Interview a group of Cofounders about interpersonal dynamics between them and their other founder and you’ll very likely hear “I just don’t get why they do this or that!” It’s a common refrain, one that points to the difficulties of a sound Cofounder relationship. To improve this relationship, it’s important to look inward at one’s own motivations and feelings and to work diligently to build trust.
Every Interaction is a 50/50
There are two sides to every conversation. It’s important to remember that every interaction with your cofounder involves each of you contributing to 50 percent of the conversation, which includes actual speaking, body language, etc. It’s not a superior-subordinate dynamic where the “superior’s” opinion often needs to carry more weight because they’re fully responsible for the other’s wellbeing.
Remember that “differences in opinion” are not really examples of the Cofounder being unreasonable, they’re simply taking a position. Consider two Cofounders who are debating whether or not company interns should be paid, or if the experience with the company is payment enough. In my experience, this particular question has divided Cofounders who see it as a broader philosophical disagreement. Ideally, you and the Cofounder can talk about this constructively and come to a conclusion that makes sense. The problem is most people avoid any type of conflict, even when it’s just a case of different viewpoints. Navigating such discussions is a very important soft skill that involves active listening and persuasion. Approaching all of the disagreements as 50/50 interactions is an important skill that will make the Cofounder partnership stronger.
Mutual Trust Reduces Conflicts
Building a constructive rapport with the Cofounder is largely based on respect and trust. Do you respect their opinions and do you trust them to make sound decisions? Developing this trust means giving the Cofounder the benefit of the doubt, in terms of having confidence they’ll make morally sound decisions. Trust also can prevent resentment, a sentiment that slowly erodes any relationship. For example, if one person feels they are benefiting more from the business than the other, then that dynamic will likely cause friction. The trust at the beginning of the relationship must include talks about which role each Cofounder will take in the business and any sort of financial compensation arrangements.
Without trust it’s much more likely to find the Cofounder saying and doing things that don’t make sense or our contrary to your own plan for the business or the staff. You’ll be more likely to take disagreements personally, especially when you have a more gut reaction to something that you feel violates your values. And in this context this doesn’t mean your Cofounder does something heinous, it could be something as simple as not paying interns that’s in conflict with your values.
Understanding and Adjusting to Founder Team Dynamics
Consider two Cofounders of a tech startup firm that’s creating a new and exciting app. One is the extroverted sales and bizdev-focused founder, and the other is the introvert who handles the coding and the back-end tech. A cliché for sure, but a fairly common scenario. These two types can work together well, but they have to understand each other’s side in order to move the company from the startup phase to an established player.
Perhaps the company reaches a milestone and there’s a reason to celebrate. The extrovert Cofounder might want to take everyone out to drinks at a succession of loud bars. That’s fun for the fellow extroverts, but likely painful for the quieter group. The introvert founder might instead want to give people the chance to go home early for a quiet evening so they can recharge. Neither Cofounder is “wrong” in their approach, and would need to work collaboratively to find a middle ground. The extrovert might need to tone down the locale for the evening to perhaps a quieter bar or restaurant. On the other side, the introverted Cofounder should understand success has to be celebrated, so perhaps they ask someone else to do any party planning. The key is for each person to take ownership of their personalities and understand how that can influence their decisions for the company.
Personal interactions between Cofounders aren’t always rational because each person has their own values and motivations. When a Cofounder says something that makes you have a gut physical reaction, you have to take a minute and realize you’re responding to your own feelings. Recognize these feelings, take a presence pause and then make rational and non-judgmental recommendations to your partner about a different course of action. Some self-talk is useful, so you can perhaps say “my physical reaction was strong and my values were affected, so I really need to pay attention to my response”. It’s a great exercise to help with any interpersonal relationship, not just the Cofounder arrangement.
Put in Work at the Beginning
While it’s crucial to see your part in every interaction and to manage your emotions, there are certainly red flags to any Cofounder partnership. You need someone that is at least open to differences in opinion and personality. Polar opposite personality types and approaches might not lead to success for the company because it’s too likely the disagreements won’t be constructively resolved. To spot these types of problems in advance, it’s important to have some experiences together with potential Cofounders. Pay attention to their motivations, how they agree or disagree with other opinions, and if their core values are aligned with yours. And once you create a company, then you have to do more than just setting the roles and responsibilities. That doesn’t keep people “in their lane”. You should set responsibilities but also integrate core values into the daily habits of doing business, so you agree more often and avoid any type of lingering resentment.