How to fight with your co-founder

When things are wrong and you don’t deal with them, eventually something snaps. That’s what happened to me in 2018. I burned out. Got hit with a host of mental health issues. Had to take nearly 3 months off completely. Medication, therapy, coaching. And eventually left the startup I co-founded.

Looking back, it was a very challenging 7+ years. Fights were common. Fundamental things weren’t able to be agreed on. I wasn’t able to take the CEO title because each time we’d agree I was doing it in all but title, they felt there was too much at stake for them to risk ‘not appearing equal’.

We fought less as the years wore on. And that’s because I increasingly adopted an appeasement strategy. I personally dodged issues that I knew would cause conflict. Even if I thought the issue was important. Even if I felt uncomfortable about it.

Our independent arbitrator for really sticky issues was my co-founders Dad. So, yeh, looking back, there were more warning signs than a packet of cigarettes.

But I persisted. Bottled that up, tried to change who I was and tried to be someone else. It came at a heavy cost.

Co-founder fights happen.

Fighting in any relationship happens. Co-founders are no different.

In my first co-founding relationship we fought. Argued. Got upset. Disagreed. Did it all. But we never did it well. And that’s the key difference.

For most people, fighting in a relationship is bad. Part of that is social conditioning. Disney never shows the two best friends wanting to strangle each other to death with the nearest MacBook charger.

Not only are we not socially conditioned to think fighting is healthy, it’s a mental challenge as well.

Our old school flight or fight mechanisms aren’t very sophisticated. They don’t understand the difference between “tiger about to end my blood line” threat level and “this arsehole is criticising me” threat level. So we can often feel the same level of threat when we argue, as if we’re about to be physically eviscerated.

In short, we’re not coming into the fight thinking that fighting is good. At all.

This fear of fighting comes up a lot with the early stage startups I advise.

Founders will often try to present a rosy picture, no matter the truth. And that inevitable first fight can often be the last, as too much weight is put on the false assumption that fight = bad.

The first rule of fight club? Fighting is actually ok.

It’s common knowledge that marriages with arguments are healthier. Same goes for other close personal relationships. As you’ll spend more of your time with your co-founder than your spouse, the same rules apply, maybe more so.

You’re entering an environment where you are both undertaking one of the most emotionally, mentally and physically stressful careers possible. Where you’ll both have strong opinions, big goals and ambitious timelines. Fighting is a healthy outlet for a lot of this creative tension.

What’s your beef? The causes of fights in co-founders.

This could be a super long list. But I think everything can be summarised as fights occur when expectations are misaligned:

  • You want them to do the new customer outreach like this. They do it like that. Fight.
  • You’re working weekends. They’re at the park sinking a few cold ones with their friends. Ding ding ding.
  • What takes you one hour takes them one day. Gloves on.
  • This logo is better. They think that one is. Meet me outside.

Expectations are hard to manage. They’re generally a reflection of ourselves back onto the other person. We like people to do things like we do. We generally like to think we know best. We force our world view on others. The easiest way of preventing these expectation misalignments in the first place:

  1. Set them clearly upfront and early
  2. Focus on outcomes not inputs

We all like to do things our own way. Trick is to share what that way is and agree something that works for us both. Outcomes should always take precedent over inputs.

No matter how well you do this, fights will (and should) still happen.

So how can we make sure they’re useful and don’t become toxic?

How to fight with your co-founder

Build good foundations

One of the best pieces of advice we give our co-founding teams is to set a time each week in the calendar for co-founder feedback.

It’s fixed and unmovable. The conversation should focus on the relationship, not the startup to do list.

I like to suggest this framework to run the conversation:

  • Here’s what I think I’m doing well
  • Here’s what I think I could do better
  • Here’s what you’re doing well
  • Here’s what I’d love to see more of

Creating a dialogue for open conversations is much easier in peacetime, so making it a regular feature early means it’s there when you really need it.

We never had this level of dialogue and only had similar levels in conflict. It means that anytime you’re talking honestly about the relationship that something bad has happened, setting a tough stage for good outcomes.

Keep it professional

We’re all over evolved apes so this is hard to do consistently. But as a rule, when fights get personal, it’s not healthy.

You will (hopefully) build or strengthen friendship together over the journey. So it’s easy for lines to blur. Avoiding throwing personal slurs when you’re going toe to toe is good practice. And makes the next step a lot easier.

Keep the rupture repair cycle short

This is a therapy term which I find very useful for all arguments. The argument is a rupture. And your collective job is to repair it.

