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Co-founder Conflict (techcrunch.com)
366 points by garry on Feb 18, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 57 comments

We hear about co-founder dynamics a lot in the startup community, and I wonder if the traditional business/technical dyad exacerbates conflict?

I am a technical co-founder, and that means I build things. In a conventional co-founding relationship, I am be expected to give my business-oriented partner the final word with respect to strategy or direction, and he defer to me on how to build the product.

At the outset, this puts all the power in technology. Nothing is more important than getting the right product built and shipping on schedule, execution is everything.

Unfortunately, at any significant scale it's all strategy. Technology increasingly becomes a cost centre; either it works or it doesn't, either it ships or it sinks. Strategic decisions begin to lead technology choices, and the CTO drifts away from the locus of power. Even if she's explicitly invited to participate in strategy, the buck stops somewhere she is not.

Influence, and with it ownership and personal investment, whipsaws from one founder to the other with neither realizing it explicitly. Ultimately, technical founders almost always drift away (as we've seen most recently at Buffer) when the company hits scale and they're fully vested. And that sucks - any new blood won't be as naturally invested in the product without further dilution, will lack history with the team, won't know where the skeletons are buried, etc.

I hypothesize that balanced founding teams - two business, two technical, sales & business, etc. would have more staying power in the long run. Cases where there is no default division of labour and influence. I believe I've seen this pattern, but without a neutral data set I can't trust my biases. YCombinator has enough data now to figure it out... (\nudge nudge\)

Unless I'm reading the blog post wrong[1], you've got it totally wrong about Buffer, Joel made Buffer 1.0 and was the technically minded co-founder at Buffer, not Leo. Sunil might have been an early hire, but we're talking a year after company founding. Joel + Leo took a while to grow it.

I remember watching a talk by Joel before he'd even brought Leo on board in Nottingham, UK (Joel was starting up in Birmingham, UK if I remember correctly), about his previous products/failures and how he'd just built Buffer and the problems it solved. I think I saw a post about Leo joining 3 to 6 months later, at the time a recent uni grad compared to Joel's more experienced dev + freelance dev background.

I've always been pleased to see Joel succeed, as he's a great guy, but I have to admit some of the posts they came out with have ultimately proved to be utter b%!!$hit. I remember calling them out on a post about how the UK was a bad place to startup, I've seen a couple of $100+ million buyouts of startups here since then just in Nottingham. Then they claimed bootstrapping was best, then raised. Claimed a flat structure was best, then go a traditional management structure, etc., etc.

I sometimes felt they were just echoing back to the startup community what the community wanted to hear, and to be fair, it really worked, they got lots of upvotes on HN, etc., so great marketing out of it, and good traction. There was a time when like clockwork they'd have a high-rated post here every Sunday (or Monday, can't remember).


Maybe it's just me but posts like that you linked fill me with a toxic feeling. I don't know how to describe it. It just smells so fake and diplomatic. Plastered with photos of smiling people in different countries and happy-go-lucky company culture bullshit. I don't know how I could move my body out of the bed if I were to work in environments like that. A "company retreat" is a nightmare in my eyes.

Sigh. I'm a pessimistic loner of an introvert and I don't need your bullshit in my life. I wish there was some more room for us on this planet. Every corner you look it's either filled with extroverts or fake extrovert wanna-be rockstar-templayers.


I consider myself an introvert as well, and quite frankly don't even think about things like company retreats etc. in my business. When we had lots of employees, even things like company Christmas parties or after work drinks would fill me with dread and I would just turn up out of duty. I would never organise them or enforce them, but simply go along when someone else did.

However, I've learned in all these years that for some people, this is actually what makes them tick. They thrive on such 'company culture' and the chance to let loose a little outside of the workplace. Each to their own. The sight of other people doing things they love shouldn't fill you with toxic feelings. Make you slightly uncomfortable or disinterested perhaps, but anything more than that, and there are probably deeper issues at play that probably need to be resolved in yourself, rather than externally.

I should clarify the part that I meant feels me with a toxic feeling was not seeing other people doing something they enjoy.

It's just that it seems like a carefully crafted image is being presented to manipulate the reader and to push forward a corporate agenda hidden behind a veil of optimistic language.

It's the corporate equivalent of a Facebook profile with holiday photos and what not.

