A co-founder relationship is unlike any other relationship you’ll have.
Your co-founder is not your friend, your colleague, or your lover. At Entrepreneur First, we have helped thousands of people start companies with complete strangers.
If you make it far enough together, your relationship with your co-founder will be life defining. The relationship will be emotional, legal, financial, and everything in between. You might spend more time with your co-founder than your spouse. Whether this is for good or bad depends largely on whether you and your co-founder are deliberate about your relationship and committed to helping each other do better.
To build the best co-founding relationship, you must give each other constant feedback.
No one will give you feedback.
Without conscious effort, founders are some of the most feedback starved people on the planet. When you start a company, you’re only forced to hear difficult feedback when it’s too late – once you notice your company is already failing.
When you work for a large organization, there are mechanisms to address your professional development – performance reviews, peer appraisals, 360-degree feedback. When you are just a two-person team, none of these is readily available. You are simultaneously each other’s boss, peer and subordinate.
It’s not much different even once you’ve built out your own team. When you run and own the company, even with the best intentions, you’re unlikely to get 100% honest feedback. You are, after all, in charge. Your employees have different incentives to you, and your investors have different incentives to you.
Ultimately you are the only person responsible for your outcome. And if you want that outcome to be good, you need to relentlessly hunt for feedback people don’t want to give you. And the person you most need feedback from is the person most aligned with you, your co-founder.
But everything depends on it.
Especially in the early stages, without the founders there is no company. If the co-founders of a 50,000 employee company suddenly cease to exist, the company keeps on going. If both co-founders of a two person company suddenly cease to exist, it does not.
In the beginning, all you really have is your team. The performance of your team, and of your relationship, will determine your outcome. If each week you can make your co-founder 1% better at their job by giving them the right feedback, you have an obligation to both of you to do it. No founder has everything it takes to start a successful company right from the beginning. The only way you can succeed together in the long run is through compounding small improvements week after week.
While it can be easier in the short term to avoid giving feedback, there is no reward for working with the wrong cofounder the easy way, or the right cofounder in the wrong way. The opportunity cost of not giving your co-founder feedback, even if that feedback means your co-founding team breaks up, is massive. Spend a long time with the wrong person, and you won’t succeed. Spend a long time working on the wrong things, and you won’t succeed either. If feedback means breaking up, better you break up sooner than later.
Everything depends on you, and you depend on feedback.
Problems get bigger and harder over time.
If you avoid giving feedback, it only gets harder to give, and more important to give it. At Entrepreneur First, although we try our hardest to convince teams to frequently give each other effective feedback, it doesn’t always happen. Invariably, usually around a key moment like raising funding, a small number of teams that seem stable break up.
This happens in the rare case that a team is able to make good progress while having serious dysfunctions in their relationship. Progress, especially traction, can create a bond between co-founders just as easily as lack of progress can destroy it. But sometimes, progress can enable teams to cover up or avoid relationship or performance issues. And this is very dangerous.
If your company does well, you get more resources – more money, people, and tools. Your influence increases and this magnifies your issues and mistakes. As a founder, you’ll find that flaws within your organisation often reflect your own. Minor issues become major crises.
And as your company grows, the stakes get higher and higher. More of your employees’ livelihoods, more of your investors’ money, more of your life is at risk. Major co-founder disputes, misalignment, and mistakes are incalculably more costly later on than at the beginning.
Create a feedback culture.
The time to learn how to give your co-founder feedback is not during a crisis. It’s every day, right from the beginning. Creating a feedback culture between you and your co-founder is one of the most valuable things you can do for your company. At EF, we’ve seen the best founders deliver hard feedback time and time again, and grow together as a result.
Of course, giving hard feedback doesn’t mean being nasty. A strong feedback culture is only possible if feedback is given in an effective way.