Co-founder conflict is a startup killer: How to undo the damage and avoid it in the first place

Conflict

Ah, future success so close you can almost touch it. The realisation that your idea could actually become a viable business is electrifying. You’ve crunched the numbers, drawn up a plan, got the ball rolling and may even have secured vital angel funding. You’ve also decided to tackle the world of startup head-on with a co-founder by your side.

As time flies by at the breakneck speed so typical of early-stage business, together you’ve conquered challenges, grown a little (or, a lot) and had your fair share of debate on matters concerning your mutual venture.

All of that is normal, and fine… until it isn’t. One day, you look back and discover you’ve barely had a conversation with your co-founder that hasn’t ended in exasperation, or worse – no resolution or progress on an issue affecting your business. With 65% of startups failing due to co-founder conflict (that’s higher than the US divorce rate), this is not something most can afford to ignore.

What causes co-founder conflict, and why weren’t incompatibilities realised earlier?

While co-founder conflict can arise in a number of different ways, often it can come about when friends or family decide to get into business together and they’re simply not compatible in that aspect of life (and it’s difficult to understand that until you’ve gone all-in, unfortunately).

I have seen those who enjoy a truly magical friendship together, yet are baffled to find that it simply doesn’t translate in the (at times, harsh) reality of day-to-day business. It is a high-pressure environment and our research has shown that there is a large attitudinal component to venture success. If the co-founders are not playing to complementary strengths, trouble can certainly arise.

What are the key ingredients to a successful co-founding relationship?

We have identified some common conflict areas, and the polarising attitudes that can cause tension.

Different communication styles

When working with co-founders, the point is often made by one or the other that they ‘haven’t felt heard’. The Fingerprint for Success research identifies two communication styles, affective and neutral communication. An ‘affective’ communicator will be seen as very emotive, open and often using expressive language and physical gestures (and reading those in others as part of their communicative interpretation). A ‘neutral’ communicator is, well, neutral – often speaking with even tonality and sticking to non-emotive language and facts.

Let’s say there’s two business partners, one who is a neutral communicator and the other with an expressive, affective communication style. More often than not, it can lead to friction. Why? Deep down, they are simply not speaking each other’s language. The affective communicator will feel the neutral communicator is negative, perhaps even angry, during debate and this can lead to escalation. Meanwhile, the neutral communicator will be put off by what will likely be interpreted as emotional reactions. The relationship can work, however – they just need to be shown how to ‘read’ each other better so they can meet on the right level.

Decision-making

Frequent (and often rapid) decision-making is a given in early-stage startups. Wildly different styles can lead to butting heads, and worse, missed opportunities.

F4S identifies two opposing attitudes here – a preference for initiation (that is, getting the ball rolling with a quick-fire decision and working as you go) or reflection and patience (as the name suggests, this attitude refers to a preference for reflecting on new ideas or decisions before going ahead). In this instance, one will hinder progress for the other, or the high initiator may been seen as erratic and rash.

It’s important to recognise these attitudes and work with them, as too much reflection on those early decisions almost certainly minimises opportunities and correlates with venture failure.

Is there such a thing as ‘good’ conflict?

Just like any relationship, there will be times when you don’t see eye-to-eye, and that’s fine. Talking through points of conflict is certainly a benefit – you might even discover a new, better idea together in the process. In essence, healthy debate is just that – healthy. However, it’s so important to work to understand each other’s styles, so you can play to strengths instead of being at each other’s throats.


About the author

A leader and innovator in the professional coaching industry, Michelle Duval is the creator of Fingerprint for Success – based on a twenty-year study of entrepreneurs, it is a tech platform that enables business builders to pinpoint their talents and blindspots, helping them choose a complementary, co-founder.