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Co-Founder’s Tips on How to Not Break Up

Gabe Kwakyi | January 26, 2017

When it comes down to it, co-founding a company with another person is a lot like getting married to them and having a kid.

You both sign a legal document affirming your partnership and at some point you both go from the “this is exciting!” honey moon phase to the jagged rocks of reality. Disagreements spring up over small elements in the day-to-day and escalate into arguments over issues still festering from weeks ago. You start to bicker over finances as your kid/company becomes a giant money pit, putting you into precarious financial positions just to put food/cash on your kid/company’s table. You worry incessantly about the thousand and one tasks that go along with the role of a parent/Co-Founder and oftentimes you lament the failure of most of the ideas you had to make your kid/company happy and grow up well.

Jokes aside, your startup Co-Founder also becomes the person that you know, and who knows you better than anyone else. They become the person you spend more time together with than nearly anyone else in your life, and the person you look at as your best friend, who you can count on no matter what. And, just like a parent’s relationship is often the strongest bond forming the foundation of a family, so, too is a Co-Founder’s relationship crucial to the health and well being of a company.

Some of the answers to how to avoid a Co-Founder’s break up, then, sensibly align with ideas of how to keep a marriage together.

To begin, one of the factors that has proven invaluable in my and my Co-Founder’s relationship has been to remove the ego from the equation. Being led by your ego makes you insular to accepting differing opinions or criticism, simply for the sake of maintaining your ego, and is one of the fastest ways to diminish communication; and communication is the cornerstone of keeping a relationship healthy.

Another cornerstone of keeping a relationship healthy is to build trust by being open and honest. In relationships that support the well-being of direct dependents, each person must feel confident about the level of shared information they know, so that each person can make informed opinions and make proper decisions. Without this confidence of information, trust can erode and decisions can become less-than-efficient due to the decision maker’s desire to protect themselves from the risks of information unknowns, rather than trusting the other person.

Take financial decision-making as an example of the importance of both removing the ego from the equation and being open and honest. After a series of premature investments based on assumptions regarding cash flows, which didn’t pan out, my Co-Founder and I ended up with a sizable amount of accounts paid and yet payable for various investments. Some of these expenditures came from projects my Co-Founder didn’t realize had been active to the degree that they had been, which led to a discussion of our financial spending patterns and a review of these projects. The goal was to figure out what we had spent money on, and what we could take away from those decisions, so that we would preclude the chance of us finding ourselves in a similar situation again. While I could have allowed my ego to prevent an honest analysis of the projects I had given the go-ahead for, I opted to set my ego aside and maintain trust with my Co-Founder, by admitting that the projects were not a good use of our resources and laying bare the subpar logic that had guided my decision-making. By being honest about why I had made those decisions and identifying why they were poorly made decisions, I provided my Co-Founder with the information he needed for us to have a proper discussion, and subsequently the confidence that we had adequately addressed the issue and he needn’t worry about it moving forward. However, had I tried to hide or downplay those decisions or their impact to maintain my ego, it would have eroded my Co-Founder’s trust in me and likely led to a skepticism spanning any future investments, and a resistance to trusting my decision-making abilities.

Related to avoiding ego indulgence and building trust, it’s important to take time to recognize and appreciate your Co-Founder. Without balancing out the negativity that will inevitably arise in and around your company, you can risk allowing that lack of positivity to coagulate into resentment, which can reduce their support of you. Appreciating your Co-Founder also helps them avoid filling in your silence with their own thoughts, which may or may not represent how you feel or what you think. This is important because this divergence of reality from assumed reality can cause issues down the road that add more onto both of your plates, yet can easily be avoided. Recognizing someone for their work builds their belief that you understand their value, which helps establish trust that you value the bond and will trust them when you need to, rather than trying to run the show single-handedly. Showing appreciation for someone doesn’t have to be manifested as gift giving, throwing a party or another big event, either. Appreciating someone can be as easy as saying “good job” or “thank you for taking the time to help me with __.” That said if you have important criticism to offer, it is better to express that feedback rather than hold it in, where it does no good to you or your Co-Founder.

Without ego-free, honest communication and appreciation when merited, it’s easy for the most important relationship in a company to start down a path towards of breaking apart. Thankfully though, communication is also one of the most straightforward methods to keeping Co-Founders from getting to that point, and best of all it costs nothing at all.

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