How to navigate the iceberg of co-founder conflict before it sinks your venture

Starting a business with someone is a lot like getting involved in any committed relationship. It can start out awesome, with lots of “we love each other” feelings, but it can deteriorate rapidly without proper communication and compromise. 

In our role as startup coaches, Amy and I have seen co-founders experience interpersonal conflicts that have ended their friendships — and their ventures.

And we’ve also experienced our own conflict as co-founders. I was recently scrolling social media and someone posted, “What’s the most difficult thing you’re facing in your venture right now?” There were lots of posts about sales and marketing, funding, and managing employees, but I responded with, “Being the best partner my co-founder needs when we’re stretched to the max and communication is breaking down.” 

Responses and likes started rolling in. My comment had clearly resonated with other entrepreneurs. Communicating well with your co-founder is always a challenge, and it gets amplified when you’re facing the other challenges of starting a venture. Some of my connections messaged me saying that they had wanted to share the same thing I shared, but felt they shouldn’t because it’s not something people are supposed to talk about.

Co-founder conflict is normal and healthy. 

Let me say it again. Co-founder conflict is completely normal and healthy. In fact, if you don’t think there’s any conflict between you and your co-founder(s), you are probably ignoring something.

We need to end the stigma that presents this kind of conflict as a shameful or unusual problem. 

While it’s scary to admit that your relationship and communication with each other is a barrier to the success of your organization, it’s the first step toward building a better venture and relationship. 

That’s why we’ve decided to openly discuss the conflict that we’ve had as co-founders and share the steps we have taken to help us embrace our opposing strengths and avoid unproductive tension. 

This month I’m sharing my perspective, and Amy will share hers next month. 

Our story 

In 2017, Amy and I were at constant odds in our relationship as co-founders of Doyenne, four years into the journey. We both have big goals for the organization, and with both of our crazy schedules, it was hard to find time to have an open and honest discussion.

We were trying to figure out how to better navigate our working relationship, but we didn’t know where to start or what to change.

Our personality differences came into play in the way we thought about the conflict we were experiencing. I’m the type of person who says, “There’s a problem, I’ve thought about it, now let’s fix it”. When things are left in the air or unresolved, or not discussed on my timeline, I become frustrated, full of anxiety, and/or my Mean Girl comes out (yes, I said it).

Eventually, our board encouraged us to seek outside help. We began meeting with Tricia Perkins, an HR Advisor at Lake Effect HR & Law in Madison, Wisconsin. 

Of course, my number one fear in working with Tricia was that people would know that Doyenne was “having problems,” and that we might lose support. It took a lot of courage to admit that we need someone to come in and help, but it has made a huge difference. 

One of the tools we have used to better understand each other’s communication styles and strengths is a series of personality tests. We did the Strengths Finder test, the DiSC profile, and the True Colors assessment. While each test has its own unique benefits and has provided us with a lot of insight about how we each approach work and relationships, the tests also revealed some common themes about our communication styles and personalities that we often ignore, overlook, or hide because we perceive them to be weaknesses. 

Amy and I have almost perfectly opposite DiSC profiles, but we overlap when it comes to our determination, perseverance, and headstrong nature. We have the recipe for a powerful partnership, but it takes work to make sure we complement each other instead of driving each other crazy.

Through meeting with Tricia, we’ve discovered several areas where one or both of us needed to adjust our communication in order to improve our relationship. I believe these are common themes in most relationships, and they can be broken down into three questions.

3 questions that could save your co-founder relationship

  • Does your workspace work for each of you equally? 

The physical space that you use for your office, whether that’s a coworking space, your kitchen table, or a rented office, needs to work for both of your communication styles. 

Before we had our first physical office we primarily worked out of coffee shops and others’ offices. It did its job for the first couple of years, but we were never able to have real conversations because of being in public spaces full of distractions.

When we had a one-room office, we faced different problems. I’ve always known that I’m a horrible roommate. I like things done my way, I like my own defined space, and I don’t always play well with others. In our old office, our relationship suffered because I felt like we were always working on top of each other. 

I like to think in my head and then when I’m ready I’ll speak up, while Amy likes to talk things out to find a path forward. So sometimes, when I would want quiet, Amy was in the mood to talk through something. And other times, I would distract the hell out of her because I had taken the time to think through things and wanted to talk about them right then, when she wanted to work on other work. 