I've seen people get sick of their "company retreat" on day one but they don't dare ever talk about it for fear of being labelled not a team player. They just pretend they are having the time of their life. And they'll come back write a blog post about their "WONDERFUL AMAZING JOURNEY" because that's politically correct.

No one writes some Medium post about "How I fucking hated being stuck with these people for 3 days and couldn't wait to come back home to take a break from this nonsense.".

It's one thing to say "parties aren't my thing," "I don't like talking to lots of people," and so on.

It's another thing to talk about a "carefully crafted image is being presented to manipulate the reader and to push forward a corporate agenda hidden behind a veil of optimistic language," a "toxic feeling," a "nightmare in my eyes."

The first case is just what it's like to be introverted, and I empathize with that. The latter is something else. That negativity and cynicism speaks to issues deeper than just being introverted. For example, I had this problem a few times before, and it usually had to do with feelings of jealousy over being left out.

I am somewhat introverted. Here's what I do if I'm at a company party/retreat/etc and I'm not having fun (usually because I don't see anyone I know): I leave.

Perhaps I'm just reading too much into the phrase "deeper issues" but I think you're reading too much into the whole "nightmare" phrasing.

I don't think it's so much of an issue of feeling left out as it is feeling pressured to suffer through it with a smile on your face.

Being visibly unhappy or disinterested while you are there usually brings additional pressure to engage. Leaving early invites later questions that require you to lie to be socially acceptable. And if the events are frequent enough it'll be obvious you are lying sooner rather than later.

And then add in considerations about what those above you in the company will think.

It's enough that I do have similar responses to such things. And it's also true that it's probably a somewhat too extreme of a response. Thinking about it is usually worse than actually being there, as it's usually possible to end up off in a corner with one or two other like-minded people which is mostly tolerable.

Although as things get more structured this gets harder, and the structure is usually accompanied by even more "optimistic language" so... again, the response seems fairly justified without invoking a need for "deep issues."

I guess what this makes me think about is, part of being an adult is doing things you don't necessarily like.

A company gathering, a few hours a couple times a year, that should be something a person can tolerate. They're your coworkers, you know them all to some extent already, and it's an evening or whatever once a quarter.

Especially since your managers will already know you pretty well.

I don't know, it's hard to be sympathetic, cause there are lots of awkward situations I just put up with in my day-to-day, that are a lot higher-pressure than that.

As I mentioned, it ends up being the thought of it that's the worst. I can grin and bear it - as you mentioned that just tends to be part of life.

I think we're probably talking about this a little too broadly. I wasn't thinking so much of the semiannual office party. On that side of things I'd probably completely agree with you.

I was thinking more about things that were some kind of event designed to "raise morale" or something with dedicated activities, potentially run by outsiders, for "team building." The sorts of things that have a strong "drink the koolaid" feel. Those are the things I start to think about (and dread) when that ultra-optimistic corporate speak shows up.

And I've seen at least one blog post on HN advocating for that sort of thing to be as frequent as possible for company size, down to even weekly IIRC - although at such a small size it might be harder for it to get too terrible.

The poster's wording is deeply vitriolic. If you can't see that points to some abnormal issues (either with them or with their particular company) then I'm not sure what to say.

Out of curiosity, have you ever worked at a company with a good deal of older married men/women with families?

Nobody is pressured to "suffer through it with a smile on your face." Nobody has to lie about anything. Among mature adults it is enough to say you simply had other plans, were tired, or simply "Oh, I was there for a bit."

In my personal experience, the kind of thinking that "I have to pretend I'm enjoying this," "I have to lie about why I left," or "people will judge me for not showing up" is a sort of neuroticism that is really entirely self-imposed / self-imagined. Nobody is actually judging you, you only think people are judging you (out of self-consciousness or something else). When I experienced it, it reminded me a lot of being in high school (and being very self-conscious).

I think it has to do with me being an introvert and not being able to deeply understand or view the world through an extrovert lens.

Having said that when I look around what I see is what appears to be mostly actors. And I think I'm just tired and jaded toward it.

People hide their ulterior motives behind a happy phrases in a way that I almost find offensive. I don't blame them, but I reserve the right to roll my eyes.

