How to avoid falling out with your co-founder

It's good having someone else fighting your corner but the right relationship can make or break a business.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 08 Apr 2016

Starting a business with a co-founder has many benefits. Ranjet Chohan runs social opinion platform Pollpic with Alvan Whittaker and Josh Fleet. He says that having co-founders ‘allows the responsibilities and stress to be shared’, but regardless of how well you get along, more often than not there will be disagreements. So how can you make sure discordance doesn’t turn into a bigger bust-up?

Titles aren’t the be all and end all

‘We don’t give too much importance to titles; I think they can be confusing,’ says Ben Grech, who launched student accommodation site Uniplaces with two others. If bickering breaks out over who gets to be the boss, you may want to focus on defining your relative strengths. ‘We focus more on defining our responsibilities within the company rather than actually just labelling ourselves as CEO or CFO or CSO.’

Tom Warner, co-founder of gin distillery Warner Edwards, says it’s important to remember that ‘only one person can shout charge so a command structure does need to be established and both parties need to be content with this.’

Stay on the same page

It can be easy to get swept up in the excitement of a buzzing new business idea, but if you don’t set out your respective roles and responsibilities early on, it can cause complications further down the line. Doyle Clayton solicitor Declan Bradley says he often hears from co-founders claiming they contribute more but get less back from the firm. ‘Lots of issues are wrapped up in this common problem, including unclear division of work and disputes over allocation of equity and salary,’ he says. ‘Decide early who does what and what benefits they are allocated as a result. Ideally that should all be set out in a clear shareholder agreement with an appropriate equity vesting schedule.’

Edwards advises checking in with one another about your vision for the business to ensure it’s on track. ‘Update your 12 month plan every two months and make sure everyone is still aligned and happy with the way things are going.’

Know when to concede

Mel Beeby Clarke says she and her Ambitious PR co-founder nearly had a falling out about totally rebranding the business, including changing its name. ‘Being a cost-conscious start-up I thought it was unnecessary and would be a waste of money for us,’ she says. The two hashed it out and Beeby Clarke deferred to her co-founder Lis, as they had previously agreed she would be in charge of developing the brand. ‘In the end she was right and I was wrong and I’m really glad we did it.’

Warner Edwards' Tom Warner and Sion Edwards

Focus on the business’s interest

James Exton co-founded LDN Muscle with his twin brother. While family business partners often feel as if they can be blunter with one another, you should still be professional. Exton says don’t allow matters to become personal feuds. ‘Keep them focused always on what is in the best interests of the company. You want the business to be successful and grow; so long as you keep this at the forefront of any issue, the resolution will always be in favour of the company’s future.’

Stay in touch

It can be easy to get bogged down in your respective duties. ‘As the business gets busier there are more people involved and you’re out at meetings with clients a lot of the time, it can feel like you’re ships that pass in the night, Beeby Clarke says.’ She advises setting specific time aside for regular catch ups ‘even if it’s just a quick coffee or lunch meeting’.

Simon Smith, who set up Extrinsica Global with his son Nick, agrees that communication is key. ‘It’s completely true when they say a business relationship is like being married – you need all those things in place; trust, honesty, communication.’

It can be lonely being a CEO and the same applies to business owners – having a co-founder can be an excellent way to combat this. If one is feeling low or disillusioned, it can be their business partner who provides motivation to push on.

‘Working with people you trust, who share history and have a similar vision for the company can mean that everyone is pulling on the rope in the same direction,’ says Jason Kingsley, co-founder of video games company Rebellion. ‘Whether you win the tug of war that is running a company is another matter.’

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