Imagine getting married to someone you hardly knew just because you “really needed to get this marriage thing going, and they seem qualified enough at the time.” Does that sound like the recipe for a healthy long-term relationship? Probably not. But that’s pretty much how most of us select our future spouse for our startups (aka “The Cofounder”).
At some point, we inevitably step back and ask “Is this really the right person to be my long-term coffounder or did I just do a shotgun wedding with this weirdo?” Which invariably leads to “How can I tell if this is the ‘right’ cofounder, and if it isn’t — how do I unwind this thing?
To be fair, these are questions most Founders will end up asking, and if we’re not, it doesn’t mean our cofounders aren’t. The answers, however, have a ton of nuance to them.
If You Have to Ask the Question…
The first and most telling sign is when we have to ask the question at all. Generally speaking, we don’t start asking these types of questions until something feels off. It’s also hard to tell whether we’re reacting too early, or our expectations for how things should be going are just miscalibrated. Both are probably true. We can narrow our concerns down to two factors — personality fit and competency.
It’s possible to find a really competent co-founder that we just don’t get along with, as easily as it is to find someone we enjoy working with that just isn’t up to snuff. Both are problems, but neither are uncommon. We don’t have to love the person we’re working with, but we definitely have to respect them. At which point the respect is lost, either in their personality or in their work, the decision to stick around becomes pretty obvious.
We Don’t Know Until We’re Tested
The reason most relationships start so easily is that they aren’t tested early enough. Imagine if before we ever chose to partner up, we had to complete a successful funding round, ship a product, and deal with a major HR issue together. Those are all tests of how we really work in crisis mode. Those test how well we see the world in a similar fashion and where we tend to disagree.
Until we’ve had some of those tests, we really can’t say for sure that this is the right person. And if we’ve just failed some of those tests, it’s right about now that we’re thinking “OK I need to hit the eject button…”
We should try to hold our judgment until we feel like we’ve gone through some trying times together. A great co-Founder can march through adversity with us shoulder-to-shoulder. A shitty cofounder avoids that march by making excuses and looking for “a way out.” Also, it’s worth noting, sometimes we are the shitty co-founder in that scenario!
Time For The Eject Button
When it’s clear that it’s time to eject, the only way to do this well is to rip the band-aid off — fast. There’s never been a Founder that’s said “You know what worked really well? I knew it was time to part company but instead I waited for a few years of agony to slowly beat the situation to a pulp while losing all of my hair in the process!”
The two stages of the eject are these: the “Conversation” and the “Terms.” The Conversation is what we need to have ASAP. “Hey, I don’t feel comfortable keeping this partnership going…” and the Terms are what we need to have planned in advance “So, here’s my proposal for how we break amicably.”
The key to a successful split is to break quickly and be generous with the exit terms. The way to make it awful is to drag it out and be a miser with the terms.
Cofounders break up all the time — that’s not the issue. The issue is, when it comes to co-founders, we need to be 100% all-in, or 100% all out. Any space in between is a recipe for disaster.