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Ask HN: My co-founder sux. What can I do ?
77 points by troubled1 on May 26, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 68 comments
Disclaimer: Long time HN, written from a new frow-away account.


Almost a year back, I met a (not so close) friend, who like me, quit his job and was looking to strike out on his own. After some "dating" we decided to start a company. I was to write the site and he was to do the bizdev/sales.

Half a year later: The site is up and running. We have invested some of our money and spent months of work on it. And now came the second part. He needed to go out and start getting customers while I continued ironing out the tech parts.

Here things started to take a turn. He never truly fails, but constantly gets very average (and below) results. Reading some of the emails he sends and accompanying him to a meeting or two, showed he is far from what I would of wanted.

Current state: - Most of the tech stuff is done - We are getting traction and sales are starting to come in - Or deals are pretty lame (compared to a direct competitor who has 10x better deals)

While we are slowly growing, I am constantly worried about staying in this business (as this might be my only shot at a venture - savings are running low).

Has anyone been in a situation like this ? I would love some advise..

EDIT: To clarify: We have spoken on the issue and he admits he is not doing too well. He has suggested we join hands at sales. Sadly I am not good either. There is nothing else he can do to benefit the company.

We both are at the end of our savings, buying each other out is not an option

Identification of the real cause of the problem is your top priority.

Rather than some of the suggestions in this thread that would most likely result in an unpleasant ending of your venture I'd suggest that both you and your co-founder seek help from a third party you both trust to give you good advice, and that has relevant experience.

Another thing you should do is talk to your customers, and figure out what it is that you can do to make the sales work more effective.

You've failed to do the 'verify' part earlier on in your relationship when you could have done it without cost, so now you're stuck with the consequences of the 'trust' bit. Don't worry too much about it, it happens to all of us.

I'm assuming your product is business-to-business because you mention direct sales to clients, selling in that world is a skill.

So, not all is hopeless here, skills can be improved and even if you're not selling nearly as good as you should be you and your partner are selling something, now you need to identify where in the sales process you drop the ball and correct that.

Rinse, repeat, and it should end out ok at some point.

Attempting to remove your partner by force or to quit by walking out of it is going to destroy your company and your investment with it.

Probably your partner is just as disappointed as you are, you have a common goal here so work together to get it solved, it's far from hopeless at this stage.

0 sales or no product that would be a real problem, some sales and a product that is at least acceptable to some customers sounds like a fixable situation to me (at least, without much more knowledge).

Another alternative that I haven't seen suggested yet is find a buyer for the whole project.

edit: Maybe you should talk to flavio87, see if he's interested in taking over your project, from what I gather he's doing something comparable (but he's been at it only for about 2 months iirc).

See this posting by him:


best of luck.

I totally agree. If the co-founder is putting in the hours, there is still hope. He just needs to get better at his job.

My first advice would be for both you and him to read "The Art of Profitability" by Adrian Slywotzky. It's essentially an encyclopedia of deals and a very good book. (Derek Sivers summarizes it here: http://sivers.org/book/ArtOfProfitability)

Never try to teach a salesman how to sell. This will not end well. See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GDHRLN66Q2E

Right, because no salesman ever managed to improve his sales skills.

I've seen guys go from barely able to say hello without getting their tongue tied up to being able to pull in 6 figure deals without breaking a sweat (contract work, web development), I really don't know this guy at all but he's already selling, all he needs to do is to improve what he's already doing.

Going from 'not being a salesguy' to 'being a sales guy' is a lot harder than going from 'being a not so good sales guy' to 'being a salesguy that is a bit better'.

Even an experienced salesperson would have a hard time selling a product he has no experience with, and that has only just been 'baked', they should have overlapped much better with the development but this product seems to be 'all or nothing' so that may have been harder than what we know from the info given. Building up a sales pipeline takes time, and as you sell a couple of times you usually get better at it.

> Right, because no salesman ever managed to improve his sales skills.

That's not what I said.

So, elaborate then because I'm not following you. You say "Never teach a salesman how to sell, this will not end well".

But the guy is already a salesman. So we're not teaching someone to sell that doesn't know how to.

