A remarkable statistic to throw your way …
“65% of high-potential startups fail due to conflict among co-founders”
This statement was made by Noam Wessman, Harvard Business School Professor and author of The Founder’s Dilemma who states that co-founders fall out for many reasons, such as money, business strategy, and leadership.
A simple solution to this problem is to create a founders or shareholders agreement from the very beginning of the partnership. This agreement should aim to set out some of the roles, duties and expectations for each co-founder, though you have to be realistic that founders roles and duties are often a fluid thing within startups.
The key clauses within a founders agreement will ultimately be about giving co-founders the security they need if/when conflict arises.
Whether you’ve started or thinking about starting a business with at least one co-founder, we identify some of the main issues you might face, alongside some potential solutions.
Potential Causes of Conflict
- Not having the same business goals
Selecting the wrong partner and/or getting the wrong fit, is often the key problem behind co-founder conflict.
No startup has an easy ride and the bumpy ride that is almost guaranteed, will put that co-founding team under enormous pressure.
It’s therefore critical that the core of that team are well matched, not in skills (you want the different parts of the team to be complementary) but in mindset, ethos, attitude. This makes setting business goals and having an aligned ambition for your startup, so much easier.
Having the same business goals is an indicator that you and your co-founders are in agreement. You’re likely to have the same vision which will make it easier to monitor and manage growth within the company.
When co-founders don’t have the same expectations, this will often result in conflict as the different and often strong personalities (you have to have a certain innate stubbornness to launch a startup) clash over different visions.
Getting the wrong fit, and having no goal = surefire recipe for disaster.
- Not investing resources equally
In order to prevent resentment and tension build up, it is important that co-founders try to invest equally in their time, resources and wider assets.
If not investing resources equally, there will clearly need to be a conversation about how the equity is divided, to be confirmed within the agreement. The agreement will map out whether equity in the company is going to be shared equally among the co-founders or if there needs to be an agreement based on the percentage of resources that co-founders contributed.
Never underestimate how a loose agreement and muddy understanding of the original terms, can come back to bite if/when conflict or exit emerges.
Generally it’s important that co-founders are investing their time, money and resources equally as this will reduce the potential for later conflict but in the event they’re not, then it’s critical everything is set out in detail at the start and no co-founder feels there is an imbalance or overburden.
- Not having a great fit
As mentioned above, a crucial element in achieving a well-functioning relationship is that co-founders complement and support each of your mutual strengths and weaknesses. This perspective can take many different forms.
Understanding what those strengths and weaknesses are is an initial and crucial step to forming a strong team, and where you need to be most supportive or conversely, know when to step away.
Supporting your co-founders in their area of weakness is about an honesty between the team in acknowledging those gaps and a willingness to address them. No-one is superhuman and startup founders can suffer from delusions and chutzpah about their own talents.
Aim to get a well rounded team of co-founders (very important factor when looking to raise funds) and for any areas of collective weakness, delegate that area to a third party.
Finding a great fit is crucial but then, honesty and support is critical. With that in the background, your startup will have a much better chance to survive and thrive, no matter what external or internal conflicts that may arise because you and your co-founders know that you will get through it together. Teamwork makes the dream work.
- Lack of communication
Honesty (or lack of) is also a key problem when it comes to communication and, failure to communicate within a hard pressed startup can be fatal.
Honest communication channels are such an important factor in a successful co-founder relationship.
According to Garry Tan, managing partner at Initialized Capital, “sometimes having some type of relationship outside of work can actually help solve this problem”.
Ultimately it is important to set up robust channels of communication and regular meetings or updates (some people think regular meetings are anathema to agile start ups but meetings can be dressed up in many different ways) via all channels – basecamp, skype, face-to-face etc. – will help you quickly address issues arising within the company. It’s also important for co-founders to be kept abreast of what each other is doing. Even small, agile startups run the risk of operating in silos and that’s rarely a recipe for success.
Equally important to how often you communicate is how you communicate. When you communicate with your co-founders it is important to listen, be respectful and to come from a place of understanding. One of the easiest ways to ruin a co-founder relationship is to be rude, brash and unsympathetic. If you want your company to succeed it is important that you ensure the well being of your co-founders because the happier people are the more meaningful work they will do.
- Avoiding Conflict
It is understandable that once your startup is starting to gain traction, that you and your co-founders want to avoid conflict at all costs, often in fear that this will then cause more conflict.
This is counter-productive, as problems brushed under the carpet will often lead to even bigger emerging later down the track.
It is important to deal with any arising conflict head-on and immediately, leaving it for longer is likely to make the issue larger, more complex and potentially unsolvable.
According to an article written by Jennifer Aslever for CNN Money “businesses with married couples, family members and friends failed most often because they avoided tough conversations to save hurt feelings”.
Handle conflict with as much TLC as possible but deal with it quickly and openly, now matter how sensitive the topic or people, may be.
There are many reasons why co-founders fall out.
The best way to avoid conflict is find the right type of co-founder fit and then establish your startup around principles of honesty, transparency and communication.
But even then, problems can arise and it’s why a founders or shareholders agreement is a document you absolutely must have from the beginning of the relationship – we’ve seen too many examples of the problems that arise by not having it in place asap.
It will help address some of the issues stated above and map out from the beginning, how the company is structured, what happens if/when people leave and how you will approach any problems that may arise.
A founders or shareholders agreement will help provide your start up with a strong foundation from the start. It will help you and your co-founders moving forward and will also look good in the eyes of future investors, who will naturally gravitate to a well managed and well structured company.