The time between these two events is key. Sure, sometimes you might need a time out to settle yourselves. But it’s super important to resolve it as fast as you can.

Long rifts mean those ruptures are like open wounds and not getting together to repair means a mangy infected wound vs some scar tissue.

After I had to take time off from a burnout, my co-founder struggled with my absence. He felt I’d left him holding the baby, alone.

When I came back, he couldn’t talk to me about it. I knew he was upset, which was hard to take after you’ve been through that, but the time between my return and us being able to have a dialogue about it was so long that it was the final signal I needed that I had to move on.

Time between a fight and the reconciliation matters.

Take a look in the mirror

The worst thing we all do is think we’re right. Post fight, take some time to try and reflect on yourself. A second opinion here from someone that you both trust to tell you the truth and not just what you want to hear can help.

We’re very rarely as guilt free as we like to assume and there is probably something you’re doing to contribute to the issue. Try and find it. Acknowledge it. Share it.

Take a walk in their shoes

It’s all too easy to say we need to separate work and life. Truth is we’re the same lump of matter in each. Maybe there’s a big life event they’ve got on that’s affecting them. Trouble at home. Mental health problems. Financial issues.

Maybe it’s closer to home. They’re a technical co-founder who is starting to feel excluded as the company grows. You’re not aligned on compensation for each of you. They want to be the face of the company rather than you.

The key here isn’t to necessarily agree that what they think is correct, but it’s important to understand it and acknowledge it as a fact from their point of view.

Keep your cool

Fights that get way too emotional won’t get whatever it is sorted. In the heat of the moment, try and stay objective. If it’s getting too heated, take a time out and revisit the issue as soon as you both can.

I can remember fights where we’d be screaming at each other. Slammed doors. Reconciliations over text to be able to meet again. The works. And no, it didn’t help.

Listen, well

Making the other person feel heard is key in any fight or make up. Repeating back your understanding to them is a really useful tool. Wording really matters here, so a couple of choice phrases to use are:

“The story I’m making up” is one phrasing Brene Brown suggests to share - that you know you can’t be 100% right in your assumption of what you’re hearing.

“What I’m hearing is” can be another useful one.

Phrasing here matters. In the heat of the moment you don’t want to portray an idea that you know what they’re thinking or even worse, that you know what they’re thinking better than they do.

Share, honestly

It’s important that the repair of the fight is completely honest. Feelings get to come into play here, just keep them as what they are - opinion and not fact.

“When you said this it made me feel that”

The worst thing you can do is leave things unsaid when you’re both trying to repair the fight. Being familiar with sharing openly before a fight helps here (see the Build good foundations point above).

Can’t solve it? Get help

Some things might be tricky to get alignment on, no matter how hard you try. This is where advisors, mentors and others come into play.

Get an external perspective from someone who you both know and trust.

Action outcomes

If you’re agreed, take action. If there are behaviours that caused issues, commit to changing them. If patterns emerge, dive into them.

Fighting continually about the same things or for the same reasons should be a big red light on your dashboard and needs to be addressed fast.

Let it go

ssuming you’ve managed to talk it out, lay things on the table and reach a new shared understanding, then it’s time to put it to bed.

Don’t keep a black book of bullshit to hold over the other person. Don’t bring stuff up again (unless it forms a pattern as mentioned above).

You’ve gone through a fight. You’ve made up. Cement that - maybe grab a drink that night. Laugh together. Remember why you’re putting yourself through this. And why you’re doing it with them.

There’s a big difference between reconciling honestly and reconciling as you can’t actually agree and don’t know what else to do. As you might have guessed, I spent a lot of time living the latter.

When fighting stops being healthy

Fighting is healthy. Normal. And, if done well, constructive.

But if you’re at war more than at peace, then something deeper is wrong.

Sometimes things can’t be fixed and problems are too much. Sometimes our own personal issues get in the way too much. Our visions stop aligning. Our decisions never match.

There’s always another way to go, another person to find. Without sounding too Disney myself, life’s too short to spend your working life being unhappy.

Walking away from that relationship was 100% the best decision for me. I just had to pay a high price to figure that out. So be honest with yourself, before it’s too late.

Work together to get better

A lot of things we fall out about are solvable. The key question is whether you’re both able to use techniques like these to get to that place.

Two people trying to do what is often currently impossible takes a lot of energy, love and effort.

So make sure you’re putting even more of those ingredients into your relationship. And I hope it works for you.

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