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It’s one of the most common issues that startups face, and also one of the most destructive: discord and conflict between co-founders. In fact, research from the Harvard Business Review found that 65 percent of startups fail as a direct result of co-founder conflict.
All too often, what starts as a seemingly minor disagreement can grow into a major battle of wills, especially when there are feelings that one co-founder isn’t contributing enough or that equity isn’t being shared fairly. Allowing these tensions to go unresolved can easily result in one of the co-founders unceremoniously being shown the door, if the startup doesn’t fail entirely.
Such dire results can paint a rather bleak picture for co-founders who are beginning to see cracks form in this crucial relationship. The good news, though, is that conflict doesn’t have to end in disaster. I recently interviewed Tarek and Christina El Moussa, stars of HGTV’s “Flip or Flop” and founders of SuccessPath, who dealt with an incredible entrepreneurial challenge: their divorce.
While you might imagine that this would instantly sink both of their business ventures, the former couple has continued to work together while achieving stellar results from their business partnership. As their experience reveals, overcoming major co-founder discord can be done. So how did they accomplish this surprising feat? A few key actions and perspectives made all the difference.
Related: 12 Keys to Family Business Success
Whether you’re experiencing stonewalling, defensiveness, contempt or criticism in your co-founder relationship, it’s essential that you don’t let these so-called “Four Horsemen” of unhealthy conflict undermine your entrepreneurial goals. When toxic conflict is allowed to brew within your co-founder relationship, you’ll have a hard time resolving any problems.
So how do you break down these major barriers? Seeking collaborative solutions rather than trying to avoid conflict entirely is important to achieving a successful outcome, but Christina and Tarek found that setting boundaries was also essential to keep their professional goals intact.
“It was really important for us to learn to separate our personal lives and our business lives,” Tarek said. “It was definitely a challenge, but we needed to make sure our personal problems didn’t spill over into the show or our speaking events.”
While these types of boundaries may not apply to other startups, the basic concept can still make a big difference. Quite often, conflict arises when co-founders have equal authority over every facet of the business. Differing views lead to near constant conflicts.
Instead, establish boundaries where each co-founder “owns” a particular part of the company. While input from the other co-founder is welcomed, the “owner” has final decision-making authority. By building and respecting meaningful boundaries, many conflicts can be prevented all together.
One key reason why Christina and Tarek have continued to work together after filing for divorce? An understanding that they each bring different strengths to the business relationship.
“When it comes to our show and our speaking engagements, Tarek and I are stronger together than we would be on our own,” Christina explained. “We each have different skill sets that make up for the other’s weaknesses, and that’s been important for us to recognize even as we’ve dealt with our divorce.”
Understanding both your own strengths and those of your co-founder can make a big difference in helping you remember why you chose to work together in the first place.
As Sujan Patel noted, “You’re at your best when each person brings something to the table that complements and supports the other … You’ll challenge each other to consider things you wouldn’t normally see on your own.”
These different perspectives and strengths make it easier to reach an informed decision that will strengthen your startup in the long run. Rather than dwelling on your co-founder’s weaknesses, focus on what their unique strengths bring to the business. As you learn to appreciate these valuable differences, you’ll have an easier time finding collaborative solutions.
Looking at the big picture
Perhaps the biggest reason Tarek and Christina have been able to continue working together is their big picture approach.
“Our kids deserve to be raised by parents who get along, even if we’re divorced,” Tarek said. “Christina and I are going to work together as parents for the rest of our lives. That carries over to the business side of things, too. Our goals for the show and training events haven’t changed, and that means we need to keep up a healthy business relationship.”
Tarek and Christina have common ground that extends well beyond their business ventures. Their shared family has given them a big picture approach that has enabled them to focus on what matters most for their future — and that includes continuing to work together professionally.
Now, most startup co-founders aren’t going to have such a powerful link to keep them focused on the big picture. But you will have your shared goals: your reasons for starting your company, the hours of struggle you’ve put in together.
In the long run, it’s in your best interest to focus on these goals as you address conflict and find healthy solutions that will allow you and your co-founder to continue working together. In most cases, this gives you the best chance for startup survival.
Address co-founder discord now
Overcoming co-founder conflict isn’t always easy, but it is possible — as Christina and Tarek demonstrated, even something as intense as a divorce can be overcome with the right outlook.
As you use the aforementioned techniques and other tactics to resolve disputes in a healthy way, you’ll be able to overcome business challenges and get your professional relationship back on track.