How to Strengthen Your Co-Founder Relationship
“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:
Happiness & Collaboration Check-ins
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:
What am I grateful for personally and in our co-founder relationship?
What has been my personal satisfaction level outside of the job recently?
What has been my personal satisfaction level at the job recently?
What common successes did we achieve recently?
What are some aspects that could be improved quickly (low hanging fruit)?
What are some aspects that could be improved over time?
What is our vision?
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.
Roles and Responsibilities: Your roles and responsibilities might be in flux, especially at an early-stage startup. However, the more you can define them, the better, as it will help create ownership and prevent misunderstandings (“Oh, I thought you were responsible for this!”). You can define roles and responsibilities top-down or bottom-up. Top-down would mean starting with core functions of your organization such as fundraising, program development, and recruitment. Bottom-up would be looking at 10 specific tasks that recently came up, and seeing whether you agree on who is responsible.
Decision-making: Related to roles and responsibilities are your decision-making procedures. Initially, it makes sense to take all major decisions on a consensus basis. As your responsibilities get defined more clearly and the organization grows, you can hand more of the decision-making to the related co-founder. Strategic decisions can continue to be taken as a team. Some of the points you could address in an FA: which decisions do we take together, which do we delegate to a co-founder? How do we deal with lacking consensus? (e.g. include third-party, let an experiment determine the course of action, …)
Field Time: Being close to your customers is key in an early-stage organization, as it provides you with critical feedback and allows you to test different iterations of your intervention. For many organizations, this involves spending time in developing countries, which can be draining and challenging for founders who might be separated from their families and friends. From an organizational perspective, you want to optimize for as much field time of your leadership team as possible. From a personal happiness perspective, however, there are limits and those should be considered. It is important to make those preferences explicit and find a solution that considers the field presence needs of the organization as well as personal preferences which indirectly affect the success of the organization. Specific agreements might include: how often do you spend time in the country? Where exactly are you based (capital vs. regional office)? For how long do you stay at a time?
Work/life balance: Do you work seven days a week for 12 hours a day? Or do you want to enforce email-free weekends? As a startup, you are likely going to invest more than the regular 40 hours a week. Yet personal expectations might differ and should be discussed openly. There is a clear case for not overworking yourselves, as this can result in burnout and negatively affect your decision-making. Specific points to address: do you track co-founder’s work time and if so how? Are there any work limits? Are weekends intentionally work free? What is your co-founder vacation policy?
Communications: Strong communication between co-founders is key to your success. In the FA, you may also address topics such as communication preferences (time, channels, difference per topic). You might, for instance, define that non-urgent topics are generally discussed in Slack while urgent questions are sent on WhatsApp. Or you might want to generally limit the distracting flow of instant messages and emails and write down all non-urgent questions for your co-founder on your next meeting’s agenda. This is especially helpful if you try to adhere to a maker’s schedule that avoids distractions. Such rules might seem trivial but can improve work happiness and efficiency considerably.
Personal happiness and growth: A team is only as good as its members. Define how each co-founder is committed to taking care of her/himself through sports, meditation or whatever works for her/him. Outline areas for the personal growth of the founders explicitly. This ensures that the founders grow as the organization grows and longer term development does not fall victim to daily operational tasks. Founder A might, for example, want to further develop his Google Sheets and statistics skills while founder B might focus on leadership development and public speaking classes. Growth areas could build on strengths or tackle weaknesses; both strategies have their pros and cons. A lot will depend on the organization’s trajectory and personal priorities.
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!
Many startups fail or don’t execute at their highest levels due to conflict among founders. Yet strengthening a co-founder relationship often gets neglected amidst the daily grind, especially during difficult times.
These three methods help you to sustain a healthy co-founder relationship. While this is not rocket science, you need to make it a priority for it to actually happen:
Founder nights: hanging out as co-founders without discussing work
Happiness & Collaboration Check-ins: 1-on-1 meetings specifically to address personal/group happiness and collaboration and related room for improvement
Founders’ Agreement (FAs): a written framework reflecting your preferences as co-founders that guides your collaboration and gets regularly updated. This is not a static or legalistic document, but rather a tool to help you raise important questions and provide clarity about the guidelines of your partnership.