It's like how people hide behind "Changing the world for the better!" because "I want to get rich" doesn't sound as nice. Or how "Open friendly environment! Collaboration!" is used to push open offices when more often than not deep down the reasons are not quite the same as they say.

Sometimes I just want the wolrd and the people in it to be a little more real.

Having said that when I look around what I see is what appears to be mostly actors. And I think I'm just tired and jaded toward it.

People hide their ulterior motives behind a happy phrases in a way that I almost find offensive. I don't blame them, but I reserve the right to roll my eyes.

It's a bit unclear if you realize this or not, but to make it clear: there is a (very) large group of people who aren't acting or "hiding ulterior motives" when they act like this. They genuinely feel this way - indeed this type of behavior is what energizes them.

It's completely ok to not be one of these people of course.

It's like how people hide behind "Changing the world for the better!" because "I want to get rich" doesn't sound as nice.

I think more often than not, if you actually get to know those people, you'll find that they are true believers. You might think it's bullshit and maybe underneath it all it is, but in their minds, they are actually trying to change the world for the better.

I agree with you. This post, and the comments on it, felt incredibly creepy and inauthentic. So much self-congratulations about transparency and happiness while clearly obfuscating something very simple: the two that left wanted to grow really fast and get a big exit and the guy who stayed wanted to build a longer term company that is profitable. Thats fine and can be apprehended quickly when described plainly. We don't need to see you smiling in destinations around the world to accept that some business people disagreed about business strategy.

WeWork offices make me feel the same way. Feel's like I'm living in the Silicon Valley TV show.

That's interesting. I've toured several WeWork locations and never pulled the trigger on signing up and couldn't figure out why. They're beautiful, well designed, and reasonably priced in great locations. Something just didn't click.

I've been involved in starting/supporting early coworking groups before, so my reluctance to join WeWork has really confused me.

Everybody has different wishes.

I, for one, am pretty good friends with my flatmate and it works for me.

My girlfriend barely talks to her flatmates and it works good too.

But she explicitly searched for a flat with people who aren't into the whole "best friends party together" stuff.

And I explicitly asked a friend if he wanted to start sharing a flat with me.

Same with relationships. I do polyamory and many people think I'm crazy and they couldn't live like that, but it works for me.

Or I work from home and people tell me they need an office otherwise they wouldn't get into "work mode", that's why they could never work from home.

Wherever you look it's always the same pattern. People have different ways of living and that's okay.

I've always been pleased to see Joel succeed, as he's a great guy, but I have to admit some of the posts they came out with have ultimately proved to be utter b%!!$hit. I remember calling them out on a post about how the UK was a bad place to startup, I've seen a couple of $100+ million buyouts of startups here since then just in Nottingham. Then they claimed bootstrapping was best, then raised. Claimed a flat structure was best, then go a traditional management structure, etc., etc.

Soo, what you're saying is, when you publicly write about what your ideas and opinions are about how to run your company, you can't change your mind anymore.

Thing is, the best founders change their minds all the time. I really don't see how that's utter bullshit.

Ah, thanks.

You're completely correct - their CTO did leave, but he wasn't a founding CTO.

That vastly depends on the kind of company though. Most YC startups especially are about automating some sort of inefficency in the real world (see: paper based workflows).

I know YC is getting in to hardware and other areas, but most startups they are likely to fund are going to be an efficiency play. It's what they know best statistically. Moonshots seem like they would go through YC research. There are exceptions to this rule like Boom which was in my batch.

By definition many startups aren't actually about "tech". Yes as companies grow they will have mild scaling problems, but what determines whether users stay or not ends up being design or a big focus on a problem being solved.

The one caveat I would mention here would be infrastructure startups (disclaimer: I run one and am therefore highly biased) where you have things like databases,containers,AI platforms,.. where the technology vision matters in terms of appealing to a technical user base or where merits are based on the technology solving a real problem.

That being said - even something as "hard" as an AI startup: The model building isn't even the bulk of the work, after you build that it's mainly about UX, which firmly puts them in the same bucket as most other kinds of companies, even to the point of these companies just "adding AI" so they can raise some money.

That being said: Statistically startups are hard enough as it is, and the bulk of them to be efficient businesses are mostly going to fall in to the bucket I just described: using a bit of software to make a process in the real world more efficient.

