How We Fight – Cofounders in Love and War

I often get asked about finding cofounders and I usually give the standard list of characteristics of what I look for in a founder.  And I emphasize the value of a founding team with complementary skills sets – i.e. the hacker/hustler/designer cofounder archetype for web/mobile apps.  But Jessica Alter, Cofounder & CEO of FounderDating, pointed out that cofounders did not mean two founders in the same room.  She suggested that I was missing one of the key attributes of what makes successful startup teams powerful. She suggested that how cofounders fight was a key metric in predicting the success of a founding team.  So I asked her to write a guest post.


I think about [cofounding] teams a lot – an insane amount.  And, not surprisingly, I frequently get asked what to look for or what to think about when starting the process of finding a cofounder – a true partner to start your next company with.

Like second nature, I start to recite a list of important attributes: complimentary skill sets, common visions, the notion of not trying to make someone fall in love with your idea (because the idea will likely change and then where are you?).  There are plenty more and they are important. But a few weeks ago after I sat on a panel about cofounders at Startup2Startup there was a small group dinner conversation to dig deeper on the topic.  Garry Tan (Posterous, YC), in recounting his personal experience said, “success can cover up a lot.”

And it clicked in my head – one of the key things to pay attention to in a search for a cofounder is how you fight.

Taking Time
How you fight with your potential cofounder(s) matters for a lot of reasons, the simplest of which is that you have time to fight – meaning you’ve worked together long enough to hit disagreements or bumps.  It’s one of the most common mistakes we see. I literally just received an email from someone (that I don’t know) asking to me to meet with them so that they can circumvent our regular process because, “I don’t feel like I have time for the regular FounderDating process.“  Quick advice to people that think finding a cofounder is a box to check and “don’t have time” – you won’t find someone and if you do the relationship is unlikely to last.  You’re looking for an employee, not a partner.

We tell all our FounderDating members that we’re a great starting point to connect with amazing people all with high intent to start something. But in order to figure out if you can work together you have to (wait for it…) actually work together.  That could be starting a side-project, heading over to a Startup Weekend or other hackathon, working full-time for a few months or some combination of those options.  However you do it, you need to build something together.  It doesn’t ultimately matter it if ends up being the right product, you will still have areas you disagree on throughout the process. Ask yourself: Have we had disagreements? If you haven’t, maybe you should consider a longer courtship period.

Simulating Real-Life
Consider what real startup life is going to be like.  For a long-time (longer than you plan) things are not going to work and you’ll have to figure out what to do – together.  If you do eventually reach a point where the company is making real progress, you’re still going hit crazy challenges on a regular basis that you’ll have to navigate together. This pressure – which is compounded by the sound of the ticking clock if you took money – will up the stress levels and hence the propensity to disagree.

If you don’t have at least a taste of what that’s going to be like, not only have you not done your homework, but also could be in for a rude awakening. So, let’s agree you’re going to fight. That, in and of itself, doesn’t mean anything. In fact, it’s quite healthy. What matters in real life is what are the fights like? Do they escalate rapidly or become knock down, drag outs? Can you recover quickly and keep moving? Entrepreneurship and early stage companies are about moving fast; if you’re caught in a disagreement for days at a time it means decisions are not being made and/or people are walking around feeling resentful.  Either one will eventually lead to failure.  Ask yourself: When we fight do we get over it quickly and respectfully?

What Are You Fighting About?
Finally, and this is insanely important, it matters what the fights are about.  Are you fighting about whether a button should be green or blue or are you fighting about whether or not you want to raise money?

A lot of people approach finding cofounders as just a skill set need and believe once that box is checked, everything will be smooth sailing. Complimentary skill sets are important and if you’re fighting about one functional area  (e.g. design, product) it might be a sign you have too much skill set overlap. But if it were just about complimentary skill set matching it wouldn’t be very hard.

What’s difficult is making sure you’re aligned on the softer side: Why do you want to build a company? What kind of company you want to build? What are your working styles? What are your values?  What are your other priorities (family, etc.)?  We don’t care if entrepreneurs want to build lifestyle businesses or go for IPOs, if they are tethered to their email or check out at 7pm – that’s a personal decision. But you better make sure you’re on the same page as your potential cofounder about those topics. These are the issues that break up relationships, not button colors.

