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What to do when you and your co-founder don't see eye-to-eye

65% of startups fail due to co-founder conflict. Make sure you’re not one of them.

by Rachel O'Regan
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Even the chummiest co-founders are susceptible to a professional falling out. In fact, we’d argue that best friends in business are most prone to fighting.

Is it natural? Yes, there’s money, pride and success on the line. Is it conducive to a strong, efficient and enduring business? Probably not.

In fact, according to Harvard Business School professor Noam Wasserman, 65 percent of startups fail due to co-founder conflict. We don’t like the looks of those odds.

But still, it’s likely you and your co-founder will get into a tussle if you haven’t already. Here are our best tips for weathering the storm and coming out stronger on the other side.

1. Remember that some conflict is a good thing.

Start-ups thrive on passion. Our research shows successful early-stage founders have up to 21 percent more motivation to get things started. That’s motivation to deal with late-night product launches, stakeholder meetings and difficult clients, while continuing to push to achieve a goal.

When you’re putting in so much passion, it’s only natural that you’ll stand up for what you believe is the right way of doing things. In this way, conflict is a sign that you and your co-founder want what’s best for the business.

“It means people care about outcomes, and conflict is far better than apathy,” says the chairman of JetBlue Airways, Joel Peterson. “So, fostering a culture in which conflict is processed openly is as vital as any habit in the creation of a high-trust culture.

2. Trust, trust, trust.

Trust is a big one. Again, you need to remind yourself that your co-founder has also invested a huge deal into this venture, so you need to have faith that their judgments are based on what they think will gain success – even if you disagree with them.

The Techstars blog also makes this very good point: 

You should trust your cofounder to make the decision in the domain in which they are an expert.

If it’s not in your domain, this might mean eating some humble pie and letting them take the reigns on this one. The ultimate act of trust is letting go of control – just a little!

3. Work on your emotional intelligence.

Do you find it difficult to understand where your co-founder is coming from? Is your co-founder often offended by your interactions, even when you don’t bear any animosity?

Emotional intelligence can’t be undervalued in a business setting. With so much riding on venture success, tensions are often high and one misjudged exchange can snowball into warfare.

Try and have empathy for your co-founder’s wants and needs. Also be mindful of your affective communication, including body language and expressions, when dealing with sensitive situations. A smile goes a long way.

4. Keep it focused on business.

It is important that, throughout even the biggest disagreements, you and your co-founder are aligned with your business goals towards success. Make sure this is outlined in a strategy (and we find big posters on the wall do the trick, too).

What you NEVER want to do is make the disagreement personal. If you feel you cannot resolve it peacefully, this may be a good time to bring in a third-party consultant to save your business (and possibly your friendship).

5. Know each other’s strengths and blind spots.

We’re all different. Once we recognize and embrace this instead of fighting it, business relationships can be truly empowered.

Take this case study at Investible Lab. Two co-founders, despite sharing intelligence and passion, could not stop fighting. That’s when Annie Luu, one of the key leaders at Investible had them complete the F4S assessment.

The findings? Co-founder One had a high motivation for affective communication, while co-founder two preferred neutral communication (content over tone). As they couldn’t relate to each other, fighting was inevitable.

Luu helped the co-founders become aware of their different needs and received language coaching. A year later, their business had gone from strength to strength, even expanding to overseas.
 

Fingerprint for Success is an easy, effective way to not only understand your own attitudes and aptitudes, but your co-founders, too. Enable each other’s strengths, balance out blind spots and ultimately maximise your success.

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