The Silent Killer Of Startups

A tl;dr Guide On Founder Conflict

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A tl;dr Guide On Founder Conflict

🕒 est. reading time: 3.5 minutes

Let's talk about the elephant in the room. No, not that your product crashed again or your latest fundraising started with a lukewarm reception. Let's talk about the silent killer of startups that's not so silent once it gets going: co-founder conflict.

You got into this rollercoaster ride with a buddy or two, thinking you'd take on the world together. But here's the thing—somewhere between the late-night coding sessions and the pitch meetings, stress levels hit the roof. And with stress, like clockwork, comes conflict.

With tight deadlines, short runways, and personal sacrifices, the startup world is notorious for its high-stress environment. And when founders don't take the time to invest in their relationships, small disagreements can quickly escalate into full-blown battles. It's not just about differing opinions on product features; it's about power, control, and recognition. Suddenly, you're not just fighting over the color of the app's logo but questioning your entire partnership.

But here's a curveball: conflict isn't necessarily the villain in your startup story. Handled right, it can be a catalyst for growth. So, how do you navigate these choppy waters without capsizing the ship?

Founder conflicts are a common yet often overlooked challenge. Addressing these conflicts head-on with honesty, transparency, and respect is crucial for the health and success of the business. 

The Insight

  • Embrace Conflict as a Growth Opportunity: View disagreements as a chance to explore new ideas and perspectives. Enter from a place of curiosity.

  • Communication is Key: Open and honest communication is the bedrock of any strong partnership. Regular check-ins and open dialogues can prevent misunderstandings and build trust.

  • Set Clear Expectations and Boundaries: Clearly defined roles and responsibilities help prevent conflicts. Draft a founder’s agreement detailing each person's role and decision-making power. Revisit as the company evolves.

  • Don’t Get Carried Away: Focus on the issue, not the person, and seek common ground. Conflicts start to spiral out of control when we make assumptions about the other side’s motivations.

  • Seek External Guidance When Needed: Sometimes, an external perspective can provide clarity and resolution. This does not need to be a professional coach or mediator — although it helps. But it needs to be someone unbiased whom both parties trust.

  • Prioritize Your Team's Well-being: Conflicts impact the entire team, not just the founders. Don’t forget your (shared!) entrepreneurial responsibility to your employees.

The Mental Model

The psychologist Howard Markman and therapist Esther Perel categorizes root causes into three clusters:

  • Power & Control: Money, status, and who has the final word matters. Who gets to make the final hiring decisions? Who speaks to the investors during pitch meetings? Who doesn't involve the other?

  • Care & Closeness: Trust is the foundation of a working relationship. As Perel explains, "Conflicts rooted in care and closeness always come back to broken trust, the 'I thought I could count on you' kind of statements. When trust is broken, it shatters our assumptions about the relationship and our value in it."

  • Respect & Recognition: You've both been putting in the long hours for years. Now, only one founder is mentioned in the press, invited onto the main stage for panel discussions, or gets to sit on the board. This comes down to the founder asking, Do I, and the work I do, matter?

But let's be real. Sometimes, despite your best efforts, things don't work out. And that's okay too. The majority of open founder conflicts end in separation. Knowing when to walk away is just as important as knowing how to stay and fight.

In the end, it's about more than just “surviving” the startup “battlefield” (I’m not a fan of the whole war metaphor in startup culture). It's about thriving, growing, and learning from each conflict.

So next time you find yourself in the midst of founder drama, remember this: conflict is just another opportunity for growth.

How I can help you

1:1 Coaching: Over the last five years, I’ve helped 150+ entrepreneurs & investors navigate complex life and business challenges. Email me to learn more.

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