder a few years ago who was afraid to challenge his co-founder. He struggled to be heard and would often relent to his co-founder because the amount of energy it would require to make himself heard. He felt important decisions were getting watered down.
I’ve also seen how conflict can impede the flow of information. When facts, thoughts and feelings are withheld serious problems can arise. Issues and opportunities in the business can be neglected and missed. That can be the difference between success and failure.
Finally, employees can sense the tension and notice a lack of alignment among co-founders. I’ve seen situations where employees begin to wonder what’s going on between the co-founders, or who they’re supposed to be taking direction from when visions conflict. In many ways, co-founders model the behavior that employees will emulate. Unresolved or ongoing conflict can erode trust, impact the culture, and harm the environment
Here’s my point: conflicts among co-founders that aren't resolved in a healthy way or treated as opportunities for growth can not only lead to bad decisions for the direction of the company, but create a toxic environment for employees.
Common Issues and Red Flags
I’d like to share some of the common issues I’ve seen in my practice. This list is not comprehensive and is not meant to scare you. It’s simply here to give you examples of what frequently arises:
- The CEO is not sharing the spotlight
- There’s a lack of alignment and agreement on the business strategy
- One co-founder, often the non-CEO, can’t scale with the company
- A CEO was never named so there’s management by committee
- Roles and responsibilities were not clearly defined and there’s overlap
- One co-founder is putting in more effort and hours
- The CEO makes unilateral decisions without key execs being aware
- Equity splits don't feel equitable based on contributions
- The non-CEO co-founder would like to be involved with fundraising
I could go on and on. Relationship therapist Esther Perel suggests there are three categories of hidden issues: power and control, care and closeness, and respect and recognition. Many of the issues that I’ve observed over the years fall into one of those categories.
I’ve also seen a number of red flags that might suggest a much bigger problem brewing underneath the surface:
- You stop speaking candidly to each other to avoid conflict
- Your trust battery falls below 70%
- You avoid talking about difficult topics
- You avoid each other in the office and can’t be in the same room
- You stop spending time together outside work
- You don’t intentionally reflect on what the relationship needs
- You withhold thoughts, emotions, judgments, and ideas
- You spend countless hours obsessing over what to say
- You spend countless hours obsessing over what’s been said
- You can never get in a word or don’t feel heard
- You have the same fight over and over again
Psychologist John Gottman can predict the end of a relationship with incredible precision. He discovered four negative behaviors, or “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” that spell disaster for any relationship. These include criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling. These four negative behaviors can also destroy a co-founder relationship.
Gottman also developed the four antidotes which can help any relationship get back on track. These include a positive need, appreciation, responsibility and psychological self-soothing.
In addition to Gottman's antidotes, there are a range of tools and tactics that can help mitigate these negative behaviors, and help co-founders work through issues when they occur. That’s what the next section covers.
Investments You Can Make
You invest countless hours and millions of dollars into your startup. Why not treat your business partnership as worthy of investment too?
You’ll spend more time with your co-founder than just about anyone in your life. Having a strong co-founder relationship is possible, but you need to be committed to each other and the company from day one. And you need to be willing to work on your relationship over and over and over again. You also need to be prepared to feel uncomfortable and face conflict. The key is figuring out ways to weather any storm together.
Below are practical investments and habits that you can begin to implement. I’ve seen these work wonders with teams over the years. These are not a panacea but they’ll certainly help you build a stronger relationship with more intention and trust.
Remember, you invest countless hours and millions of dollars in your startup—investing in your partnership is some of the most important work you can do for the success of that business.
Practice Non-Violent Communication
Non-Violent Communication (NVC) is a framework of communication for speaking and listening that helps us get what we want in ways we are proud of and meet everyone's needs. It was developed by Marshall Rosenberg in the early 1960s. His book on the subject is timeless. Satya Nadella of Microsoft required his executive team to read it when he took over as CEO. NVC helps us take responsibility for our thoughts, actions, and feelings. This post by Erik Torenberg is a great primer.
If You Really Knew Me You Would Know...
One of the tools Challenge Day is best known for is an activity called "If you really knew me." Completing this simple phrase has the power to transform "chit-chat" and “shop-talk” into intimate conversations. The more open and honest we are willing to be, the more intimate and connected we become. This is a powerful icebreaker to use with your co-founder or really anyone else on your team.
Clear Roles and Responsibilities
If you and your co-founder(s) fight about everything all of the time, it may be a sign your roles are not well-defined. Having clear roles and responsibilities is essential if you want to create a high-performing organization and avoid conflict. This will improve accountability, collaboration, clarity around decision making, and visibility into skill gaps. Without this, team members are likely to waste energy negotiating roles, protecting turf or spinning their wheels. If your roles aren’t clearly defined, I suggest starting by making a list of functional areas and tasks and then mapping those to who does what as well as your strengths and areas of competence.