He needs to improve his skills, and that's teaching someone how to sell as well, but not from scratch. Or isn't it ?

> He needs to improve his skills, and that's teaching someone how to sell as well, but not from scratch. Or isn't it ?

OK, I didn't realize you were from Netherlands until I read that sentence and clicked on your profile. In English, learning does not imply teaching.

Ok. I never even used the word teach in the original piece though...

> Ok. I never even used the word teach in the original piece though...

But you misinterpreted my use of it, so what's your point?

I see that I'm getting downmodded on top of having to waste my time on this, so that'll teach me how to help people with their English next time.

I think you're getting downmodded for implying jacquesm simply doesn't understand english enough to know the difference between learning and teaching. Pretty patronizing.

If you bothered to learn you would know that most Dutch people speak English, and that it's a required course in schools.

But that's OK I'm happy to teach you.

But in Dutch, "leren" means 'to teach' and 'to learn' (IIRC), so his presumption was at least a very logical one.

"My co-founder sux. I met a friend, with whom I founded a company. He is the tech guy, I do the sales. Now he is "finished" with the service, but it isn't the quality we need and doesn't have the features our customers want. It's very tough to sell this beast. He always argues that those are the best features and won't implement what customers want as they do not know what they need. He's always comparing his work to a competitor who gets 10x better deals, but clearly his tech stuff is not in the same league! What should I do? Should I dump him? Thanks troubled2"

Just for thoughts.

Guess I should of been more clear. We are a marketing startup. We have contracts with businesses and our product is sold to consumers (average Joe).

On the consumer end, everything is perfect. Sales are up and user base is doubling every 2 weeks. Mixed responsibility. (I do customer support, SEO, design, etc and we share marketing ideas)

On the business end, we are still stuck with crappy deals: low margins, poor brands, etc. His responsiblity.

We are currently considering bringing in a sales guy/girl (for equity & comission). But while I still have a ton of work on the tech side, my co-founder who was supposed to be CEO and sales has so far failed on the sales dep and is not impressing me with his biz decisions nither. Thats the big worry.

The first information was that your partner did not perform to your expectation. At the same time I read that half year passed your have not been out at the customer front to see if your business model is viable. Just because comparing to a competitor does not mean your business is in the same situation. The low margins, poor brand is both of your responsibility and can have many reasons.

As a startup founder you are the face of the company and there is no excuse to not talk to customers and close deals. Your are small team and there is no CEO or VP or Sales. It is you and him to close the deals. If you want your company to survive a simple phrase will do, do whatever it takes.

And if you think this is not what you signed up for than follow the advice of many, stop it now and fast.

Have you guys read Steve Blank's stuff on Customer Development Process?

If you are not making enough margin, then are you asking for more money? Why not? Maybe you are not delivering enough value. You have to show people how they will make lots of money before they'll give you any of theirs.

I'm not quite following you there, you'll have to be a bit more clear. You write "we are a marketing startup", "we have contracts with businesses" and "our product".

Don't you mean their product ? Or are you reselling/rebranding ?

In other words, is the transaction with the end-user yours or is it make by the businesses that you have the contracts with ?

Getting big name brands to sign off on an unproven scheme can be pretty hard, using lesser known brands as a way to gain entry is by itself not such a bad thing, and bad margins can be incrementally improved upon proven performance, so you have some leverage there if you work at it.

I understand your reluctance to spell the whole thing out here but if you want actionable advice then you probably should take the plunge or take it off-line somehow.

Even a salesperson that you bring on board is not going to be an instant game changer, bringing a sales pipeline up to speed takes considerable time.

We have two other competitors (that I know of) who have a very similar offering (give or take) and all are at about the same stage (but the gap is widening).

The deals they have closed so far, are measurably better. (We even managed to get two biz owner that due to personal connections told us a bit more than fair about their dealings with one competitor).

So I am pretty certain where the weak spot is (and it was admitted to be so).

I am posting now because the competition is growing faster and widening the gap.

PS> Excellent comments and questions so far. I am reading the links and got some food for thought.

But that doesn't really answer any of the questions...

Sales being the 'weak spot' is easy because that's always the weak spot, but that doesn't mean that that is the root cause.

