Avoiding Co-Founder Conflict

businessmen boxingI really enjoyed this blog article from Dharmesh Shah.  It’s unbelievable how many startups get into trouble not because their product isn’t having success or their company can’t scale but rather because the co-founders have some “funk” between them that grows to the point that the train goes off the tracks.  In a related article I discussed some of the implications of matching up with a co-founder that’s already in the bonus round (see article here titled “Is Your Potential Co-Founder Already in the Bonus Round“).  You can read Dharmesh’s post here.

His list includes the following topics:

  1. How should we divide the shares?
  2. How will decisions get made?
  3. What happens if one of us leaves the company?
  4. Can any of us be fired?  By whom?  For what reasons?
  5. What are our personal goals for the startup?
  6. Will this be the primary activity for each of us?
  7. What part of our plan are we each unwilling to change?
  8. What contractual terms will each of us sign with the company?
  9. Will any of us be investing cash in the company?  If so, how is this treated?
  10. What will we pay ourselves?  Who gets to change this in the future?

Just like other forms of relationship, co-founders can “grow apart” over time.  What motivated each of them initially can easily change as time goes on.  Getting married, having children, experiencing the company at different phases of growth, watching the company culture change as more employees are hired and simply getting wiser over time can all cause personal motivations to change.  Discussing the topics in Dharmesh’s list at the outset and then again periodically as the company grows is an ideal way to avoid surprises.  If you and your co-founder(s) can recognize the changes in motivation as they occur, it’s much easier to deal with than waiting until someone explodes.

Sometimes two founders will create a 2-person board, which eliminates the possibility of a tie-breaking vote.  If they wait until there’s a significant conflict to realize a third vote would be helpful to the company, adding that third board seat becomes a very political decision.  So consider starting with a 3-person board and making sure that other board member knows where the co-founders stand on the list of questions above.  In addition, having one or more formal advisors that are motivated for the company to succeed via their equity compensation but not directly entangled in the co-founder relationship can really help (see related blog articles: Selecting an Advisor, Compensating an Advisor and Maximizing Value From Your Advisor).  Often times, your company’s legal counsel will have conflicts of interest in being able to help work through co-founder conflict.  So start with advisors and board members.

Wait, there’s much more!!!

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Author: Gordon Daugherty

Over the past 15 years Gordon has seen more than 1,500 startup pitches, given personal advice to more than 500 entrepreneurs and been involved with raising over $45M in growth and venture capital. Throughout his 28 year career in high tech, Gordon has two IPO’s and a $200M acquisition exit under his belt. Now, through his advisory practice called Shockwave Innovations and as Managing Director for Austin’s Capital Factory startup accelerator, Gordon’s focus is purely on educating, advising and investing in tech startups.

7 thoughts on “Avoiding Co-Founder Conflict”

  1. Great ideas and great to have this out in the open. Can’t help but think however, how my last co-founder and I had a profound conflict even though we followed these guidelines and openly set expectations early.

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