Ask yourself: What are we fighting about and why?

Make no mistake; I’m not suggesting you should manufacture a fight. But every relationship has ups and downs, the ones that last are able to bounce back from the downs quickly and respectfully and be better for it.  So give yourselves permission and time to fight and reflect on how you do it before you take the leap together.
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22 Responses

  1. “Truth springs from argument amongst friends.” ~David Hume

  2. Useful message. Thanks for sharing

  3. Corrections: Consider what real startup life is going to be like.[space removed] For a [edit]time, (longer than you plan) things are not going to work and you’ll have to figure out what to do – together.[space removed] If you do eventually reach a point where the company is making real progress, you’re still going [to] hit crazy challenges on a regular basis that you’ll have to navigate together.

  4. Reblogged this on My Blog and commented:
    Thoughts on an essential skill for any undertaking.

  5. The Founder’s Dilemma, Noam Wasserman latest book gets into great details about the poison pills that are sadly understated reasons that destroy start-up’s.

    I agree fighting fair is important, “but” I suggest “alignment” is more important on core values/environment & culture working styles right behind #1 economics and control to reduce the need to fight AKA aligning the suns, stars & moons providing the founders with a road map to avoid the pitfalls of a start-up which undoubtedly include how to agree to disagree, and handle those events including rules for those engagements to fight and fight fair is necessary to grow learning about key differences in team collaboration yields better results in the long term which Noam gets into fairly well…

    These excerpts are a must read, and you should buy the book if there’s an interest to get into more reasons founders implode, leave, and otherwise the poison pills that can sink a start-up and how to avoid them so that the founders have a forum where they must fight fair…

    You can pick up the book on Amazon, and here’s some detail excerpts if you care to get into a must read on start-up culture/environment & details for what sinks a start-up inside the founders and their team.

  6. Over the past 8 years, I have helped start 3 businesses with 3 different friends as partners. And while the businesses have all survived and thrived, the partnerships have not. In 2 of the 3 cases (and maybe all 3); if we would have gotten to know each other well enough to fight before we jumped into a business relationship together, I can’t help but think that things might have worked out differently. The same is true in love. A person shouldn’t commit to spend the rest of their life with someone who they’ve never had a real fight with.

  7. Completely agree! Partnership in organizations is like marriage and a really close relationship (You typically tend to spend more time together than with your wife as well!). In such a relationship, ups and downs are obvious and if you fight bad, then the relationship is never going to work.
    I agree that this could be a higher priority than complimentary skills.
    In our startup, three out of four co-founders have very similar backgrounds and skills (classmates from college). We have had disagreements but are able to navigate through ups and downs because of the respect and close relationship. I would say complete honesty in such a relationship is also a must!

    • Thanks for the comments. Just to be clear I wasn’t saying how you fight is higher priority that complimentary skill sets. Just that complimentary skill sets are not enough on their own. Too much overlap in skill set is tough as well – but for different reasons.

  8. I can totally relate to every single line of this post. Important lesson, leave your egos at home and don’t take it personally when “fighting”.

  9. This post reminded me of that song from Beastie Boys “you gotta fight for your right (to party)” ahhahaha 🙂

  10. This was such a great realistic article and I could relate a lot to every piece of it. building relationship and work through it on daily basis in an agile environment of start-up is not easy. Fights are inevitable but having mutual respect, putting the ego aside, reflection on thoughts of your co-founder and trust in the area of expertise is super important. thanks for the sharing of your knowledge

  11. Very good points! Thanks for sharing Jessica and good work on FD!

  12. startup succes is easy

    hire steve blank


  13. […] Fight with potential co-founders to see if your start-up will work out… […]

  14. […] whether a company will succeed.  A few weeks ago (yeah I was slow to get going ) Jessica Alter shared her views about this on Steve Blank’s blog.  Here’s my […]

  15. […] Steve Blank on why it matters how co-founders fight. […]

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