The Four Phases of a Partner/Co-founder Relationship

I was having a chat with a fellow investor friend a few nights ago as part of Web Summit and we got started talking about investment partnerships, their quirks, and how in many ways they resemble many of the dynamics of what co-founder relationships go through in startups. As she shared some funny and not-so-funny anecdotes of her relationship with her partnership, I reflected and shared back some of my own, having worked with my colleague and co-managing Partner of SC, Reshma Sohoni for over 8 years now and with my new Partners Tom Wilson and Sia Houchangnia for 4 years now, I had plenty of anecdotes. After our exchanges and mutual agreement that there were many things in common in these journeys, we concluded that there were 4+1 phases to highlight… so here they are:

Phase 1 — The honeymoon phase & the first best time — You’ve been friends for a long time, or you’ve either been paired up by someone else who thinks you’ll work great together (program or otherwise), or through a skills comparison and conversations over drinks/dinner and friend references, you end up agreeing that you’ll both be a great fit for each other. You start work on your new venture, you tell all your friends and family, you praise your colleague all the time and it’s all high-fives everywhere and you dream about the future constantly. You likely think you might even build houses next to each other on the island you will build together.

Phase 2 — The cracks phase & close-to-worst time — Sometimes this phase can come quicker than you think. This is when you start seeing some cracks in your partner and unexpected arguments start surfacing… things such as when you thought you had agreed on something, but you both clearly walked away from the conversation with different expectations in mind, or when you overhear your partner/co-founder say something astronomically stupid but don’t know how to react to it yet, or when you did something you know you’re better at, but somehow your partner/co-founder seems to think they merit an opinion on the matter when clearly you are the subject-matter expert, or when you disagree in public for the first time and don’t quite know how to recover from it without being awkward. I’m sure I could list a few more, but by now I’ve likely got your head nodding a few times. Don’t despair though… it gets worse.

A note on partnerships or co-founding relationships that are stable already because they have a long history together prior to your current project… such as siblings/married couples/repeat co-founders… tend to not go through this phase that much as they already know each other quite well, but they aren’t necessarily immune to Phase 3 below because as part of this new venture, they may have had a change in the context of their pre-existing stable relationship (role reversals, etc).

Phase 3 — The unstable phase & the absolute worst time — This phase plain sucks. In this phase, even your family is somewhat partially involved in your disputes as they hear your partner’s name every day mostly in frustration…This is when you are likely having some heated arguments and it’s just stopped being fun altogether and you’re thinking about throwing in the towel. This phase can last a long time or at the very least, feel like it’s lasting a long time.

This is the phase where most partner/co-founder relationships unravel. It’s not always a guarantee you can get past this phase, and if you have divergent values (eg. why are we doing this, what does it mean to us, what are we willing to do to overcome this, etc), this is usually when things start drifting apart because without having similar values, your rationale to stay together crumbles altogether. Additionally, if trust between co-founders/partners is compromised during this phase somehow, that’s super difficult to recover from, so make sure you argue openly and transparently.

This phase does have an upside though, particularly when you think about it as a way to figure out many things about what makes your partner(s) tick, what’s important for them and what the value over what you value. It’s an opportunity not only to develop conflict resolution skills, but also to identify flaws in your own character that generated your part of the argument to begin with. There is a great book called “The Courage to be Disliked” by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga, which can help you think through where perhaps you are part of the problem in how you react to things and externalities.

Many conflicts also arise from poorly identified roles and responsibilities within what you do, so naturally you’re reacting to the feeling of having someone ‘stepping on your toes’ so to speak.. Spending some time on preventing this can be seen as an investment that will pay back in spades with time. One way of doing this is by reviewing a simpler version of a RASCI chartof your organization and agreeing on clear roles and responsibilities for all key people.

As they say, all good things come through hard work. If you can make it through this phase, the best one comes next.

Phase 4 — The stable phase & the second best time — When you’ve reached this phase, you have most likely come to terms with the fact that you can’t be everything to everyone in a team and as such, there are some elements of compromise that you’ve had to make to get here. Whilst this might sound like a bit of a downer, it is not, rather it’s more of an acknowledgement that it’s hard for a team to have everyone be the same exact way, so the quicker you adapt to how you can uniquely and best contribute, the happier everyone will be. When you’ve reached this stage, you’ve also come to terms with each other’s differences and strengths, and you can largely manage them and you don’t over-react to each-other’s feedback, but rather welcome it. You also start enjoying working together again, and also start seeking each other’s advice for things work and non-work alike. Not only have you come to terms with each other’s strengths/weaknesses, but you’ve also improved on your ability to leverage them for the betterment of your organisation and with minimised conflict in getting to an outcome. You have also identified each other’s “landmines” and you try and avoid detonating them unless absolutely necessary. Lastly, in this phase, you also can deal with adversity that hits your company better as you feel like you’ve fought enough battles together to have a working plan on how to address a new one.

Oh, I forgot to add…Once you’re in this fourth phase, you’re never quite immune from going back into Phase Three.. any mishap that you didn’t manage with your accumulated relationship wisdom can easily set you back a few steps.

Phase 5 — the third best time — After the fourth phase, there is allegedly one secret phase you can unlock. Similar to the after-life experiences, I have no idea what this phase is like, so I can only hypothesise, but if you do, feel free to leave a comment and share! However, rumour has it that this phase is only available after you’ve stopped working with each other ‘as intensely’… typically after an exit or when you’ve both ‘made it enough’ to take some of the heat off.

So… a parting piece of advice: Invest in your partnership/co-founding team. You don’t have to specifically do team stuff as such, but at least make the time to catch up and talk, about anything, and if you need to do something about it after you talk… do it.

update from original publish date:

If you are struggling to communicate with your co-founder or partner, don’t hesitate (if you agree) to bring in a trusted relationship to help discuss the topics at hand (rather than repressing them). If you are ‘stuck’ this can help move things along and prevents the accumulation of resentment that can be difficult to shed.

If things do unravel for you during the third phase, it’s helpful to have a plan in place on how to manage an orderly unwind. If the company isn’t incorporated yet, you can use a tool like the founder’s collaboration agreement from Seedsummit.org to plan how to do that or implement a reverse vesting schedule that is fair for all parties.

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