> The one caveat I would mention here would be infrastructure startups (disclaimer: I run one and am therefore highly biased) where you have things like databases,containers,AI platforms,.. where the technology vision matters in terms of appealing to a technical user base or where merits are based on the technology solving a real problem.

Lately I've also heard these called tech-first startups (disclosure: I do contracted dev work for one).

At first I thought it was a redundant, unnecessary label, but given your contrast to efficiency play style startups, it feels like a useful and concise descriptor.

I'm mainly aware of this distinction because of a unique problem with AI startups.

Technically an AI platform and an AI product company (we call this vertical specific) are both "AI startups".

There is a larger trend in the industry that typically these "platform" companies are a solution looking for a problem (this is often the case). These companies are typically SAAS and get acquired.

What you see more of now a days are AI "product" companies focused on a particular problem like say: sales ops.

The "platform" people seem to have moved on to "chat bots" now. It seems like the same trend will play out though: "chat bots" for specific verticals.

That being said: As a founder of a startup that somewhat bucked this trend (focusing on an oracle type business model in various markets rather than SAAS and selling to developers) we focus mainly on a few key areas to make money.

The way we do this is "core technology" bundled with some sort of an "app", in our case being fraud detection solutions with a "land and expand" type approach. The thesis is we can see some of the benefits of being a tech-first startup (lock in and broad usage) but keep focused like a product company would be.

Interesting hypothesis. A quick look at YC's top companies by market cap seems to back it up:

Airbnb: 3 design centric cofounders DropBox: 2 tech cofounders Stripe: 2 tech cofounders

the professional skill-sets are secondary to personal chemistry. if the founders can't communicate it doesn't matter that they complete each-other's skills.

Airbnb was 2 designers, 1 technical.

I think a bigger predictor for co-founder conflict (and, conversely, eventual success) is a common background and similar financial situation. If founders are from very different backgrounds, have very different home situations or have strongly differing financial situations conflicts are almost certain to arise, much more likely than simply because of a tech/business split in responsibilities.

I think greed is a major issue.

How is it possible to divorce strategy and direction from product/tech? This siloed approach is almost guaranteed to bring problems.A CTO is someone who is essentially a technical CEO. They need to be involved in strategy just as much as the CEO for there to be a healthy co-founder dynamic.

I'm co-founding with someone with that dynamic (I'm handling product, she's handling business). Luckily we know and trust each other from way back, so tension isn't a problem, but there has been an interesting power dynamic - originally I was more in the driver's seat, since all we were doing was product development and there was no real business decision to make. Now that we're actually selling to customers (and investors), she's more in control of things, ie is more qualified to decide what features are important for business reasons.

I'm in the early stages of starting a startup, but I think if people focus on whether a decision being made is good/bad for the company rather than who's in charge, things would be a lot easier.

I would, too, like to see some hard data on your hypothesis, although I believe that there are too many inseparable human and enviromental variables at play here. At the end, the change in role and power is a very human development (see also: families, partnerships, child-parent relationships).

Those are very good points.

But I think that a 'division of responsibilities' issue may miss the most important dynamic and that is simply the 'relationship'.

If you get a long well, can handle disagreement, share a similar vision for the company, and have a 'history' together (which I think builds trust) - then those 'divisions' become less obvious.

Sure - maybe WRT some issues, 'one of the two' can maybe have more influence, but I think the dynamic is more personal, and blurry.

I wonder if it helps to have one of the co-founders simply have more authority - i.e. a 70/30 type situation wherein if the 70% co-founder does not abuse that, and stays pretty 'equal' for most things, and then hints at 'final call' in only a very few things ... that might work because it could help the 30% co-founder to concede.

It'd be interesting to see some data points on that.

My biggest take away is that you use "she" by default.

If I can throw in a bit of advice in this thread - here is something that worked well in the two businesses I've founded with someone else in the past. It doesn't matter the type of business, or the relative skill sets of each founder, but it is something that I learned from "The E-Myth Revisited" by Michael Gerber. (Highly recommended reading from anyone thinking of starting a business.)

The tip is to draw up a company organisational chart, as if you were a 20 or 30 person company. Starting from the top, a box for CEO, then break down the other managerial roles, such as Operations Manager, Finance Manager, Technical Manager etc., then under those, further boxes for the sub-roles.

