WHITEBOARD EXERCISES

Navigate Co-Founder Relationships - Part 1

We recommend completing these sections on a desktop, printing your sheets and/or saving your work as PDFs.

Don't Be the 65%

Research shows that 65% of companies fail due to problems within the management team. Knowing there is a real chance your company could fall into this percentage, what are you doing today to build a good relationship with your co-founder?

The intention of these 2-part worksheets is to help you build a stronger relationship with your co-founder and address problems early to avoid a blow up and/or break up. The worksheets contain reflection steps, conversation starters and co-founder exercises compiled from Techstars mentors, employees, and our Worldwide Network, who have helped co-founders build successful relationships.

Part one of the worksheet will help you digest the information learned from the videos.

Part two is an exercise that can help co-founders assess themselves, their family situation, finances, etc. as the company grows.

Start With Good Intent

“Assume good intent” - David Cohen, Co-Founder and Co-CEO of Techstars

When you assume good intent, it’s easier to have difficult conversations and start the diaglogue from a place of learning instead of being defensive. 

Think of a time where you approached a difficult conversation from a place of assuming good intent of the other person. Describe the situation and how it ended below.

 

STEPS TO BUILDING A POSITIVE CO-FOUNDER RELATIONSHIP

Step 1: Reality Check

Co-founder and people issues are going to happen, period. And developing a regular cadence of communication to address problems early before a blow up or break up is critical to success.

 The most common tension points between co-founders:

  • Finances
  • Salary
  • Hiring
  • Firing
  • Product direction
  • Product decisions
  • Sales
  • Responsibilities
  • Hours worked
  • Vacation

Are you feeling tension with any of these topics? If so, write them down below and any emotions attached to that tension.

What steps are needed to resolve any tension?

Step 2: Get Your Documents in Order

Starting to think about the "what ifs" of growing a company can help co-founders prepare for the future, get their house in order and protect the business.

Examples of “What Ifs”

What if a co-founder…

  • leaves
  • wants to leave
  • is playing more than producing
  • spending money irresponsibly
  • isn’t delivering product
  • isn’t being truthful with investors

What are the “What Ifs” that need to be discussed with your co-founder?

Based on those “What Ifs,” what documents do we need to get in order to protect the business? Who do we need to engage to get this done?

Step 3: Understand Your Co-Founder

Understanding your co-founder is more than just knowing how they take their coffee, it’s about gaining a deeper knowledge of their strengths and weaknesses, goals, life needs, culture, fears, etc.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Identify each other’s strengths and weaknesses below. 

My strengths Co-Founder Strengths
My weaknesses Co-founder weaknesses
Overlapping skills with my co-founder Overlapping skills from my co-founders perspective
Where I think we have talent gaps Where my co-founder believes there are talent gaps

Reflection: How does this insight change the way you make decisions, adjust workflow, obtain talent and grow the business? Write your answer below.

Personal Goals

Goals for the company may differ for each co-founder, and figuring that out early-on can help in decision making, and direction for the future.

What are your personal goals for this company in year 1, 3, 5, and beyond?

What does a successful outcome for your business look like?

Are your goals aligned with your co-founder? Why/Why not?

Pacing

Building a company often requires working 12+ hours a day, six days a week, even holidays, and it will impact your personal life - in fact, it will become your life. And talking with your co-founder about the workflow can help each other manage other responsibilities in life and mitigate feelings of unfairness.

Think about the current workflow with your co-founder. Does this pace feel balanced and fair? If not, what steps can you take to manage the workflow?

Burnout

Founder burnout is a real thing and could likely happen to any co-founder more than once. Developing a plan to address burnout can help preserve the relationship and keep the company moving forward.

Here are some of the symptoms of Burnout according to Psychology Today:

  • Chronic Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Forgetfulness/impaired concentration
  • Physical symptoms
  • Increased illness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Loss of enjoyment
  • Pessimism
  • Lack of effectiveness
  • Feelings of hopelessness

If you are starting to see the signs of burnout with your co-founder or yourself, it’s important to acknowledge these signs and talk to each other and find a way to recharge.

