/ Insights / How to find the right co-founder: insights from founders and psychologists

How to find the right co-founder: insights from founders and psychologists

Breaking up is hard to do. In a romantic relationship, but even more so if you’ve co-founded a startup. We’ve all seen The Social Network.

According to Fortune disharmony between founders is one of the reasons startups fail. That is why couples counselling is catching on in Silicon Valley. And not just with tech startups. All kinds of founders are talking to relation therapists together in order to prevent communicating through their lawyers after their once promising startup has imploded.

In this article founders and psychologists share some insights on making a co-founded startup work and how a little ‘touchy feely’ counseling can help out.

Get in touch with yourself

First off: don’t underestimate the ‘touchy feely’ side of being an entrepreneur. There’s a reason why some business schools have a group therapy course where The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work is a must read. “It doesn’t matter how good your product is and how well positioned you are. If you can’t get along with your co-founder it’s going to hold you back”, Jonathan Horowitz says. He is a clinical psychologist and director of the San Francisco Stress and Anxiety Center. Among his clients are startup founders from the Bay Area.

Make sure you and your business partner are compatible

Co-founding a startup is in many ways the same thing as having a child together, says San Francisco based couples therapist and collaboration coach Sunny Sabbini. “You negotiate over the same things: power, respect and money. The only difference is you don’t have sex”.

According to her a lot of problems arise in business and romantic relationships due to a misalignment of values, workload and power balance between co-founders. That is why according to Sabbini the most important thing co-founders should do is “keep investing in the relationship”. It helps to talk openly and frankly to each other about the relational dynamics that bother you before it breeds resentment. Because it will.

Horowitz agrees. “Choose your partners wisely. That means having the difficult conversations upfront: how work is divided, what do we do in certain situations, what rolls do each of us play, how do we vote on decisions.”

Maybe setting up a startup with your best friend isn’t the best idea

Spending every waking hour with your best friend and building a company that’ll change the world sounds great when you’re in college. Running a company however is not the same as writing software in each other’s dorm room. Do you still want to hang out with your friend after working eighty hours shoulder to shoulder in a tiny office? Be aware that a friendship can change under pressure. Sabbini doesn’t advise against setting up a startup with your best friend but stresses that co-founders should “put more time in protecting the relationship and addressing problems.”

Do you still want to hang out with your friend after working eighty hours shoulder to shoulder in a tiny office?

Dutch entrepreneurs Vincent van de Poll and Koen Munneke circumvented this particular problem. They may playfully refer to each other as each other’s business wife, but the duo explicitly chose each other as business partner because they didn’t have years of emotional baggage. The founders of UCreate3D, a 3D printing company with offices in San Francisco and Hong Kong, met through a mutual female friend (they did go to the same high school). Van de Poll: “I think it’s a good idea to start a business with the friends of people you look up to. That’s an important vote of confidence”. And it helps not having scar tissue.

Don’t call it couples counseling

More and more startup co-founders are getting professional help managing their business relationship. However it’s still a bit of a taboo even in open minded San Francisco. “There is a bit of mental health connotation”, Horowitz explains. And investors might stay away if they think trouble is brewing in a startup. It helps not referring to couples counselling but to ‘organizational development’ or ‘communicational coaching’.

Frontpage image by Thierry Ehrmann @Flickr

Hans Klis
Hans Klis is a freelance US correspondent based in New York. He covers the startup scene and focuses on business innovation. Twitter: @rechterhans

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