E.g. for 'Finance Manager', you might have Debtors Controller, Creditors Controller, Payroll Manager etc. Under 'Technical Manager' you might have 'Lead Programmer', 'Graphic Designer', 'Database Administrator' etc. as you see fit.

Then, it is a case of filling in the boxes with the name of the co-founder who will be responsible for each of those areas. Sure you may get one name placed more than others, but the idea is to work out the exact separation of duties and who will be responsible for what.

It is also a great technique for working out each others weaknesses - for instance I personally hate accounting related tasks, so I could never be the finance manager, but I am content doing some rote work like invoicing or bank reconciliations from time to time, so I would put my name lower in the order, but be supervised by someone with more knowledge.

In the business startups where I have done that, things have worked out well while we continually referred to it and used it as we grew. As we hired, we removed our own names in the boxes and replaced them with the employee names.

The point is, that this whole concept helps with the communications angle that we are talking about in this thread. Knowing what each person is responsible for, and knowing who is accountable for what really helps with the reduction in animosity between the founders.

But as with most things - constant vigilance is due. Things started to fall apart when we deviated from these simple principles. Human nature I know, but I hope the lessons learned here will help others.

is there any chance you could share that original org chart (with just the 2 or 3 of you, but all the different roles and their relationships)? It's hard for me to picture. Thank you.

This should be required reading for anyone thinking of starting a business, of any sort. Personally, I have been through a couple of co-founder business startups over the past 30 years, and can agree with everything that Garry has pointed out in the article. Communication is key.

No doubting that a co-founder can make a big difference to the gargantuan task of getting a business to build momentum. It is one of those times when 1 + 1 = 4. But it is vitally important that both (or more) co-founders keep the same vision and goals at the forefront of their minds.

In both my previous cases of co-founded businesses I ended up with the case where each of my co-founders had massive life changing things happen to them personally (My first co-founder had his wife end up in a wheelchair for life). I look back now and think that things could have been handled very differently and perhaps the business could have made it through. I am not naive enough to think I was completely blameless in those situations, but every time I look back on the events, I can see that clear communication could have solved things, as well as taking emotion out of the equation so things could have been examined in a more rational manner. Really wish we had someone step in as a moderator back then.

As an aside, I was an early adopter of Posterous, and loved the platform. I was sad to see it go, and I wonder 'what if' Garry and his co-founder had resolved their differences - would the company ever have continued for far longer that it had?

Great to see this, thank you Garry for laying bare one of the most common causes of start-up failure.

And make no mistake: almost every start-up will sooner or later face this in one form or another. Simply because goals may be in alignment at the start of a start-up but they rarely if ever remain in alignment over the longer term.

I've counseled/mediated in quite a few companies facing these kind of issues and it is always surprising in some way or another to everybody involved when the root cause of the conflict is finally laid bare.

Thanks for sharing this, Garry. In hindsight, would you have preferred to run your startup as a solo founder, or do you believe that a solo founder startup presents a greater operational/execution risk than co-founder conflict?

The product we made caught lightning in a bottle because of the joint choices Sachin and I made together. It is impossible to know if the product would have come together without the talents of both of us. I would frankly guess not.

I think the outcome would have been better if I knew the things I wrote in this blog post now, 10 years later!

Like marriage, it is worse to marry a wrong person than stay single. Therefore, if you do not really trust your cofounder, don't let her become your cofounder because a wrong cofounder is worse than a solo founder.

As a seed round investor, I do not view a solo founder as a negative sign since I am personally a solo founder so I know a solo founder can work well.

However, the ideal founding team shall be two cofounders - The product guy looks after products and the business guy looks after customers. Then the startup life can be much easier for both cofounders.

If you're interested in famous co-founder issues, I maintain a list here: http://thestartupconference.com/2016/05/13/famous-co-founder.... Snap, uBeam, Cruise. Let me know if you know of more to add to the list.

I could probably write a book about co-founder issues (I gave presentations on that topic in the past, that's something :-).

The best co-founder is someone you worked with before. You know them. Starting something with a co-founder you don't know? It goes downhill very fast.

There is a very fine balance that is hard to achieve. You want to have complementary skills, but still be on the same page. You need to trust the other co-founder and not micro-manage, and get the same trust in return. If you have no shared history, it's extremely hard.

