February 23, 2014
Do you ever wish things were going better with your co-founder? Do you wish you could look each other in the eyes after yet another late night and sing, “Two hearts, believing in just one mind. You know we’re two hearts, believing in just one mind”? Is this too corny? Would a set of male co-founders resonate with it? Just curious.
Unfortunately, things aren’t as easy as Phil Collins made them sound back in the day. Leadership expert John Maxwell is certainly right about the “law of the rubber band” — that we’re truly effective only when stretched.
A good co-founder relationship can be a delicate dance: You don’t want a yes man (or woman), but you also don’t want someone who’s your polar opposite. Co-founders spend an inordinate amount of time together, and tensions can run high when careers, a company, and millions of dollars of investors’ money are at stake.
Disputes between two founders are inevitable, so effective conflict resolution is a must. The worst thing you can do is allow a disagreement to fester — your attitude sets the tone for the whole company.
Know What’s Really Important
Co-founders generally argue about three categories of issues. Creatively, we’ve labeled them small, medium, and big. The small things are those that you or your partner will easily shrug off: how the office is laid out, who sits where, and the details of the holiday party.
Medium-level issues actually affect the business. These merit discussion, but are rarely personal. Where should we allocate budgets? Should we hire a programmer or marketer? They matter, but they aren’t enormous problems.
The big issues are those that affect several people — and likely you, personally. What direction is the company headed? Should we seek venture funding or go it alone? How do we manage equity and compensation? The final one is important, and we learned that the hard way.
The two of us had discussed how much to pay ourselves, but it was extremely uncomfortable for both of us, so we swept it under the table. During an interview with a potential investor, he asked how much we would be paying ourselves. We told him we hadn’t decided. He was shocked that we’d neglected to nail down something so basic, and he passed on investing. This was a great lesson in the importance of tackling even the awkward issues.
The First 24 Hours after a Disagreement
You’ve had a falling out with your partner. Don’t worry! Just because you had a disagreement doesn’t mean the world is coming to an end. Both of you need to take a deep breath, think things over, and meet.
Step 1: Wait, but not too long. Disagreements can be emotional, but in a business context, you need to use logic instead of your heart or ego. Give yourself some time. If that means sleeping on it, that’s OK — especially in the sleep-deprived startup atmosphere. (The “never go to bed angry” rule doesn’t apply here.) This is your company and the person who started it with you. Both are important and deserve clear thinking.
Don’t wait too long, though. If something is eating at you, it’s better to let the other person know. Many of us tend to ascribe false meanings to something a person said or did that troubles us. We often guess, incorrectly, at the true meaning. Talking things through helps eliminate these misconceptions.
Step 2: Schedule a time to talk. My co-founder and I have a lunch meeting every Friday, just the two of us, to discuss business and whatever else needs attention. People tend to be less defensive and more vulnerable when eating, so we naturally open up. If you know the meeting is coming, you’ll also be more likely to get ready for it, minimizing the chance of lashing out with hurtful comments in the heat of the moment.
Step 3: Prepare to articulate what’s bothering you. Take time to do something that relaxes and focuses you. It could be a workout or anything without interruption that allows you to be introspective. After that, gather your thoughts and summarize them.
Step 4: Discuss the problem. When you meet, try not to talk in accusatory terms like “You always….” Instead, use phrases such as “I feel…” or “I think…” to communicate your thoughts.
Step 5: Follow up. Take notes during the meeting, and then revisit them throughout the following week. I transcribe my notes and tag them in Evernote with “Founder Meeting” so I can refer to them later. Start your next meeting together by revisiting the previous one to ensure you’re getting back on track together.
Don’t Fight in Front of the Kids
The founders are like the parents of any company. And when Mom and Dad aren’t doing well, it affects everyone else. The old rule of not fighting in front of the kids (other team members) applies here, and it’s important to have these regular “date nights” to keep the partnership strong.
My co-founder and I have kept our weekly meetings sacred for five years. Even if one of us is traveling, we reschedule the lunch to meet another day — it’s that important! If you can’t sit down and have an honest (and usually hard) conversation, how can anyone else count on you?
You can’t let poor communication, vague misunderstandings, or your crazy work schedule stand in the way of your relationship as co-founders. Sure, things get tough at times, but this is your shared dream — and you have an office full of people counting on you. Take a deep breath, sit down, talk it out, and get back to business. Remember: There’s a reason you chose each other.
Guest author Rustin Banks is the CEO of TapInfluence, which creates influencer marketing software for brands and agencies. Rustin wrote his first line of code at 12 and hosted computer bulletin boards out of his closet at 13. His lifelong love of technology has led him to start companies that change the way we interact online. Connect with Rustin on Twitter.
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