One of the sad truths of startup life is that a good chunk of companies fail due to “founder dynamics” — founders fighting with each other, falling out, losing trust… It happened to me in my first startup and I see it happen over and over again with companies I meet.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise of course; after all, building a company is often one of the most stressful and emotionally draining experiences you can put yourself through. Combine that with the relentless and always-on nature of the beast and you have all the ingredients to truly test the best of relationships.
With that being said: What is one to do?
I don’t think there is a magic bullet or quick-fix. But decades of social studies, psychology and coaching give us at least some tools:
Design your alliance — This powerful tool comes from the (executive) coaching world and is hands-down one of the most effective ways to make sure a relationship starts off well and stays on track. Here and here’s how you design your alliance.
Practice good behavior — A couple of simple behaviors can make all the difference in your day to day interactions. Practice these and hold each other accountable to them: (Always) assume good intent. Raise things as soon as they happen. Deeply respect the person, disagree on positions. Give yourself and others space (particular when things get heated).
Work on the relationship — Schedule regular time for you to get together and talk about the relationship. What’s working, what isn’t? Does something need to be added or taken off your designed alliance? How are you feeling? Keep work out of the discussion; this is the space for you to talk about your relationship.
Know when you need help — Sometimes it is necessary to get an outside perspective. Make sure you have a few trusted advisors at hand who are impartial to the founders and can provide an unbiased external sanity check.
As fluffy as this all might sound: Know that investing into your relationship often makes the difference between being successful or failing and thus require energy and focussed time.