Co-Founder’s Dilemma: When Opinions Are Too Close Or Too Far Apart
12 years ago

Once Upon A Time…

See if you can find yourself or parts of yourself in this story:

Four best friends start a company. They hand out roles based on areas of interest and experience. CxO titles for everyone! The four really believe in the product and the marketplace. That shared belief creates a high tide of affinity and agreement and each are under the impression that they are all on the same page – that they share the same vision – and that because they are in agreement, the other three are intelligent and capable.

The company starts to get traction. They sign up some impressive early customers – and they all go to the meetings with the customers, because who wants to be left out? They attract investors – and they all sit on the board, because who wants to be left out? Before they know it their little idea has become a real company. 10, 20, maybe 30 employees are hired. There’s a huge party to celebrate their first six-figure deal.

Success Creates Opportunity, Opportunity Creates Tradeoffs

Now they’ve got customers, investors, partners, and competitors all signaling them in different directions. They need to spend more time on the next version of the product – they need to hire a lot more quality people to make sure they fix the problems with the current customers, they need to hire a lot more sales people to grow the company as fast as the investors expect, and by the way they need to reduce expenses to make sure they can make the money they’ve already raised last long enough to avoid a down round.

Each of these pressures weighs on each founder differently – mostly to do with their different day to day exposure to the external influencers. The co-founders start to disagree. There’s more to do than can be done – so each tradeoff feels like a huge mistake to at least one of them. When they had nothing but their own ideas, painting an imaginary happy future, it was easy to align. Now that they are really on to something, its harder and harder to agree with *what* they are on to.

First Disagreement, Then Silence, Then Mistrust

Meetings that used to flow effortlessly now grind to a halt. Sacred cows and forbidden zones start popping up all over the place, and the number of ‘safe’ topics dwindles. Pretty soon the co-founders decide that they have to hold their tongues if they are going to get anything done, because so many conversations turn into a protracted discussion without a conclusion.

How does a reasonable person react to people he’s supposed to be aligned with who disagree with him and keep silent about it? Naturally with skepticism and mistrust. Lack of trust breeds more lack of trust, and eventually the situation becomes untenable.

The original vision of a family of co-founders all in support of each other’s greatness and changing the world together has vanished, and the best that each can hope to do is to get out as quickly as possible without crippling the company, screwing the investors, and being financially stupid. As a result, the business suffers and creative innovation gives way to lowest-common-denominator thinking and lack luster performance.

That leaves the co-founders with a dilemma. If their opinions are to similar, then there is no reason for the partnership. If they are too far apart, then the differences between the founders lead to a death spiral. How do you balance ‘just the right amount’ of differences?

You can’t.

Convicting The Innocent

Though the broken relationships and lost business vision are a shame, the real tragedy is convicting the innocent: Differences. Different style, different background, different ideas, and different opinions take the rap for the downfall of the co-founder relationship again and again in thousands of companies, and the truth is that these differences hold the key to extraordinary performance and relationships, not the blame for their destruction.

Once the silent promise is made, “Never again will I partner with someone with a different view of [blank]!” Then possibility for great partnership and everything that is possible only through great partnership dies. Remember synergy? growth? covering your weaknesses with their strengths? expansion? even love? Remember all the reasons you wanted to be in partnership in the first place? They all require differences. It’s a false dilemma, because the more differences the better.

Ok Smarty Pants, How Do You Make It Work, Then?

There are five elements that create the container that makes differences safe in a partnership. With these elements in place, no degree difference can take you out. Without them, even the smallest differences will slowly create a chasm that destroys the relationship and the business.

Believe Or Leave
Its your job to believe in your co-founder’s best intentions, NOT their job to prove it to you. Its your job to believe that they are capable to doing their job, NOT their job to prove it to you. Do what ever it takes to reinforce this belief. Focus on what works. Recognize that you’ve likely got reciprocal problems for every one you see in your partner. If you’ve tried everything and just can’t get your self to believe in them, then leave immediately. It is unacceptable to stay and not believe, because your non-belief is creating more damage to the company than anything they may be doing wrong.

Trust The Larger Context
Anytime you think your partner is making a stupid decision, first assume that you are missing the larger context in which their approach is genius. Search for that larger context. What information are they exposed to that you may be missing? What risk may they be mitigating that you’ve overlooked? You wont always find it, but this process of searching will yield amazing innovations in the company and rewarding relationships with your co-founders.

The benefit you and the company will yield from the flow of ideas and speed of decision making from the above approach will outweigh any cost of not catching your partner’s mistakes ten-fold. You are responsible for the throughput of decisions (larger effect on results long term), not just the quality of each decision (smaller effect).

Slow And Steady Specialization
Most partnerships begin with nearly 100% of time spent together and end with 5% or less. Think about it. At the beginning, the highest leverage thing you can do is talk together about what you want to create – and as you succeed, you start to have a larger team and it makes more sense for you to take some meetings and your partner(s) to cover others.

The problem arises when each co-founder has a different idea about how quickly this happens. Too fast and it can feel like you’re losing touch with the most important relationship in the business. Too slowly and it can feel like your time isn’t being leveraged. But too fast and too slow are subjective, and you aren’t likely to agree. Imagine a partnership where one feels out of touch and the other feels unproductive. Not a recipe for success.

Sit down with your partner(s) and talk about where you are on this continuum and where you want to be. Recognize that it will change, and design deliberately how quickly you’d like it to change. If you let it unfold naturally, you’re leaving it to chance whether everyone feels like its going the way it should.

Decide Who Gets To Decide
Most of humanity’s conflicts center around the question, “who gets to decide?” Who gets to decide what kind of government we will have? Who gets to decide what religion I can practice? Who gets to decide who will serve and who will eat? Who gets to decide how much we discount our strategic accounts and how many resources we spend serving them?

In examining these conflicts more closely, you’ll notice that the decision about who gets to decide is rarely talked about explicitly. Of course you can’t solve the issue if you aren’t talking about it. And even in the most contentious relationships, it is surprisingly easy to agree on who gets to decide, especially when everyone feels like they’ll be able to say their piece before the decision is made.

Any place its not clear, do the following:
1) Agree on who gets to make the decision in question.
2) The decision maker decides how long the ‘input’ period is, and when the final decision will be made.
3) Everyone is invited to give maximal input during the input period, understanding that they are not the decision maker.
4) At the conclusion of the input period, the decision maker announces the decision and talks about the conditions that must be present in order to reconsider the decision.
5) Everyone drops the discussion until or unless those conditions arise.

The most surprising thing about this process is not just that decisions that have dragged on for months often are resolved in minutes. The big surprise is that they are often decided *unanimously* before the input period ends. Once its known who will decide, people can drop their separate agendas and join the team.

Have A Common, Dynamic, Non-Vision
When it comes to sharing a vision with someone, recognize that its a movie, not a still picture. Its always changing – incorporating new ideas constantly. That means that if you were on the same page yesterday, it doesn’t mean that you will be today. So – visions are dynamic and must be shared dynamically.

Secondly, recognize that visions are often as much about what you won’t do as they are about what you will do. Spend time agreeing what you’ll give up – what you won’t focus on – which values are less important – and which constituants you are most willing to disappoint. So many of our decisions are made based on avoiding what we don’t want – it would be silly to assume that we can be in synch with someone by only talking about what we do want.

Guard This With Your Life

Make your most important job creating and guarding these elements. If you create the most fluid and productive partnership possible, all other results – physical and metaphysical – will follow.


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What are the conditions you use to create successful partnerships? Tell me in the comments below!

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