Be Impeccable With Your Agreements
Making clear agreements requires being very specific about who does what by when. Most people and leaders are sloppy with their agreements. You should keep the vast majority of your agreements. That’s how trust is earned and built. When it’s clear you won’t be able to meet an agreement, renegotiate it immediately. If for whatever reason you break an agreement, it should be cleaned up appropriately. This is how you begin to take 100% responsibility for the agreements you make. I love this video from Conscious Leadership Group that asks the question: are you in integrity with your agreements?
Note the Positives
It’s easy to see your partner’s defects and weaknesses when you’re with them all the time. This is why I recommend keeping a running list of positive qualities and interactions. It can be a simple document with bullets on your phone or desktop. What do you admire? What traits and contributions do you value? What is possible with them? What isn’t possible without them? This helps you create perspective when times get bumpy.
Express Thanks and Gratitude
When you’re sprinting 10,000 miles an hour and working on the business twelve hours a day, it can be easy to take your partner for granted. First and foremost, make sure you know how your partner likes to receive praise (and criticism!)—in public or private, written or live? Everyone is different. Don’t forget to acknowledge and thank them when they do exceptional work or go above and beyond expectations. Don’t forget to share compliments about their work and contributions. What impressed you? What do you appreciate about them? Let them know.
Get Outside Together
Making time for each other outside work is essential—it allows you to remember that each of you is human, and to bond and connect in a less pressurized environment. Be proactive about this time, and protect it. Block the time on your calendars. Make it a priority. This can include regular catch-ups. Go for a hike. Play video games. Go golfing. Grab a meal. Find something you both enjoy—but it’s more about the bonding ritual than the specific activity. This might not be for every team but I’ve heard many founders claim this practice can be restorative.
I vs You
It’s easy to point fingers and place blame on your partner. That’s why starting statements with “I” is so powerful. I noticed. I feel. I need. I want. Share your own experience. What stories are you telling yourself? How are you reacting? What’s missing for you? How do you feel at that moment? Starting with I can become a superpower both at work and at home. It helps you begin to take responsibility for your own experience.
We Over Me
Remember that you and your partner(s) are on the same team, and you want the same thing: a successful company that has an impact. With each action and reaction, don’t forget to ask yourself: What’s best for the company? Is this decision or behavior serving my ego or the business? There can be times you let your ego get the best of you. We’ve all been there. Don’t forget this is a team effort. You’re trying to build something bigger than yourself.
Agree on Problems Before Solutions
Co-founders often dive into problem solving mode before the problem is identified. This often leads to frustration, confusion and stalemates. A coach and former founder that I’m close with sees this frequently. One co-founder wants a remote office, the other wants a hybrid. They're frustrated they can't agree. But what problem are they trying to solve? There are many other examples of this playing out in startups. I recommend getting very clear and agreeing on the issue at hand before going into problem solving mode. When you’re not clear on the problem it can be like the dog chasing its tail.
Avoid words like ALWAYS and NEVER. They suggest your partner is defective or has a negative personality flaw. Hyperbolic and over-generalized words will put your partner on the defensive. Such absolutes will likely exacerbate the problem and cause further disconnection. Instead, describe specific behavior and instances that you observe. Begin to think in percentages. How much do they do xyz or behave in that manner? Finally, be aware of and note exceptions. You’ll likely begin to separate narratives and facts.
Separate Fact from Story
You want to separate the stories you tell yourself about your co-founder with observable behavior. Sometimes we build other people and events (and ourselves!) up in our heads in ways that wouldn’t be reflected by a video recording. Try and identify what is opinion, belief, judgment, and interpretation, and listen even when your partner says or does something that contradicts your story about them. Get in the habit of sharing facts and noting when you find yourself in storytelling mode.
What’s Under the Surface?
I learned this in my coaching program and saw it play out in hundreds of hours coaching founders and co-founders: the presenting problem isn’t usually the burning issue. What’s underneath the surface? What need are you craving that’s not being met in this relationship? What’s behind that need for you? Respect? Control? Connection? Trust? Authenticity? Belonging? Empathy? Transparency?
Every voice on the founding team should have an opportunity to be expressed and heard. That’s why creating space for and honoring all voices is so essential. We’re all wired differently. Some of us prefer to express ourselves verbally in the moment while others prefer to write things down. Discuss with your partners how you like to communicate and how you like to be communicated with. Some teams I’ve worked with allow for 5-10 second pauses between speakers so other voices can emerge. I’ve also seen teams provide an opportunity for everyone to speak without interruption for a period of time. This ensures the loudest room in the voice isn’t the only one that is heard and all ideas, thoughts, feelings are shared openly.