What steps are you taking to maintain the physical and emotional stamina needed to handle the pace of building a business?

Finances and Salary

Money is a constant stressor for any relationship. And keeping an open line of communcation with your co-founder about money, salary, and fundraising is a critical component to developing a positive relationship.

Are there any tension points about finances you need to discuss with your co-founder? Write them down.

Developing Culture

How you and your co-founder define company culture and the type of company you want to be can direct the type of decisions you make about growth, talent, investors, and more. Having conversations about company culture can help align co-founders in the good and challenging times.

What culture values are important to you? Does this align with your co-founder?

How do you see the culture of the company changing over the next five years? What steps do you need to take to develop this company culture? Write your answers below.

Step 4: Set Clear Goals

Do you want to eventually sell the business or keep growing? How are you going to structure the business as you add more talent? These type of questions can open new conversations to the various goals co-founders have for a business.

What vision to you have for the company? Are they similar to your co-founder? Write your answer below.

Step 5: Discuss the Elephant in the Room

Preparing for Tough Conversations

It’s inevitable, friction and tension will happen between co-founders. And when co-founders don’t have a communication diffusion plan in place when emotions and stress runs high, it can lead to additional blow ups and eventually a break up.

Try these communication tips and framework around difficult discussions to work through tension.

For you:

  • Try to have your conversation in a private, safe place to express oneself
  • Listen, then speak
  • Take a deep breath before you speak
  • Take a walk and organize your thoughts before the discussions
  • Keep the conversation respectful
  • Be conscious of your verbal and non-verbal behavior
  • Remember you can choose to be angry and react to emotions or not
  • Restrain yourself from giving a defensive action or response in that moment
  • Take a learning perspective
  • Look inward and see if you’ve done something to create this friction
  • Identify the facts in this problem
  • Stay away from emotional responses.

3 Key Phrases in a Conversation

Use these three phrases throughout your conversation so your co-founder feels they’ve been heard, you’ve acknowledged the friction, and then talk about the actions that will be taken afterward. Try this framework during your conversations.

  • I hear you – This phases lets them know you are listening to their perspective.
  • I see how you could feel that way – This phrase acknowledges their perspective and trying to understand their point of view. It doesn’t mean you agree or diagree with them.
  • Here’s what I’m going to do – This phrase is letting the person know if you are going to take action, that could be change or not change, and it helps you walk through the why of the decision.

Step 6: Build Trust With Your Co-Founder

What are you currently doing to build trust with your co-founder? Write your answer below.

Step 7: Get Help

Whether there is tension in the relationship or in need of setting up a communication framework to discuss issues, it’ll be worth the investment to engage a coach, mediator or mentor to help strengthen the relationship so the company can continue to thrive.

Who can help us get the guidance we need to improve our relationship? Write your answer below.

Co-Founder Conversation Exercise 

This exercise is designed to get you thinking about your and your co-founder's performance levels, and open a discussion around any variance.

Supplies:

  • Piece of paper
  • Pen

Instructions:

  1. On the X axis label it "Performance"
  2. On the Y Axis label it "Month," and divide it into 3 months
  3. Chart of your personal performance over the last three months – be honest
  4. Chart your co-founder’s performance

Reflection Questions

  • Are the performances the same? If they are different, have you talked to your co-founder about why.
  • Does this chart bring up and issue that may be festering with you right now?
  • What do I need to learn from my co-founder to understand their perspective about this problem?
  • How can I approach this conversation with my co-founder to create a productive outcome?

Assignment

Set up periodic check-ins with your co-founder where there is no work, no phones, and you have a non-emotional exchange where there is an opportunity to voice concerns and the space and freedom to talk about what’s happening in the business and personally.

CO-FOUNDER DISCUSSION TOPICS – PART 2

Designed by Techstars Mentor, Jennifer Cabala, this exercise can help cofounders assess themselves, their family situation ,finances, etc. It is best when co-founders complete the worksheet separately and discuss their answers.

CLICK HERE TO GO TO WORKSHEET PART 2