If your co-founder admits to his shortcomings but does make some sales that actually gives me a lot of hope.

I've been in that situation, too. I got out of it by us selling the company. You should get rid of your co-founder and step up to be CEO yourself and start looking for someone who will do good work. Your co-founder might not have the incentive like you do, so maybe he feels fine with being average. There is no way to change such a person.

First off you should be talking to him and not to us, have you voiced your concerns? What was his response? Come up with a plan on how he can do better and what you expect from him.

If he doesn't execute on that plan then it's time to talk about buying out his share or getting someone else to buy it out. Do you have a partner agreement? What are your options?

We have spoken on the sales issue repeatedly. He is currently suggesting that I too join sales and let the tech on a slow burner. Sadly I am not a start salesman, and even if I was. I don't want to be pulling the wagon all alone.

Buying wise, we both are at the end of our savings, no one can afford to buy the other. And there currently doesn't seem to be any funds raising in sight.

A buy out doesn't have to be in cash. Look right now you have very little but likely some sweat equity and your product isn't really worth much.

Offer him some shares or options in the future company but tell him this isn't working out. He'll say he already owns "half" but the truth is if you walk away he likely doesn't have a damn thing.

Offer him some equity to walk away or tell him you're quitting.

Best advice on the thread.

But a third party could buy into it. If the company has real potential then I would look for a strong business/sales person who might be interested in buying your partner out. It shouldn't cost too much if you aren't making that much money, and this way you know the new partner is serious since he is putting money into it.

I would talk to your partner and say "let's come up with a timeline where you hit these goals or we look for a third-party person to buy you out". If he can hit those goals, or hit those goals with the help of a commission only salesperson then your problem is solved. If not you start looking for a third-party.

Can you bring in a salesperson that works exclusively on commission? What kind of price range does your product fit into?

We are working on that now. It might give us more breathing air but still will keep us with a CEO (him) that I cannot trust professionaly.

"...but still will keep us with a CEO (him) that I cannot trust professionaly."

If that's truly the case, then you're done as business partners.

In a two man company there is no CEO.

Cannot agree more, some of the biggest problems at all stages of start-up life arise from "title-ing" i.e. co-founders giving themselves C-level or VP-Level titles and then trying to act as such.I once was introduced to a three-founder start-up whole all wanted to run the show. They ended up calling themselves Chairman, CEO and Chief Visionary Officer.

I was in the exact same situation years ago after starting a company with a longtime friend. The company was growing like crazy, but then my partner wanted to slow it down to spend more time with his family. Everyone I talked to (an investor, lawyer, friends) agreed he was holding the company back and should leave, but it wouldn't be easy. It would have been difficult and costly because he was a shareholder as well as one of the lead technicians.

Finally, someone explained it to me from a different perspective: If my partner didn't want to leave then I was the one with the problem, not him. Instead of looking at what I was missing by him being there (a fact I couldn't get around), I should look at what I could be doing on my own without him. I talked to my partner about it and we agreed I would leave and keep some of my shares instead of a buy-out which the company couldn't afford at the time.

8 years later he's still running the company the way it was after I left. I sold my shares to a new partner for a price that was many times what I would have received if I was bought out when I left. In the past years I've been able to build a company like I envisioned the first time, sold it and am now in the process of repeating that for a second time.

Looking back I've come much further than I would have if I stayed at the company. My former partner found the perfect balance between his company and his family life, and we've been closer friends for the past years than we had been before working together.

Useful links:



Some thoughts:

Generally, if sales is hard, it's also because of the product development. Don't blame all of it on him, your product is not as amazing as you might think.

+1 for the video.

My main takeaway from it was don't assume that you and your co-founder are on the same wavelength - write down explicitly what you are agreeing on, and be concrete with figures e.g. "I'm willing to work 8 hours per day, 6 days per week", or "I'm happy to consider this successful if I make $100,000/year" etc

If you plan to talk to him about it (you should) then make sure you identify some specific examples of where you feel he is under performing - otherwise he could think your just finding excuses/passing blame for the sales not going well. Brainstorm (together if you like) ways to improve those areas.

