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Working With Your Co-Founder. How to Excel at Decision-Making, Task Management, and Communication



Now, work can start. You picked a co-founder with shared values and goals, a complementary skill set and compatible psychology (see How to successfully pick a co-founder). Ahead of you are weeks, months, and years of work in scaling your charity from a small startup to an established organization. How you work with your co-founder will be decisive. This article outlines basic lessons for successful collaboration in day-to-day work, while another article sheds light on how to strengthen the relationship with your co-founder at a deeper level (see How to strengthen your co-founder relationship).


COMMUNICATIONS


Successful communication is at the core of every task you tackle and decision you take. As outlined elsewhere, working in the same location is beneficial, especially as your organization starts out. Understanding the communication preferences of your co-founder is helpful too. One might be chatty while the other mostly prefers quiet time. Find arrangements that suit both styles, for instance, by defining deep work hours without interruption, semi-deep work hours, and normal work hours during which interactions are fine. The rules for these three distinct work modes could capture both personal communication and instant messaging (e.g. snoozed notifications during deep work). Consider that original work needs uninterrupted space on the calendar, as Paul Graham outlines in his classic essay Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule. Communications, of course, goes beyond such logistical factors. At its deepest level, communications affect the psychology of you as individuals and thereby influences your decision-making. A look at communications theory and research on couple’s therapy can be illuminating. Dr. John Gottman is famous for predicting the longevity of romantic relationships by assessing videos of interpersonal arguments. He identifies Four Horsemen, inspired by the biblical image of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse, that indicate the deterioration of a relationship. They include: ​

  • Generalized criticism (“You never…”)

  • Defensiveness (“I don’t have any responsibility…”)

  • Stonewalling (“I am not willing to talk about this…”)

  • Contempt (“You are unable to contribute anything meaningful…”)

One key idea behind Gottman’s research is that negativity has a profound impact on a relationship. He thinks of it as an Emotional Bank Account to which every positive or negative action adds or subtracts. The challenge is that every negative action weighs more than several positive ones. Besides avoiding negative interactions, you, therefore, want to proactively work on adding positive interactions. This can include showing more appreciation with sincere compliments, which is especially important as we often take things for granted in daily life. Don’t wait for the eulogy to commend your co-founder! Planning fun stuff outside your work relationship can help strengthen your relationship too. The theory of non-violent communications developed by Dr. Marshall Rosenberg in the 1960s offers a few valuable principles on staying away from the Four Horsemen. The core idea is that we all have universal human needs that we can express in a positive way unless we feel threatened. This two-minute video provides an overview of how the theory applies in practice. Four elements make up a statement in a non-violent conversation.

  • Observation: a factual observation specific to a particular time and context; without any evaluation

  • Feelings: showing vulnerability by expressing your feelings connected to your needs (real emotions not thoughts)

  • Needs: your underlying need that is affected

  • Request: request for a specific action in a clear and positive language (not a demand)

The usual structure is “When (observation) then I feel (feelings) as I have a need for (needs) so I would appreciate if (request)”. Or in a specific example: “When you are late I feel neglected because I want to use my time well. I would appreciate it if you could let me know when you are running late.” As often in life, this is a simple concept that is not always easy to apply. But you don’t need to become an overnight master of this concept, and you will also likely never be able to adopt it in 100% of your social interactions. A gradual approach with increasing adoption by you and your co-founder can, however, go a long way.


TASK MANAGEMENT


You don’t need the latest sophisticated task management methodology or tool to succeed. At the same time, translating your vision into actions requires planning and prioritization. Here are some minimum guidelines that you and your co-founder should follow:

  • Keep it simple: unless you are both really into productivity hacks, a simple task management method will do it. The key is to stick to it.

  • Works for both: this might be obvious but of course, whatever system you adopt has to work for both of you.

  • Short and long-term: ensure that your task management considers both short- and long-term tasks. Longer-term goals often get neglected in the daily hectic.

  • Important vs. urgent: a solid, simple framework is to plot out your tasks into four quadrants by importance and urgency. Focus on the important tasks, starting with the urgent, important tasks. Avoid the temptation to spend too much time on the urgent, unimportant tasks. These are the typical “operational fires” that come up on a daily basis: for instance, a field staff member not being able to work without access to an IT system. Establish standard processes to delegate such tasks to other staff or freelancers. Also stay away from the non-urgent, unimportant little tasks. This is sometimes tricky as solving them can give you instant gratification, e.g. looking into a redesign of your logo which is neither urgent nor important.

Getting Things Done (GTD) is a popular method for time and task management. It might also work for you. Some good places to start are this 15-minute guide on GTD and this minimalist time-management system by the Operations Director of the EA Foundation. In terms of specific tools for task management, it’s also a matter of taste. Some might go for a simple Google Sheet. This could include a GANTT-style template for planning over months and a list for short-term tasks. The advantage of this approach is that it integrates well with your other sheets and documents that you likely host within Google Drive. The downside is that it offers less task management specific features such as reminders. Asana and Trello are two popular options for task management software. Look out for non-profit discounts. As an EA charity, you might get a special discount for Asana through the EA Hub.


