Three ways to build a better relationship with your co-founder

Like any working relationship, the bond that ties co-founders together can come under strain.


StartupSmart spoke to a number of co-founders – from a sibling duo, a couple, to a team of four – for their top tips on how to make sure you and your co-founder don’t get into a fist-fight when it comes to making tough business decisions.


1. Set aside a regular time to talk about the direction of the business


Catherine Eibner co-founded time-lapse photography app Project Tripod with her partner, and says entrepreneurs should never underestimate the power of good, ongoing communication.


“We talked upfront about what we were going to put into it, what were the roles, divvying up shares, what were the things for both of us that meant it was time to walk away and, importantly, how we would resolve disputes,” she says.


“At that point it is really important to stop and look forward. Building a business in any way shape or form is hard.”


However, the discussions didn’t stop once the pair decided to build an app together. Eibner and her partner have what she calls a weekly “Friday pub night”.


“We go on a Friday afternoon – normally around 4 o’clock – and sit down and brain-dump,” she says.


“It adds a bit of closure for the week as well so we can try to not think about work on the weekend. It makes it a bit more casual, which works for us.”


Another entrepreneur who recommends a weekly meeting between co-founders is Didier Elzinga, chief executive and co-founder of Culture Amp. The Melbourne-based HR startup has a total of four co-founders, so communication is extra important.


“Part of the reason [why we have a weekly co-founder’s meeting] is we are a 13-person company and we wear different hats in the business,” Elzinga says.


“The one thing you want to be clear about when you’re talking about an issue is whether you are talking about it as a founder or the role you fill. You have got to keep the line of communication clear inside the company.”


2. Don’t take things personally


Eibner says entrepreneurs can often be passionate, intense people and learning to separate yourself from the business can be difficult.


“One of the key things is working out how to resolve disputes about business things without making them personal,” she says.


“You have to work out between the two of you how you can distinguish between disagreeing between a tech and business decision, and not making that about the two of you disagreeing personally.”


Eibner says when two co-founders are particularly close and their startup takes up a huge chunk of their life, it can be a fine line between disagreeing with someone personally and with their idea. But she says co-founders arguing about the direction of a startup is healthy and, in a way, necessary.


“We come up with some of our best ideas when we argue them to death,” she says.


“We call them ‘highly animated discussions’. It works really well for us in terms of how we make the big decisions.”


3. Trust that your co-founders can get the job done


Tim McDougall launched elderly care and insights platform Curo with his brother Matt earlier this year. He says trust is essential to a strong and resilient relationship between co-founders, and he is lucky to run a startup with a sibling because it “too out the element of surprise”.


“We can be extraordinarily honest with each other without fear of retribution,” he says.


“If you’ve got someone where you have absolute trust in the other person, it makes things a lot more efficient when you know you can leave things in each other’s hands and know they have the best of intentions and motivations.”


McDougall says trust stops a lot of the “double-up” that can happen when co-founders have to constantly check-in with the other person to see how they are progressing.


“Take time to understand the person and what motivates them,” he says.


“Particularly in a startup environment where people aren’t taking salaries or not huge amounts of money… it’s important to understand each other’s threshold. The worst thing that can happen is one person wants to carry on and the other person wants to get out.”


Elzinga agrees, saying you have to believe in your co-founders if the relationship is to carry on for the long-term.


“If you get a co-founder, that’s for at least seven years – if not more. So it doesn’t matter what values someone is creating today… it’s how we are going to get down the path. You’re in it together and in it for the long haul.”


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