Startup founders are often exceptionally talented -- but they are human. And that means they can get sick or feel so overwhelmed by the challenges they are facing that they stop functioning at a high level.

While these challenges can afflict people in any economy, my hunch is that they are far more common now. With the Covid-19 pandemic showing no sign of easing, prices soaring, labor markets drum tight, global warming becoming increasingly severe, and the U.S. inching closer to losing its democracy, it does not surprise me that more people are dropping out of startup teams.

A case in point is a startup team of three co-founders. After they'd worked together for a year building a product, the startup is trying to raise funds. But one of the co-founders, a smart, charismatic, high-energy salesman, recently became unresponsive because of stress. Now that stressed co-founder isn't doing what he needs to do.

What should the other two co-founders do to sustain their startup's momentum? Here are three suggestions.

1. Divide up the work.

Startups that are developing their product and beginning to sell it to customers generally field teams of co-founders whose members can adapt quickly to new challenges. A co-founder who suddenly stops functioning is just such a challenge -- admittedly a very difficult one.

In this case, the remaining co-founders should decide which are the most important jobs the company must get done in the next six to 12 months. They should then decide how best to divide up those tasks between the remaining co-founders.

For example, this might mean that the remaining co-founders stop doing less important tasks to make room for the critical sales work that the unresponsive co-founder stopped performing. 

The two co-founders should tell the unresponsive one that they are splitting up the work that needs to be done -- even though they might not receive any response.

2. Hire a highly skilled and motivated person to replace the unresponsive co-founder.

Since it is unlikely that this startup's two remaining co-founders will excel at sales, they should initiate a search for a top-notch sales person. Here are some key steps I'd recommend they take:

  • Decide on the key values that the new hire must embrace
  • Develop a job description that highlights the industry knowledge, sales, and management experience required for the position
  • Choose whether the new hire will be a co-founder or will come in as a sales executive who will have a six to 12 month time to grow into the co-founder role
  • Contact members of their professional networks to inform them of the opportunity and seek candidates
  • Consider hiring an executive recruiter to help with the search
  • Interview top candidates and check references carefully
  • Hire the candidate who best fits the company's values and has the clearest ability to grow into a sales co-founder role

3. Part ways with the unresponsive co-founder.

Once you've hired the sales executive, I'd advise the startup to find a respectful way to part ways with the unresponsive co-founder. 

Needless to say, this is a difficult conversation under any circumstances. However, when the co-founder is unresponsive, it is even more challenging. Getting to the other side of this difficult conversation starts with having a clear vision for what it will achieve. I suggest the co-founders aim for the following outcomes:

  • Express appreciation for all the contributions of the unresponsive co-founder
  • Provide the unresponsive co-founder reasonable compensation -- possibly by purchasing a portion of their stock so it can be distributed to new hires
  • Make it clear that the unresponsive co-founder will no longer have an operating role in the company -- unless agreed otherwise

Of course, during the time that the co-founders are seeking to hire a new team member, the unresponsive co-founder might suddenly come back to doing what the startup needs.

At that point, the two co-founders would need to decide whether to keep going as before -- or that the risk of the co-founder disappearing again is greater than the challenges of hiring a new person for that crucial role.