What Happens When Your Co-Founder is no Longer Your BFF?

Mark Suster, an entrepreneur turned venture capitalist that focuses on early-stage technology companies, has written extensively on what he refers to as “the co-founder mythology.” That is, business relationships evolve, and not always in the positive way the partners envision.

While it’s easy to focus on serving your customers, or establishing relationships with other professionals or suppliers, Suster urges business partners to invest first in their partnership. He writes, “Make sure you continually pay attention to this most important of human relationships in your business. Nurture it. Challenge it. And mediate when you must.”

Stressing that 50/50 partnerships, in particular, offer very limited alternatives for dealing with conflict, Suster suggests consulting an executive coach to help manage dueling goals and personalities. He writes, “It’s hard to be open with your co-founders without somebody helping to broker the conversation. In many cases it’s easier if this person isn’t a board member or venture capitalist unless you have an extremely close or trusting relationship with them. You want to be able to be open without your board members losing confidence in your future.”

In my experience, while new business partners often expect ongoing synchronicity, the inevitable changes in risk tolerance, business goals, and personal circumstances can contribute to unexpected differences in corporate direction. I’d add that what Suster describes as “mechanisms for mediating if you can’t come to a consensus” should be put in place sooner rather than later, ideally from the outset, long before conflict surfaces. That will help ensure you don’t sweep conflicts under the rug, hoping they disappear. The truth is that whether you experience a slight gap or major rift in thinking, it will widen as time goes on and cause significant stress as the time for succession planning or selling the business approaches.

Fortunately, the business partners I have interviewed have not had these issues. However, I know disagreements arise and know what an executive coach brings to the table.  I would certainly recommend that each business partner give serious consideration to services of an organization like Vistage International.

And if entrepreneurship is of interest, I encourage you to read the stories of successful executives and entrepreneurs at Profiles in Success.

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