Our office became an unproductive space and a source of tension. I felt like I couldn’t use my desk when Amy was meeting with someone, for fear of intruding. So I would come into the office, grab my computer, and find somewhere else to work until her meeting was done. She would see the frustration on my face, but I wouldn’t tell her how I was actually feeling so we could fix the problem. When I finally did say something, the problem was so easy to solve because we could access other conference rooms within the building. But it took me speaking up to come to that realization. 

If your current office situation is driving you nuts, look for alternatives. If you’re able to, it’s worth spending a little more money to eliminate unnecessary tension. 

  • Are there specific words or behaviors that cause completely unnecessary conflict? 

In meeting with Tricia, we learned to identify a few words and behaviors that would trigger a negative response in the other person. Making small changes to our vocabulary and mannerisms has saved us from resentment and frustration. 

One word I frequently used without realizing how it impacted Amy was “just,” as in “Oh, just do it.” To me, that meant, “I don’t need to know the details of this, because I trust you to do a great job.” But to Amy, it sounded dismissive. It made her think that I didn’t value her work. 

I know that I’m emotional, but I didn’t realize how much my emotions affect our relationship until we went through this process. I have a lot of emotions wrapped up in my perfectionist tendencies and not wanting to let others down, which means I don’t want Amy to ever see me being incompetent at my job. So if I need help, I wait until the last second to ask for it. But this drives Amy nuts, because it means I sometimes come to her when it’s too late for her to help, and she feels like I dumped the problem on her.  Admitting when I need help — and properly communicating that to Amy — is something I’m continually working through.

I’ve also learned that I make a lot of assumptions when it comes to working with others. I tend to think that if I do something, others will realize that I’m doing this because it’s how I would like to be treated. Turns out, while the golden rule is a great guideline for your own behavior, it’s not an effective way to communicate your needs to the people around you.

  • Do you both respect each other’s time the way you would someone outside the organization? 

Before Amy and I started Doyenne, we started meeting with each other once a week to workshop the idea. When we launched Doyenne, we continued holding a weekly co-founder meeting. But as our calendars filled up with meetings with members, sponsors, vendors, board members and more, it became harder to reserve that time to meet with each other. Since we were spending so much time together every day in meetings with others, the weekly one-on-one meetings didn’t always seem like the most urgent thing. 

But when we stopped having those meetings every week, I began to feel like tension was creeping in. I felt like we had lost our forum for larger discussions about the future of the organization. I felt like we were beginning to ignore issues or problems that lurked in the present and future.

I didn’t speak up about how much I value those meetings and how much I need them to feel like we were both on the same page. The meeting was still on our calendars, but Amy thought it was a low priority. She didn’t realize how much it aggravated me when she would arrive late or skipped the meeting altogether without letting me know. I felt disrespected, but I didn’t tell her why.

Now we both make it a priority to reserve time for that weekly meeting, and to text each other if we’re running late, or if we need to reschedule. We also try to set an agenda for the meeting ahead of time so we can prepare for the conversations and make good use of our time together.

It’s worth it 

Whatever talent you bring to your organization is also your biggest weakness. That’s why starting a business with a co-founder can be the best decision you ever make. But it takes work to make the relationship work. If you’re proactive about it, you can save yourselves a lot of time and heartache, and build a stronger foundation for your business. 

We’ve seen a pair of co-founders who proactively visited a business coach when they drew up a partnership agreement. They wanted to have the hard conversations right away, so they could figure out how best to work together. As we’ve watched that team grow their business, we’ve seen that early work pay off in a harmonious relationship. 

And it’s not a one-time thing. Once you begin to work on understanding your co-founders better, you may realize that the same process could help your entire team work together more efficiently. 

We continue to meet with Tricia once a month and we’ve brought our Madison Director, Jasmine, into the meetings as well. In addition to being our “co-founder therapist,” Tricia also serves as our HR consultant and is helping us plan ahead for the growth of Doyenne as a national movement. She is helping us incorporate a proactive approach to interpersonal conflict into our employee handbooks and policies for all future Doyenne cities. 

It can be a daunting task that takes you far outside of your comfort zone, but setting up a forum for dealing with conflict and communication is so worth it.