Agreeably Disagreeing: How Not To Get Along With Your Co-Founder

Starting a startup is a one-shot celebration of registering a company, but running a startup is all about disentangling misunderstandings of startup stakeholders. It’s all about conversations that are rewarding and serendipity Prof. Suresh of NSRCEL at Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore (IIMB).

As a co-founder, issues can be a fundamental problem of most startups, many ecosystem observers talk about the need for a “we story”- a collaboration between partners about values and goals. If co-founders are going to collaborate, they have to figure out how to have a productive conversation. A conversation, as opposed to parallel monologues, involves two or more people making an effort to understand each other. In the grip of strong emotion, a productive conversation can be surprisingly hard.

In our conflict-averse startup culture, it is very important for co-founders to agree to disagree with each other. Everyone will have their own way of striking a balance between empathy and problem-solving. Many of the books and mentors suggest that before one plays with numbers and presents them to investors, it is important to plan for conflict resolution through conversation. If possible, have an arbitrator who all co-founders will look up to. His/her decision will be final. This will help you to agree to disagree with your fellow co-founders. At times, it appears that co-founder conflict resolution is a low priority, but it is worth investing in, considering the long-term emotional strain.

During my work with the Co-Founders at Minjar, I asked my reporting manager and co-founder Anand about conflict resolution and arbitration. A bit about Anand, he never discusses problems over an empty stomach. He listens very patiently. He may be a slow decision maker, but he’s very good at avoiding conflicts. He doesn’t shy away from anger, but at the same time, he doesn’t indulge it. He tackles hard issues without shutting down. Though it is very rare, he doesn’t mind saying “Sorry” if he is wrong. These attributes have been a stepping stone in shaping Anand as a serial entrepreneur, and has allowed him to become the co-founder of Kuliza & Minjar. Anand says the following about arbitration and conflict resolution: “The startup is all about conversations that are rewarding and serendipity”. This ideology is a very powerful one & isn’t well understood.

Often co-founders associate ups & downs, and differences in opinions as their personal/ collective failings. Ability to engage in a conversation under all circumstances, is a pretty powerful skill. Strenuous situations tend to reveal a person’s true personality. Often it is much more efficient to let the other co-founder make the decisions than involving an arbitrator. There is no guarantee that arbitrators won’t accentuate the set of problems that co-founders are facing.

If co-founders are not enjoying the conversation between themselves, why should it become palatable by involving a mediator? A perfect decision is an illusion, regardless of where it comes from. When it comes to day to day decision making, people simply need to stop focusing on perfection, and rather appreciate the opportunities being presented to them. Hence making amicable conversations and serendipity becomes far more important than anything else. Winning an argument might boost your confidence, but in no way ensures the longevity of your startup, nor does it guarantee the prevention of common errors in judgement.

People learn when they see things happen (or see reality when they make mistakes). We are prone to making decisions by imagining the future (visions of which could be driven by fear, greed, hope or expectations). Often the source of conflicts lies in the latter or misaligned value systems. Therefore, real time experiences help improve decision making skills, while, envisioning the future could lead to errors and conflicts.

Finally, remember that an argument is about the argument and never the person. Dwelling on its memory for too long makes silly things appear larger than life, and becomes a continuous source of stress. Just as it’s tough to stand inside an oven, its very difficult to live in a stressful environment. A ‘we story’ is a fairytale. And there are no fairy tales without conversations and serendipity. Simply put, emotions are often inconvenient in the startup world.

As Prof. Saras of NSRCEL @ IIMB says, “What matters most in startups is what’s possible on the other side of co-creation”. It’s not that co-founders come together in electric recognition and pure passion, then fall away from each other through conflict. Rather, co-founders come together with a passion and hence succeed through continuing conversation.

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Author:  Kesava Reddy