Great Tools for Cofounder Relationship and Conflict Management

Mar 12, 2023
9 min read

Your cofounder relationship with your partner is crucial to the success of your business. In fact, it’s the most intimate relationship in your professional life. This article should help you in the process of cofounder matching, as well as in the process of establishing your relationship and growing it. It’s a really crucial and important part of building a startup.

I’ve decided to write out this article and provide some tools that are of use, because we’ve recently gone through some turbulences ourselves as cofounders, and we’re in the process of digging ourselves out of them. To do this well, we resorted to using assessments that we have built ourselves and which are free and open to use by anybody. 

Have a founders agreement 

A founders agreement handles, legally, what you agree on before or as you start the company – equity split, goals, division of roles on paper, etc. You can find a lot of legal solid advice on this with Founder Institute and YC for example, I won’t pretend to be an expert in this.

Write out a founder alignment document 

Create a founder alignment doc that outlines important topics that will affect your relationship and your startup. Write it out in notion or google docs – it is not legally binding. But it’s real important because it guides you and your cofounder through essential questions that you should ask each other. 

These below questions may feel uncomfortable, but they will help you understand each other better and resolve issues faster. Knowing what makes each of you tick will make resolving conflicts much easier in the future. 

Questions to ask each other and useful tools to help you determine alignment and fit 

What motivates you in starting the company?

Is it passion for or against something, or a desire to solve a problem, or a desire to be an entrepreneur, or something else? 

You need to discuss this with each other. You can also try our career culture preferences quiz, it’s fun, but it doesn’t cover the entire plethora of interests and goals that the two of you can share. 

What are your key values?

You should each take this values assessment to figure out what key values guide you in your life. Values alignment is something that’s hard to figure out but that is the foundation of how you behave and what goals you strive to achieve. This is key, for if they are really at odds for you as cofounders, you should be aware as this might present you with challenges. 

What are your key drivers, as in what intrinsically motivates you? 

You should each take this motivational assessment to figure out what motivates you intrinsically. 

What is your vision of the company for the long run?

Vision glues together everything else, so it’s important to be aligned on it, even if it changes over the course of your startup. This is something you must discuss, and come back to as you iterate, pivot and grow the startup. We’ve had to do this recently too.

What kind of culture do you want to build? Culture is a key factor that determines performance. 

Take our excellent cultural assessment to figure out what sort of culture you want to work in and build. This really will help you align yourselves well. Alignment around culture is crucial for how you want to behave, how you want your company to operate, who you want to hire, and who you fire for cultural misalignment. 

What’s your personality and working style? 

Your personality determines you, and your working styles, which ideally should align or be complementary, and not be at odds with each other so you don’t get frustrated by such differences in how you prefer to work and make decisions.

We’ve developed a working styles assessment precisely for this. An empirically validated personality assessment will also be of huge help to you in understanding yourselves, your strengths, and each other. 

How do you tend to cope with stress and pressure?

We all use different coping mechanisms, some of which might be at odds with how the two or more of you do so.  The way you cope under pressure and stress speaks to your way of dealing with it and your perseverance/stamina too. It’s good to know this about each other, as these moments are hard and you do not want to derail each other or the company. Take this stress coping assessment to learn more about yourself and each other.

Clarify your roles and responsibilities

Often cofounders don’t fully clarify their roles and decision-making rights. While you may have chosen titles like CEO, CTO, or COO, it’s key to have a discussion about who’s responsible for what, or you may quickly see obstacles in the form of bottlenecks as the company grows and employees wait for you to agree on decisions.

Without clarity about your roles, you may also struggle to clarify employees’ roles, which can slow down your startup’s growth. So make sure to look at core functions and define who has the final say on each of them.

Communicate regularly and have tough conversations

Have regular 1:1s at work and unstructured “1:1” time too

Regular 1:1s about the business are obvious (should be!) do not drop them. But it’s really important to have unstructured “1:1” time together eg over lunch, dinner, sports or other stuff to maintain your relationship. You need trust to work together, to support each other’s decisions, and to handle conflict. Losing this personal connection lowers trust, because we’re just animals in the end, and social connection is essential to helping us go at it together. 

Have difficult conversations in “conflict 1:1” meetings 

Having difficult conversations is super important! Startup founder conflict destroys companies more often than any other factor, eg. running out of cash. Do not avoid disagreement or conflict because avoiding conflict prevents you from having conversations that solve issues ultimately. By constructively disagreeing and talking out your problems, you develop stamina and conflict resolution ability. Put time on the calendar 2 or more times a month to proactively bring up tough topics. At first, this might be hard 

Plan for hard events

Prep for hard scenarios before they happen proactively to discuss openly about how you might react to difficult situations. Some questions to ask each other include:

  1. If we significantly disagree over product, direction, or strategy, what course of action should we take? 
  2. What happens if one of us wants to leave the company? What vesting do we establish, and how do we deal with it smoothly ie. transition period? 
  3. Suppose we receive an acquisition offer, but one of us is inclined to accept while the other is not. How should we proceed? 

Many people don’t think about how to make those cofounder partnerships work and this lack of planning can lead to cofounder conflict and failure. As a cofounder you can prevent this from happening. On our part at Gyfted we got to this too late and we’re going through it literally right now – we don’t build in public, but we like to take on topics related to what we’re building using psychometrics and behavioral science to the forefront.

Hope this helps! 

Robert

Gyfted 2021, Palo Alto, CA 94305. All rights reserved.