This question is asked here with some regularity - it's one of the most common issues in startups. The consensus is almost invariably:

  - talk to him
  - if it's still not working out part ways
  - offer to buy him/her out if you can afford it
  - don't leave anything hanging (unresolved ownership issues etc)
(good luck!)

> - offer to buy him/her out if you can afford it

Some people have shotgun clauses: Offer to buy him out, or be bought out at the same price.

You have to ask the hard questions. Why are you getting 10x worse deals? What is wrong with your product or value proposition that is requiring you to give such deep discounts?

It is never just one thing. It could be you are selling at the wrong time of the year, wrong customers or perhaps wrong pitch?

If he truly does suck at selling you need to have that conversation and find someone else to sell. Find out what your co-founder can excel in and move him/her there.

Find out the real, real, real problem and see if it is something you all want to fix together.

Honestly, your title using "sux" makes me wonder if you might be a little difficult to work with. I hate to read too much into one word, but I am just sharing my impression.

I read a neat post today that I think applies (your co-founder is providing poor customer service to you): http://michaelhyatt.com/2009/09/four-strategies-for-respondi...

I was in a similar situation, and my advice is: run. fast. now.

If someone sucks at sales, they're going to suck at sales. Of course, one could learn sales etc - but the ONLY value that he brings is sales, and he's supposed to be good at it already.

And then he says you should do sales too? Fuck that. Find someone else, FAST.

You are asking about one of my favorites topics (co-founders)...

First of all, understand that he needs to quit. When someone is concerned enough that they post online, it means the situation is bad. So ignore any advice on improving his sales skills.

It's hard to fire your friends (been there, done that). Depending on your relationship, do it nicely, with transitions. Ideally, you want to have a frank discussion where the joint conclusion is that he is not working out and should stop. That's not that hard. If he is genuinely trying to help the business, show him that by getting someone else on board, the business will be better off.

Finally, there is the issue of stocks. Hopefully you had vesting in place. So one way is to go by that agreement. He worked 1 year out of 4, and hopefully you didn't split 50/50. So if you had split originally 66/33 for instance, you'd now be at 88% for you, and less than 12% for him. Which to me is sounds about fair. He did do stuff for a year, right?

Yep - this seems like a good case where vesting would have helped.

Half a year later: The site is up and running. We have invested some of our money and spent months of work on it. And now came the second part. He needed to go out and start getting customers while I continued ironing out the tech parts.

For future reference, this is where you went wrong. He should have been out there selling screenshots and powerpoints, thus generating leads and design feedback, for the day one.

When something can fail, it should be given opportunity to fail as soon and as cheap as possible.

If you are both close being out of savings I wouldn't spend much time reading, rather, refine, learn and get doing. Also, I think there is a fundamental issue of you hiding behind a "frow away" account. Take more of a "We" vs. He/she approach, and try and improve the situation. Attack it more head on, think all around and inside the box, communicate openly, and see what sort of improvement or resolution you can come up with.

Everyone is great at Sales if they are passionate enough about what they are trying to create. Think differently about that as well.

Who calls the shots? If it is you, you need to call a shot right now or drum this up as future business experience. A great leader will accept responsibility and do something about it.

Good luck as those who hope die fasting according to Hemingway. You have a great chance to be a leader and turn this situation around. However, it may be a case of cutting your losses and moving on. If you want something bad enough you can bounce back. Savings/Smavings... non-sense talk.

You can position the route of x (him staying) = Death/failure (if you believe this in his current role). Thus, you may be able to offer Y (maybe some "departure" equity shares) so you can maybe bring in some more aligned resources. Bottom line, this is your marriage, so you need to get communicating or you are bound for failure.

I hope this is not the case.

Have you discussed your concerns with him? What is his response? Unless you trust one another and are open enough to have these difficult discussions then you're going to have an almost impossible time achieving success no matter how good your competition is.

Also, though the initial strategy was to use him for sales he may not have it in him to succeed on this task. Consider bringing in somebody new to work on selling your product and find another area for your co-founder to contribute.