Take a Break
There may be a time when emotions flair up and you find yourself in fight or flight. Remember, it’s ok to take a break from the discussions, go for a walk, and reconvene later in the day. This helps get some distance to calm the nervous system. It’s very hard to think rationally and clearly when you’re in the heat of conflict. I suggest talking with your co-founder to identify what situations might call for a pause in the action. I also recommend creating a special word that indicates if/when a break is needed. Sometimes a break is all that is needed to show up more open, creative and willing to find a solution that is a win for all.
One Session, One Issue
It’s easy to feel overwhelmed at times with the issues in the relationship. They even may seem insurmountable. That’s normal. Remember, you don’t have to solve all of your problems in one sitting. This will take some time. Try to focus on one issue at a time. Ask yourself, what are the priorities? What’s burning? If I could solve just one thing what would it be? Getting clear on these questions will help you identify what’s essential. Once you get clear you can address this critical topic rather than boiling the ocean. Take a page from the Navy SEALs: the only way you can eat an elephant is one bite at a time.
Sharing the Spotlight
Most people want to feel recognized and appreciated for their contributions building a company. That’s why discussing how you and your co-founders tell your story and share the spotlight is essential. Who in the relationship gets energy from attention and who doesn’t? How might each of you be able to represent the company publicly and authentically? What makes the most sense for the company, the individuals, and partnership? It might make sense for the CEO to take certain kinds of interviews and appearances while the CTO takes others. Getting ahead on this early will help avoid problems down the road.
Practice Active Listening
Active listening is where you make a conscious effort to hear not only the words that another person is saying but, more importantly, the complete message being communicated. You do this by paying attention to not only what is being communicated verbally and non-verbally, but also reflecting back what you heard and interpreted. Here’s what I think I heard you say. Is that right? Practicing your active listening skills are not only valuable for your working relationship but also your personal relationships. It’s a skill for life worth cultivating because the people around you will feel heard and understood even if you don’t agree with them. Here’s a solid primer on active listening.
Block out an hour every quarter and answer the following questions about your co-founder relationship:.
- How do I feel about my relationship?
- What are the bright spots?
- What stories do I tell myself about them?
- What am I avoiding with them?
- What have I been withholding from them? This includes information, ideas, emotions, agreements, judgements, desires, comparison, lies, gratitude.
- Have I kept all my agreements with them?
- Am I blaming? How?
- Do I feel like we have each other’s back?
- Can we count on each other?
- Can we trust each other?
- How do I want the relationship to evolve? What do I want?
- How can we invest in our partnership?
- What color would you assign to your relationship: red (insurmountable problems), yellow (solvable problems and need help), or green (all good)? Why?
Get a Coach
Coaches help you get from where you are to where you want to go. They can help you navigate conflicts, overcome roadblocks, and develop new skills. It doesn’t matter if you get professional coaching individually or collectively. The point is to enlist resources to ensure the health of the partnership. If you don’t have a coach or can’t afford one, consult with your most trusted friends, investors, and mentors. You might find my Entrepreneur’s Guide to Finding a Coach helpful.
Invest in Tapestry
Having these conversations without direction is nearly impossible to do safely, and having a third party present does even more to ensure that the conversation is healthy and productive and fosters psychological safety. If you are considering starting a company with someone, or if you're already five years in, Tapestry can help. It’s a template and a ritual that I developed with my collaborator Eric Friedman. Tapestry is a framework and process that leads to stronger and healthier partnerships. You’ll emerge with a personal manual and shared language for working better together.
Putting It All Together
Starting and scaling a company with another person is an exhilarating endeavor. It’s an opportunity to join forces and combine your superpowers to create something much greater than you could on your own. Creating and maintaining a strong relationship that allows for this power takes a tremendous amount of time, energy, and patience. Investing in your partnership isn’t going to be easy, but it is possible, and the rewards are boundless:
Greater empathy for each other.
You can show up as yourself and not have to hold back.
Greater risk taking and psychological safety.
We all want and deserve a partner who will unleash the best in us. Someone who will complement and challenge us. We deserve to be the person who does that for someone else. That’s possible if you’re willing to do the work. Your company depends on the health of your partnership.
When it comes to the tactics I’ve shared here, I wouldn’t try to do everything at once. Start by sending this post to your co-founder and discuss what came up for each of you. Review the tactics with your partner, pick one or two that you can start today and begin there. The key is to develop a routine that works for the both of you. Have fun with them. Experiment. See what works and what doesn’t. Every team is different.
It’s also critical to view this as practice—not a “one and done” thing but a consistent part of the important work you do for your startup. Remember, just like with your company, the fruits of your labor might not be evident immediately—but they’re taking root underneath the surface, and soon you and your co-founder will begin to see new shoots breaking through. Be patient and trust the process.
As James Clear has said, “you do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” May you build a system together so you can help the company reach its full potential.
The road won’t be easy but the rewards are endless—trust, respect, empathy and appreciation, and so much more. This is all possible if you’re willing to put in the work.
Best of luck!