If you are like most founders, selecting a co-founder was one of the most pivotal decisions you've made to date. You've admired what the legendary co-founders--Bill and David, Jobs and Woz, Larry and Sergey--achieved, and wanted the same destiny.
But like all relationships, the one with your co-founder can be a rocky road. One of the hardest parts to stomach is when you're working your tail off and someone else isn't as engaged or committed.
This issue has to get resolved before resentment builds. First, as always, you need to investigate what's happening to understand what's behind this. When someone is not pulling their weight it's usually a symptom of something else.
Find out why this is happening--approach the situation in exploration-mode. Never open with criticism; that will not lead to a resolution.
It could be personal
At one company we had an issue with a founder suddenly behaving very differently. Whereas he was once very reliable, now he was flaky and unavailable. We soon learned he was going through a difficult divorce. The stress of that personal crisis was affecting him at work, but it was neither work-related nor fixable. In this case, we discussed the situation and called out the behavior, but also gave him some space--but not so much space that he could drag the team down for a long time.
Of course there can be other reasons too that are similarly out of your control: someone's health, an issue with a family member, or myriad personal reasons that are affecting performance at work. We've had situations where a co-founder has had to leave because of a serious illness. Each time, it's been horribly sad, and the unfortunate reality is that sometimes caring for one's health and operating a startup are incompatible.
Or it could be business
There's another scenario we sometimes see happen too: a reduction in motivation after achieving a certain level of success. At one company, we had an interesting phenomenon: some of the folks who had been there before the IPO made hundreds of millions. They came into work in their Ferraris at 10 am, and by 3 pm had left. When they jetted early, the CEO used to say, "they called in rich." No longer motivated by earning more money, they "quit on the job." That's something that must be addressed and--if it continues--stopped.
If there's no personal crisis looming in the backdrop or no jackpot influencing the behavior, it's time to figure out: Is this something within your control? Ask yourself: What do I own? What do they own?
What to do if there's bad blood
Unfortunately, it's all too common that a conflict in personalities has arisen. There may be bad blood due to any number of reasons, disconnects on strategy or culture, economic inequity, etc. This leaves one of the founders disgruntled and difficult to get along with. Now what?
It's up to you to find out:
- Is there resentment over ownership? Hopefully not, as that should have been resolved from the onset, but sometimes there's a lingering bitterness that turns into an untenable situation. And this leads to a tricky question: How do you handle the resolution of ownership if your co-founder opts out yet you are still there night and day?
- Is there an issue because someone gets too much credit?
- Is this an issue over strategic direction?
Having any successful relationship is hard. It requires dialogue and communication all the time. The co-founder relationship requires the same attention and care:
Find the source of the problem. And quickly figure out if it's recoverable or not.
- Call the co-founder out on any bad behavior. You can't accept someone not pulling their weight or engaging in dysfunctional behavior.
- Bring in coaching or help from an outside advisor. You need to do everything within your power to try to save this relationship.
- Think of everyone involved. A little time off for someone bringing a stressful situation to work may do them some good, but you have to be mindful of the other people at the company and how they might view this special treatment. Everyone knows the difference between good performers and bad and they are counting on the leaders to fix it.
- Get the board's input. The board has seen this movie many times and they will have suggestions. They may offer creative solutions they've seen work in the past such as formally changing the equity structure to reflect the reduced engagement.
- Figure out a fair way to move on. If you decide that the partnership is not going to work, move with dignity and grace on that decision. Do not assign blame. Don't disparage each other.
- Determine, "what's life like on other side?" What skills did your co-founder bring? What needs to be replaced? It's likely someone else has stepped up already. My best moments have been seeing what people can do when you give them an opportunity. Think about who can take on new responsibilities and help through the challenge of losing a critical player in the company.
It is never fun to have to address serious performance issues--especially when they occur from someone you have vested so much in and have trusted so much. Hopefully there will be an easy resolution, but wishing the issue will go away on its own will not work. Even if it requires a more extreme resolution and you have to part ways, you will be on your way to recovery soon. I wish you luck (and offer you sympathy).