WRT buying out: get to a point where you both agree it's a bad fit, and that he has better prospects elsewhere, then 'buy him out' for a token - seriously, like $1.

Get out. Start a new idea, or get a job.

But if you insist on continuing, give him the straight facts: You are able to effectively contribute something of value (the tech), and he is not (there is the sales, but he's not able to do it). Therefore, he needs to let you bring in a real sales person (who can be paid on commission, and maybe become another owner as well since the pay will stink at first). This is to give the business a chance at success. Even in this scenario all three of you will probably need to find day jobs, especially the current co-founder since he won't be allowed to get any of the profits until he figures out how he can contribute. And any new ownership given to a new sales person (if you do give them any ownership, that is) will come out of your current partner's share. And from today forward, your current partner will not be counted as a continuing contributor - except maybe very minimally as an advisor, if that is worth anything.

Did you incorporate? If so, how is ownership currently structured?

You might be able to strike a buyout deal for something other than cash immediately. I'd be really careful about doing this though as it might impact your future chances of fundraising.

I'm not an expert on this sort of thing, and since you mentioned your savings are running out you probably cannot afford to talk to someone who is, but my guess is you're stuck with him. Assuming you are, how can you make the best of it?

If he admits that he's not that good at sales, he's already taken the first step to getting better. That's at least a good sign. Perhaps get him to attend some classes or seminars on salesmanship. Have him review the sales calls he has made and try to figure out where they went wrong.

If you can swing it, maybe even just hire a salesman. Assuming you can't get rid of your partner, you'd rather him do nothing than ruin relationships with potential clients.

Investing more time in a bad cofounder is pointless. You need to ask yourself, honestly, whether this guy can do the job you need him to do. If there are any maybes, ifs or doubts...if you aren't sure that he's the kind of person who will find a way no matter what...then there is no point putting any more time into this. You'll just be putting good money after bad.

If you feel real passion for your idea and if you see a lot of potential then you can probably arrange some kind of buyout or work something out with him. If he can see that you're real serious and he isn't, he should step aside (if he's a stand up guy). If he won't, then there's no point trying to turn him into someone that he isn't. Move on.

>> he admits he is not doing too well

In my opinion, this means he admits he cannot live up to his end of your verbal contract. He should step aside and relinquish at least enough of his stake to attract someone good enough to do it right and take over.

Sounds like you might have befriended "A VP OF A FRIGGIN' $100 MILLION COMPANY"


Why did you pick him out of tons of "business guys looking for tech guy"?

Cut bait now. This problem will only get worse for you.

This is definitely an option that should be considered.

I had a similar situation: I was moonlighting on a very promising startup for 2 years. My partners were supposed to do the fundraising, biz/development, or pitch in money. But it didn't happen at a level that I consider competitive. In the end things started to get worse: they don't understand the tech components very well but still had strong opinions. And that starts to become a -ve contribution. So I split from them and I am working on a few things on my own. Looking back in hindsight I feel vindicated.

I'd recommend that you cover all the conversation topics that others have suggested above. If it does not work out then cut your losses and move on. It may seem like a big deal after having invested time and emotions with this person but you should do what is right for you.

Asides: I feel that if an idea involves tech development then techies should work on it by themselves for a few months and then bring in the biz/dev guys. That way you know exactly what you are looking for and bring in the right guys that suit your business (connections, industry knowledge, etc.). Moreover you get to evaluate the biz/dev guys more closely since you can be with them when then demo the prototype. The only caveat here is that you need to have some prior startup experience so you can sort out the high level business aspects (users, customers, reveune models, etc.) on your own before you specialize your code/prototype too deeply.

No. This is a bad move unless you know these for a fact:

* Your expectations aren't too high * The problem is with the salesman, not the product. * There are other people who can sell this better * You can afford to hire someone else to do this, or you are willing to give up a % of YOUR remaining stake to take a chance on someone else.

I would just level with your friend and tell them you'd like to give someone else a shot at sales. Let your friend spend his time researching new market directions for the company and making contacts.

I agree. Sounds like the person isn't committed. There are many reasons for that but the bottom line is they won't get you anywhere. The upside is if they're not fully into it, they're more likely to let go. I say be direct and ask that person to walk away. If you have a product and some sales you have potential. You can sell that potential to another partner (now especially that you know what to look for).