DECISION-MAKING


Prioritizing your tasks and time requires a multitude of decisions every day. In fact, one could rightly say your main job as co-founders is to take decisions. How to go about this, especially if you have different intuitions about the right path forward? First of all, be aware of common issues in decision-making and basic methods of arriving at better decisions. As Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahnemann has shown in his work, we have consistent biases in decision-making. We are, for instance, generally loss-averse and therefore value what we could lose higher than what we could gain. The loss of $5 feels worse than the gain of $5. This cognitive bias cheat sheet provides a great visual overview. Good to consult occasionally to remind yourself. Kahnemann also points out that noise might even be worse for decision-making than biases. While biases are predictable and uniform, noise is random and therefore harder to spot. As one study suggests, radiologists give the same x-ray a different diagnosis in 20% of cases. This reflects the randomness of noise rather than the uniformity of a bias. One way to counter this is to set up strict processes, ideally algorithms, for your most important decisions. Sounds complex? A good start is to use spreadsheets as a powerful decision-making tool, for instance, by listing and weighing your most important criteria before you act. Second, it helps if you have outlined a general framework for your decision-making. If you approach a decision with the same values such as cost-effectiveness you are off to a good start. You are already thinking along the same lines. It also helps if you have outlined some roles and responsibilities. Many decisions don’t necessarily need the approval of all co-founders, which makes for more rapid decision-making and clearer accountability. Third, if you disagree despite all of this, you still have a variety of options at your disposal. Here are a few specific ways to resolve deadlock around a decision:

  • What does the data say? Disagreement is usually around different intuitions to interpret a specific challenge. This can be resolved if you have data pointing in one direction or the other.

  • Can you test? Even if you don’t have existing data to resolve the controversial question, you can potentially set up a short experiment to get answers. If you target fish farmers as an animal charity and disagree internally about the best messaging, test two or more different versions. You might not always be able to run a statistically significant test but your experiment can at least give you a better understanding from a qualitative research perspective.

  • Can you reach a compromise? It does not have to be A or B, maybe the concerns of both co-founders can be integrated into a solution AB.

  • What are the underlying concerns of the dispute? Dive one level deeper and try to understand the concerns of each co-founder. As outlined in the classic book on negotiation strategy Getting to Yes, focus on the interests, not the positions. You might have a disagreement, for example, about a lower/higher reimbursement rate of field staff. The person who insists on the upper bound might not necessarily be stuck to a position of higher reimbursement rate. Her underlying interest might be to adequately value the contributions of the field team. This could also be solved by other means, e.g. social recognition or a performance-based bonus. Focusing on the interests opens up the field for various out of the box solutions.

  • Can an expert settle the dispute? You might both agree that your advisor X or your advisory board is best suited to solve a particular conflict. In this sense, you agree to the decision-making method of delegating to someone with more expertise or experience.

  • Can you defer the decision? While rapid decision-making is a key advantage for startups, not every decision needs to be taken right at this moment. It might be possible and advisable to wait for a few more days, weeks, or months. Sometimes a decision becomes irrelevant in the meantime or you both converge to one solution.

  • Can you include the legal board? This should usually be a last resort, reserved only for strategic high-level decisions or a case of severe co-founder conflict. Legal boards only meet a few times per year so they are not the best forum to take most decisions. Best to reserve the legal board to weigh in on strategic high-level decisions all co-founders agree on or standard oversight tasks such as auditing.

Communications, task management, and decision-making are key components of working with your co-founder. If you would like to strengthen your relationship further, you should also consider regular Happiness and Collaboration Check-ins and draft a Founders’ Agreement. Both tools are described in the chapter How to strengthen your co-founder relationship.


SUMMARY


There are three essential components of working with your co-founder: ​

  • Communications: build your communications culture around your preferences. Factor in sufficient time for concentrated work (maker’s schedule). Avoid negative patterns in your communications, as outlined in the Four Horsemen by Dr. Gottman. Instead, implement the four principles of Non-Violent Communications as developed by Dr. Rosenberg.

  • Task Management: a simple, consistent time and task management setup trumps a sophisticated one you never implement. Organize your tasks around importance and urgency. Stay away from instant gratification tasks that are often unimportant and not urgent, and delegate unimportant urgent tasks to your staff. In terms of tools, consider Google Sheets or a dedicated task management app such as Asana or Trello.

  • Decision-making: implement general guidelines for good decision-making such as using spreadsheets for listing/weighing criteria, avoiding biases and spotting noise. Shared values and some basic understanding of your roles and responsibilities provide a solid ground to make decisions. If nevertheless you disagree, run a test, compromise, find consensus by looking at interests instead of positions, or defer to an expert.


READING LIST

Internal resources

External resources


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