Great post and thanks for sharing. However I don't see the most important point covered:

Before anything, set up a written agreement with your co-founder(s) containing

* Founder roles and responsibilities * Expected time commitments * Testable performance metrics or at least testable cases of non-performance

This may be part of the company operating agreement (containing the company ownership structure) or a separate document that any co-founder has to sign.

Unfortunately I learned this the hard way and once ended up with a co-founder that wasn't really committed to the company up to the point where we got acquired (up to which point I've invested about 3x the time as compared to my co-founder). Trust me, getting acquired in that situation did not feel good, not at all.

One thing I'll share is that finding a co founder in a similar financial state as yourself can be an important factor.

Money > Contracts

From the article "One concrete thing before you start to work through conflict is to always remind yourselves: You’re on the same team."

...yet, this is actually not obvious to many co-founders. I angel invest and see this problem over and over -- situations where co-founders are not on the same team but rather on either multiple teams or have misaligned incentives.

before any of what is discussed in the article, co-founders need to ensure -- in writing -- not only their roles/responsibilities but outside commitments, especially paid outside commitments. Companies where one partner takes undue risk (e.g., giving up a job while the other has not) are incredibly fragile, yet this is often not discussed by many. In such situations, the co-founders are not actually on the same team entirely.

EDIT: Another bad situation -- one where one founder has a much longer tolerable horizon (perhaps they are rich, perhaps they have side incomes) and another founder seeks a quick exit at a lower figure (perhaps because they cant stay on a founder's salary for too long.)

Haha joke's on you, I don't have a Co-Founder!

...I'll go back to being miserable and lonely now.

In college I was an RA. Somewhat surprisingly, this is really similar to the communication advice we give to new roommates, most of which are first-time roommates, and a good portion are even total strangers on move-in day. The most common conflicts we had were around cleaning and who would take out the trash with disparity between the norms of the roommates pre living together.

An interesting data point is that disputes over responsibility were roughly an order of magnitude more common in triples or quads than doubles.

My friend and CEO of fido.ai Michal Wroczynski reposted this article with an IMHO important clarification "Conflict is something to embrace. Narcistic Assholes don't have conflict with you - they are just lying all the time. No asshole rule is the most important advice for startups." Based on my personal experience I couldn't agree more!

I had reached a point where I couldn’t agree with my co-founder over the future of the company.

That's the real problem. When looking for a co-founder, I think it's very important to choose one who shares the same vision about whatever you intend to build. If a potential co-founder doesn't agree with the direction you wish to go, keep looking.

We started with very similar plans for the business, but as you get farther along in the war, the fog of war engulfs you and in the middle of running the startup can result in two very smart people with different views of the battlefield.

It's just like marriage: choose your partner carefully. In bad times, and in good times, you should remember to be true to each other and honor each other. And in the end, it still may not work out.

Cofounder issues is one of the main reasons why startups fail. Structuring things the right way at the beginning is critical.

Below is a threat with great recommendations when there are cofounder issues.


Where can I learn more about the services of executive coach, Cameron Yarbrough?

My last startup failed simply because my co-founder and I couldn't stop arguing. There's a fine line between compromising on an idea in order not to clash with the other partner to over arguing and defending your idea. We couldn't find this line and decided to stop. From talking with other friends in startups seams like that's a main reason why most of them failed, yet no one like to admit it or openly talk about it.

I wish there was a way to due-diligent co-founders like you can do with business plan.

When we were considering starting a startup, I explained my potential co-founder my vision, what we should prioritise, and what we shouldn't do. He took a few weeks and came back with his vision, and we realised that we have diverging visions, so we didn't do the startup (among other reasons).

We remain friends, and he advises me on my business, and vice-versa.

Happened to me as well on a profitable startup that was just in exponential growth phase; now I do only solo startups and hire persons (even if part-time or contract) if I need some skill or save my time. Works much better.

The key to this is to realize that a road today is probably better than your road next week. Start-ups can't afford to lose time or momentum, arguing about which one of two nearly identical forks in the road should be taken is a sure-fire way to miss the boat.

Such arguments should be reserved for really strategic decisions only and only a handful of those will ever occur in the life of a start-up.

Some category theorists are now probably wondering what an n-flict is.

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