“Your co-founder relationship is like a marriage”. This common statement from experienced startup operators might sound like a stretch, yet there are undeniable similarities in these relationships. Like spouses, co-founders spend considerable time with each other, but instead of taking care of children, you are nurturing your upcoming organization which, in the case of charity entrepreneurship, could have a profound impact on the world.
Your co-founder relationship might well be one of the best things in your life and be a source of energy for years. Unfortunately, as in the case of marriages, co-founder conflict or split-ups are more common than people assume. In fact, they are one of the most common reasons that startups fail. Need to pivot and change your intervention? Need to work without salary for a few months? That’s all doable if the team remains committed. However, if co-founders don’t get along, that often is the beginning of the end.
How do you ensure that co-founder issues don’t come up in the first place? This might not always come naturally. As a startup team, you are enmeshed in the daily grind of testing and delivering your intervention. Anything longer-term, such as relationship-building, gets forgotten in the most challenging periods if you don’t make it a priority.
Thankfully, there are a few ways that you can foster your co-founder relationship without burdening your operational priorities. The following have been especially helpful:
All work and no play? Planning for some fun time together can make sense, especially during phases of stress and pressure. This ensures that your interactions are not limited to solving operational issues and making tough decisions. Depending on your interests, you could go for a simple dinner, or to the movies, sports activities, or a weekend getaway. Avoid the temptation to discuss running your startup. Focus on being in the moment, sharing stuff from your private life, and discussing broader topics that excite you. While the key benefit here is bonding, you will notice that these casual meetups can also provide some interesting insights. You might, for instance, discuss the latest trends in technology or findings in psychology and notice that a particular approach could also be applied at your organization. But again, the key benefit is relationship-building, so just sit back and enjoy. As artificial as it might feel, make sure to schedule and prioritize these bonding nights. Otherwise, they will often get forgotten, or canceled due to other pressures.
Happiness & Collaboration Check-ins
Going out for a movie once in a while is not sufficient for a lasting co-founder relationship. While the Founder nights are purely about enjoying companionship, the Happiness & Collaboration Check-ins allow you to discuss your satisfaction levels as a co-founder pair and as individuals.
One option is to include these topics in a regular 1:1 meeting that you have scheduled anyhow. However, it might be best to clearly distinguish this type of meeting and schedule it regularly. This prevents you from skipping over the happiness & collaboration questions due to urgent discussion points. Moreover, it sets a different tone and helps you separate this discussion clearly from tough conversations about daily implementation or strategic priorities. Such a dedicated Happiness & Collaboration Check-in could, for instance, take place on a monthly basis for two hours.
These are some of the questions that can guide your Happiness & Collaboration Check-in. As you can see, the list starts with individual satisfaction, including private life, which also affects job satisfaction. It then moves to the interpersonal level, the co-founder collaboration. The questions intentionally include references to common successes, vision, and gratitude. Those are otherwise often neglected, as we are used to focusing on areas for improvement. The separation between quick wins and long-term solutions allows for immediate progress, acknowledging that some differences between founders might not be easily resolvable:
You can decide whether and how to track the progress of these conversations. In general, capturing the outcome of meetings in a Google Doc is a good idea. Yet with these check-ins, it might feel more natural to keep it to a discussion where only a few or no notes are taken. This might also help you open up as a team and tackle the underlying issues of potential conflict.
Intense and legalistic. These are two common typical reactions when aspiring entrepreneurs first hear about the idea of a Founders’ Agreement (FA). Such a FA outlines the expectations and preferences of co-founders on the full spectrum of their working relationship and project. The idea here is not to draft a static contract that is managing every aspect of the relationship in detail. An FA should rather be seen as a dynamic document that triggers the right conversations between founders and prevents misunderstandings and bad feelings. As such, it goes a step further than the Happiness & Collaboration Check-ins and helps manage the relationship on a more strategic level.
What goes into the FA? This depends heavily on the co-founder pair. It usually involves key questions on your collaboration: questions that are often not openly discussed, (wrongly) implicitly assumed, and in some cases divisive.
As you can see, an FA is flexible and builds on the preferences of you, the co-founders. Feel free to add topics or leave them out. And remember that the FA, while giving some stability and consistency to the co-founder relationship, is not set in stone. Revisit the FA every 3, 6 or 12 months to see where you stand and adapt it accordingly.
A final point: an FA is a great foundation to draft your Manager User Guide. Such a user guide defines your preferences as a manager and helps your broader team understand and work with you better. A FirstRound article sheds light on the steps to arrive at your own Manager User Guide.
Founder nights, happiness & collaboration check-ins and an FA -- these are three methods to foster your co-founder relationship, the nucleus of every successful charity startup. Tailor them to your personal preferences, be sure to implement at least some of them, and the likelihood of a strong and lasting co-founder relationship will increase.
And remember: a co-founder relationship is often one of the most profound and satisfying relationships in your life, so enjoy and appreciate being on a mission together!