How to Keep Your Cofounder Relationship Strong

February 14, 2019
Forbes

February is the perfect time to show your loved ones that you care. Are you giving your cofounder the same treatment?

February is the perfect time to show your loved ones that you care. Are you giving your cofounder the same treatment?

You don’t need boxes of chocolates or bottles of wine, but the dynamic between cofounders often determines whether a company lives or dies. As Harvard Business School professor Noam Wasserman states in his book “The Founder’s Dilemma,” 65 percent of startups fail because of conflict between cofounders. To keep your cofounder partnership tight, you must put in the work to maintain and grow that relationship.

My years in the startup world have shown me that three key factors contribute to a strong cofounder relationship. I call these the 3 T’s of good partnerships.

First comes trust. If you want your company to succeed, you need to know and believe in the person you’ve chosen to be your partner. Next is talk. Even when you disagree on a subject or decision, you must be able to talk to each other and work it out. The final T, target, refers to goals. Cofounders must share the same mission and understanding of how to achieve their goals.

Agreeing on goals also means agreeing on the roles you play in pursuit of them. Cofounders who jockey for position at the top of the business spend too much time on selfish pursuits to be successful company leaders. Settle things like roles, duties, company values, metrics for success and ideal working styles ahead of time to ward off potential conflict.

In my experience, friendship is also an essential component of cofounder relationships. After all, mastering the 3 T’s is much easier when you work with people you like. Even if you don’t see your cofounder outside of work that often, you can still create a bond strong enough to grow your business. I connected with five successful founders to learn more about what’s made their cofounder relationships thrive.

1. Brett Hyman, President of NVE Experience Agency and Executive Chairman of Treehouse Fabrication & Scenic

Brett Hyman first met his now cofounder when the two worked together in the experiential marketing trenches, forming a bond through their shared sweat and understanding of industry needs. Treehouse Fabrication & Scenic President Moray Smith was an event producer and one of the first employees at Hyman’s NVE Experience Agency. Eventually, they founded Treehouse, wanting to create a company of industry vets who understand both their craft and the importance of the agency-client relationship.

Hyman now describes his and Smith’s relationship as a more collaborative partnership. “Having worked together for over a decade, Moray is now someone that I can trust implicitly,” Hyman said. “It’s invaluable to spearhead a business with someone that champions your same goals but can also be trusted to challenge you to explore new perspectives you otherwise might not have seen.”

Hyman remains at the helm of NVE, and the two organizations work closely together through a partnership. He added that his cofounder relationship with Smith has shown him the value in working with someone you like and respect, professionally and personally. When choosing a cofounder, consider old friends rather than brand new ones, and focus on the people you trust most.

2. Roi Chobadi, Cofounder and CEO of STELLARES

You’re likely familiar with the old adage “Honesty is the best policy.” That applies to your cofounder relationship, too. Roi Chobadi and his cofounder Andy Katz worked together in Israeli intelligence before they founded STELLARES. They shared the values of radical honesty, fearless innovation and extreme growth, so they decided to work together.

The two cofounders pride themselves on their ability to be upfront with one another. “Giving each other clear, strong and helpful feedback, from a place of wanting to see each other get better, for our own personal development and for our contribution to the company, can be challenging,” he said. “But, if done well, it only strengthens the relationship.”

The two complement each other well: Katz explores new ideas while Chobadi provides the focus to bring them to life. Like me, Chobadi believes in the power of friendship in successful cofounder teams. “Andy is not just a business partner but also a friend,” he said. STELLARES aims to treat every colleague as a friend, while also maintaining a high professional bar.

3. Marc Fischer, CEO and Cofounder of Dogtown Media

Not all cofounders get to spend all of their time in the same room. Marc Fischer and his cofounder started as friends, hatching plans for their business on a six-hour road trip. Once they launched the company, however, their cofounder relationship soon went long distance. “I was in LA, my cofounder was in San Fran, and our lead engineer was in Nashville,” Fischer said. “We started building our team as a remote entity in which everyone was floating and working from their own spaces.”

Because he and his teammates could not enjoy the casual banter and after-work drinks that often lead to new ideas, Fischer and his group had to make their own water-cooler moments. Fischer and his cofounder started having frequent one-on-one meetings. Being together in the same place, at least part of the time, is imperative. If you and your cofounder are long distance, make time to connect, more informally, either in person or via video chat.

“We take frequent hikes away from our cellphones and technology so we can recalibrate and focus on understanding each other and what we’re going through personally, inside and outside the office,” he told me. Fischer credits those efforts to connect with his cofounding team’s ability to collaborate and lead.

4. Katya Libin, Cofounder and CEO of HEYMAMA

While other cofounders I connected with met through work experiences, Katya Libin and her cofounder, Amri Kibbler, met through their 3-month-old children. The pair instantly connected, and a few years later, their shared impressions of the needs of mothers led them to found HEYMAMA.

In founding a company that caters to families, Libin found that her cofounding team was like a family all its own. “She’s like a sister to me,” she said of her cofounder. “I can’t imagine doing this without her, but the biggest benefit is two brains and two champagne glasses when things are flying.” Much as a family divides household responsibilities, Libin said splitting duties and clearly knowing who is in charge of what has been crucial to a successful relationship.

Libin focuses on revenue drivers and partnerships while Kibbler homes in on experiences, focusing also on the company’s membership base and retention. The two overlap on creative direction and brand vision, but they show respect for each other’s views when collaborating in those areas. When it comes to business responsibilities, make sure you and your cofounder are on the same page. In addition, Libin said she takes time to foster a friendship with her cofounder outside of work, which strengthens the support she’s able to provide at the office.

5. Peter Gasca, Former CEO and Cofounder of Wild Creations

Peter Gasca, my cofounder at Wild Creations, compares working with a cofounder to maintaining a marriage—only with even more time and commitment. In that same vein, he said it’s important to allow your cofounder to be himself or herself.

“When you have cofounders, it is easy to become assertive and project your management style onto them,” he said. “Just remember—you cofounded the business with this person for a reason, hopefully because you felt he or she was the right person to fill a need you had. So, let him or her do just that.”

Gasca believes the best cofounder teams complement one another in their strengths and weaknesses. “It is also nice to have someone who is willing to step into your role when you need a break,” he told me. Even with defined roles, knowing you can lean on someone to occasionally pick up your slack is an invaluable quality in a partnership.

While relationships are on your mind this month, don’t forget to give your work relationships some attention as well. The sweat you pour into your company makes you as close to your cofounder as anyone can be. Treat that relationship with respect to keep your business growing and your partnership successful.


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