Power struggles and conflict between cofounders always boils down to two missing characteristics—trust and respect. In the hustle and grind of launching a company and making it profitable, it is easy to get lost in the financial and logistical challenges. However, in the end, your success will hinge largely on the quality of your working relationship with your partner.
The cofounder relationship can be robust and full of potential. Of the 10,000 companies Noam Wasserman studied for his book The Founder’s Dilemma, only 16% had single founders. Since selling Kayak to Priceline for almost $2 billion, Paul English has invested in twelve companies—none of them with a solo entrepreneur. He says the right dynamic between partners can be more important than the business idea itself.
Cofounder relationships can also be challenging to maintain. Wasserman found that when high-potential startups failed, interpersonal tensions within the founding team were the culprit 65% of the time.
In my experiences coaching cofounders, I see time and time again that the secret formula for a successful relationship is mutual trust and respect. Although these two qualities go hand in hand (we usually do not trust someone we do not respect, and vice versa), they should be thought of distinctly.
Trust is made up of sincerity, reliability, and competence. If any of these three things is missing, there is no trust.
Respect is holding your cofounder’s character, achievements, and ideas in high regard.
Cultivating and maintaining a strong partnership with a cofounder requires deliberate and mindful effort.
Create complementary roles
You can build trust and respect from the start by being crystal clear about the different skills you and your cofounder bring to the table. You probably would not have been drawn to them in the first place if they were merely a mirror image of you. The best partnerships are based on contrasting styles and strengths, not overlapping ones.
Defining complementary roles is essential in avoiding duplication, a significant problem I see with startup cofounders. You do not want to feel like you and your partner are stepping on one another’s toes. Entrepreneurs are by nature fiercely independent and value autonomy.
Giving your partner space to operate is a show of trust in their competence and reliability. It also demonstrates that you genuinely respect them as an equal. Truly letting go of one aspect of the operation and allowing your cofounder to run with it is one of the most powerful ways to build a strong working partnership.
Keep the focus on your shared vision and values
Entrepreneurs willing to jump into the startup world are risk-takers and are likely to develop ideas for other projects down the road. According to Lee Igel of New York University, this can put pressure on the partnership. “New projects can require new missions and objectives that take the partners in different directions, and so the elements of the relationship that made them successful end up frittering away,” he says.
The glue that keeps cofounders together is the shared vision that brought you together in the first place. You need to keep that vision and the values it represents front and center and not take it for granted. In my work as an executive coach, I frequently speak with clients about the importance of strong workplace culture. For a startup, that culture begins with you and your cofounder.
Mutual respect is a shared value that transcends the company you have started together, and it will help your relationship weather unexpected difficulties or twists and turns. Startups have to be agile and make sharp pivots, sometimes reinventing themselves. A larger company may acquire your company, requiring significant reorganization. When you respect your cofounder’s character, the bond between you will survive such changes—and perhaps translate into another joint venture in the future.
It is okay to seek help
Launching a startup can feel like a high-wire act, one without a net. That stress can put enormous strain on your relationship with your cofounder.
It is increasingly common for cofounders to seek counseling. A business partnership resembles a marriage in many ways. In fact, the Stanford Business School now offers a group therapy course in which one of the required books is Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work.
Whether it is a counselor or a coach, there is a lot to be said for having an independent sounding board to bounce ideas off of. Founding a company is an ambitious and all-consuming enterprise. Just as you should invest in the health and wellbeing of any employees you hire, you and your cofounder need to do the same for yourselves. It is an investment that will pay off in the long run.
Trust and respect are necessary for any healthy relationship. Founding a company together is sure to test your bonds of trust and respect in unexpected ways. It is critical to establish these qualities at the very outset, and then to be purposeful and mindful about maintaining them. If you do so, you will be able to manage the lows and celebrate the highs together.
As you learn to navigate the challenges of startup life with your cofounder, you will be developing skillsets and resilience you can tap into in future endeavors. Startups come and ago, but values like trust and respect last a lifetime.
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Published on Forbes on Jan. 28, 2019.