If that person is unwilling to let go, consider pulling on a third person at an equal split. I'm sure some people would disagree with that but 1) if that person won't let go, you're probably running out of options or 2) the competition might turn your current partner 'on'.

If you have a product that does sell, I would do everything I could to make it grow. You've overcome a lot of obstacles to get to that point. If you can make it grow with a third, you'll have more options down the road (like buying the second partner out).

Agree. It's going to hurt a lot to cut him out now, but he will most likely not get better.

As to how to go about it: it's like breaking up.

Have a short conversation and be very, very, very clear ("I do not want to continue this business with you"), don't go into the reasons to much (don't say "you suck", say "it's not working out"), and then shut up. Include a buy-out offer ("For X$, I can buy you out, or else we'll have to shut shop."). Then let it sink in, set a time to meet the next day.

The other alternative is to talk to him about your concerns and see if you can work it out. Perhaps more mature, but somehow I don't feel this is going to work out, since you are questioning the quality of what he does, which is almost impossible to change (versus something specific that he does wrong, which would be changeable.)

Yes, but cut bait on the cofounder or on the company? That's the million (okay, few thousand) dollar question.

This is probably the HARDEST part of starting a company. Every startup will go through this phase. Traction is a good sign, ask your partner to keep track of which customers bought and why. Refine your message and focus on those customer profiles so that you get the cream first.

As more customers sign on, the sales will be a little easier. It's like starting a fire from scratch.

Good luck!

Selling is hard. Without knowing the product, the sales he has generated it would be hard for us to tell you whether or not you should be worried. You should talk to him bring up your concerns. He will probably bring up a few of his own. The solution may be as simple as you don't have a sales team or the current sales team is insufficient.

Well, first you have to come to a conclusion on what you and he can/will do from now. If it is not working then you folks need to solve the problem. Then it seems like you need help in sales/BD so if I were you I would find somebody to help quickly. What type of a business are you in? What is your target market? Maybe I can help, sukantag@gmail.com.

Thx SG

A co-founder is no different from a marriage. Communication is everything. Hell, go see a marriage counselor if you have to.

I couldn't agree more. I wrote about this: http://techneur.com/post/555332733/business-marriage

Just assume for the moment, you had the money to buy him out: What would you do to become profitable? How long would it take? What ROI on your buyout sum would you get in say 3-5 years?

Got those answers? Great!

Why can't you implement those steps now? Really??


If your plan is so good, then find an angel to buy him out.

Please let us know how it pans out. Good Luck !

Talk to him, and find someone else to work with you alongside him. If that person starts to outperform him, you can point to the example as one he should follow. If he doesn't pick it up, dump him.

Hire someone to sell and find something else for your co-founder to do. If you are at the stage here "sales are starting to come in", you are looking at possibly expanding soon anyway.

I was advised once to have the company take out big insurance policies on both of us then encourage him to get a crotch rocket or start free soloing rock climbing.

Sales? You mean marketing/branding and users don't you? Is this an ecommerce site or a web app?

It's very hard to advise when we don't know what your revenue model is... Is it an ad rev or freemium web app or are you selling tires online for example? If you clarify just a little the advice will be orders of magnitude better..

My gut says your cofounder is not the main problem.

What specifically is he doing wrong or what's not happening with the sales stuff?

I'm literally in the exact situation currently. It's a bad thing to get caught in, because as the dev guy, at this point you've invested way more time and effort than he has. Take some time to think about ways to potentially switch up your business model so that you can start pitching your product instead of him. You know it better than anyone else anyways.

Really depends on the niche and target audience, but if you become very vocal about what you do, you might be able to snag a few initial customers to get things rolling so you can then have some breathing room to make the right decision.

Is there a clause in your partnership agreement where one partner can buy the other out? Who owns the greater share? If you have 51% of the voting rights, you can boot him pretty quick, but if it's 50-50, you may have an arbitration option whereby you can decide how to remove him from the partnership. Sounds like you need a loan, and/or a sales(wo)man instead of a deadbeat.

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