6 tips for a better relationship with your co-founder

Communication is key.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 24 Feb 2017

There’s a lot to be said for going into business with somebody else. Two (or three) proverbial heads are generally better than one. A second founder can bring a trove of extra expertise to your business (not to mention more capital too), and having a second opinion on a big decision can make a huge difference.

But human beings don’t always get along. When the stakes are high it can be easy to fall out and a toxic relationship can ruin a business that might have otherwise thrived. When any two people have to make decisions together a degree of conflict is inevitable, but here are some things you can do to make sure your professional disagreements don’t become fatal bust-ups.

Play to your strengths

The business world as we know it is built on the division of labour. To avoid stepping on each other’s toes and endless back and forth over this decision or that, it’s beneficial for founders to specialise. That could mean focusing on different sets of tasks – perhaps you’re good at selling and branding but your partner is more comfortable with their head buried in a spreadsheet. Alternatively some founders choose to split their roles between one person focusing on the day-to-day running of the business and another on the long-term plan.  

Simon Anderson (pictured, left) and Patrick Caiger-Smith are the founders of energy management company Geo, which has a turnover of around £20m. The pair met at a sailing regatta for business school alums, where they discovered their complementary personalities. ‘Paddy’s the skipper and I’m the navigator/tactician - that carried on in the business,’ says Anderson, a former Royal Navy submarine commander and now Geo’s chief strategy officer.  

‘My nature is to formulate how things are going to work in an engineeringy sort of way and put together the resources and ideas and shape them and hone them to get them to work in practice,’ adds Caiger-Smith, who is the company’s CEO. ‘Simon’s role is more ideas based, conceptual, and structured in the way that he likes to put plans together. The combination of those skill sets and mindsets has worked very well for us.’

Decisions, decisions

Things can get messy if you don’t have a common understanding of how decisions are to be made. For some this should be as collaborative a process as possible. ‘When it comes to decisions it’s a joint decision based on what is the purpose – there’s never a final decision, it sort of comes together collectively,’ says David Nicholson, who founded Living DNA, an ancestry testing company that employs 200, with his wife Hannah Morden (both pictured top). ‘It sounds very idealistic, but it seems to work perfectly so far.’

For others there comes a point where the chief executive or MD ultimately has to be ready to have the final say. ‘As the business grows and the number of decisions and the scope of them increase it gets really hard to do that collaborative thing all the time,’ says Anderson. ‘We started off as a partnership of equals but that can’t really continue – there are very few if any businesses where there are two bosses as equals.’

Either way, the important thing is that you’re all in agreement about how the decision-making process ought to work.  

Get some outside help

A fresh sense of perspective is always useful. When your company reaches a certain size it might make sense to hire a non-executive director or a chairman who can be an independent source of advice, make your board function more professionally and perhaps cast the deciding vote in difficult decisions. ‘We’ve used mentors who have been facilitators at different stages,’ says Anderson. ‘It’s helped smooth some of the rougher patches.’

A shared vision

It’s important that co-founders share a mutual vision for the future of the business, otherwise you’ll just end up pulling in opposite directions. ‘Underpinning our different roles that we’ve adopted is fundamentally a fairly similar mindset about how to go about things,’ says Anderson ‘We’ve disagreed about a lot of little things but we’ve never had big disagreements over the direction of the business.’

‘Ultimately it’s about alignment in terms of the ultimate vision of the company – what we see for the future of the business,’ echoes Jack Tang (right), co-founder with Giles Williams of Urban Massage, which lets customers summon a masseuse to their office or home via an app.

Of course you can’t force your co-founder to share your vision or ignore your own feelings on the issue either. If your differences really are profound, it might be time to part ways.

Communication is key

Co-founders need to communicate. A lot. Tang and Williams lived together for several years while they got their business up and running. ‘In the early stages we needed to be very close to the operation of the day to day business and be really reactive and agile,’ says Tang.

‘Sometimes we’d work all the way through the night,’ adds Williams. ‘The communication was just constant, which was really, really valuable, especially at that early stage.’

Being mindful of your partner’s emotions and what motivates them is critical. ‘If we’re not talking and we just get into the routine of things, that’s when we both immediately notice something’s not right in the relationship and we bring it immediately back to how are we feeling,’ says Nicholson. ‘Not just debriefing what went on during the day, but how did we feel about what went on.’

Take a look at yourself

Keep falling out? ‘Look at yourself first,’ says Nicholson. ‘If there’s an issue, turn to yourself and say "what’s my part in that?", rather than looking at the other person and saying the issue’s with them.'

Williams says a good relationship is all about having ‘a mutual trust and mutual respect. If you think something’s a problem then bring it up. And then just be willing to come at it from the other person’s perspective. I think if you do that then you’re probably not going to have any problems – at least not in the long term.’

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