This is the the second part of a Founder Communication talk I give to YC founders during the batch to strengthen the cofounder relationship from (ideally) day 1. Part 1 can be found here.
Manage your Relationship Debt
Relationship debt, just like technical debt, is the accumulation of emotional baggage in a founding team that's created by making choices that feel expedient in the moment but which has a lasting and wildly deleterious impact if not attended to. Choosing to avoid or ignore difficult, potentially emotion-filled conversations is often the default because founders don't know how to message their thoughts productively, or are afraid of what their cofounders' response might be.
Founding teams can get by with some relationship debt for a short time. However, when founders choose to deprioritize a tough conversation, they contribute to a relational plaque that builds into resentment and frustration that won't go away without thoughtful attention and direct action. Enough relationship debt will rust out the very foundation of your company - the founding team - and this psychological erosion (and the misalignment and intense feelings that come with it) kills founding teams in the long-term. Too much relationship debt in a founding team who has no tools to resolve conflict is the reason why almost all startups die of suicide rather than homicide.
Founders: You need to engage in tough conversations before your relationship debt kills your founding team and your company.
These "tough conversations" are what I call "level 3 conversations." Here's what I mean:
This is the the first part of a Founder Communication talk I give to YC founders during the batch to strengthen the cofounder relationship from (ideally) day 1. The second part can be found here.
Everybody fights. Your challenge is to learn to fight well.
Feeling tension rise between you and your cofounder is normal, healthy, and expected. You should expect to fight with your cofounder as you inevitably bump into each others' perspectives and particularities while building your startup. At any given moment, founders may be fighting about equity allocation, roles and responsibilities, who to hire when, the "right" product strategy, or each others' performance - or all of these at once!
There's a good way and a bad way to fight, and no one is born knowing how to fight well. Not having a healthy roadmap for conflict means that we either tend to avoid it altogether, or we repeat the same problematic behaviors without realizing there's another way to engage that would feel better for both us and our partner. Communicating productively, respectfully, and honestly about difficult topics is a skill that is built through practice and experience. Your challenge as a startup founder is that you to learn to fight well.
My first piece of advice for founders learning to fight well is that you become aware of how you currently fight (what I call here your "attachment style"), and you use that knowledge to shift your behavior to balance out the dynamic in your founding team. Doing so alleviates the emotional intensity inherent in founding teams, and allows for healthy conflict to take place.
Tip #1: Know Thyself (and thy attachment style)
Many of us already know that when we're stressed, our sleep suffers, we eat like crap, and/or our exercise routine takes a nosedive. But do you know how your behaviors, thoughts, and emotions toward your cofounder change when things are going less than smoothly?
Startups are messy, confusing, chaotic, hopeful, lonely, depressing, inspiring, and challenging, sometimes all within the same 5 minute span. As a founder, you'll be operating under stressful circumstances that will pull your behavior away from how you "normally" act 99% of the time. The more you know about you relate to those closest to you in times of stress, the better you can manage yourself when those inevitable conflicts erupt, and the faster you can get back to building your company.
Luckily, psychological researchers have made this task easy for you in the past few decades, and have found that most people behave in predictable and consistent ways in times of stress (called "attachment styles")(1).
To simplify even further, most cofounders act out one of only two (2!) attachment styles repeatedly in times of stress: anxious and avoidant.
If you're a YC Founder, read the section of the User Manual called "Scaling Yourself" for the YC-approved advice I wrote for founders seeking emotional support. It also contains a list of great therapists you can contact who already see many YC founders and are familiar with tech and startups.
"How do I find a therapist?" is one of the most common questions I get from early-stage startup founders. Their immediate follow-up question is something like, "We're only paying ourselves enough to cover the basics. How can I afford therapy?"
First - props to you for being brave and reaching out for support. It's a sign of good decision-making to realize that you would benefit from extra help, and you don't need to wait for a breaking point to do it. Talking with an expert is preventative medicine for burnout. You should do it before something breaks. As Pete Koomen (Optimizely, YC W10) said on an episode of Startup School Radio, you need to scale yourself in order to scale your company. For many founders, that begins with seeing a psychotherapist who can help you manage the emotional turbulence running a startup even before you hire your first employee or achieve PMF.
Finding a Therapist
Finding a great therapist is hard but you can circumvent the challenge of 'the system' and call the Well Clinic. The Well makes it simple to find a therapist perfectly suited to you, and their clinicians are top-notch.
First, you'll call to set up a second 15-min call with a therapist who specializes in client-therapist matching. This "intake" call will be a brief conversation during which you'll talk about what you're going through and what you're looking for. You can mention any special factors that should be considered in the matching process like your location, your scheduling constraints, your budget, etc. The intake therapist will then match you with the clinician on-staff whose style, experience, and availability is best-suited to meet all your needs. That's it!
As a bonus, the Well Clinic was founded by a YC founder in his pre-YC days, Cameron Yarbrough, (who's currently running Torch, YC W18) so you can trust that the experience Well Clinic provides is top-notch and extra efficient. FYI I don't get any kickback from the Well for my endorsement of them - it's actually illegal for therapists to pay for referrals - and our only relationship is that I occasionally provide trainings about the psychology of startups and founders to Well Clinic therapists (for free) to help them provide founders with the absolute best care. I recommend them because I feel the pain of the therapist-finding process, think the Well has solved it, and I deeply trust the work that Well Clinic therapists do. There's simply no reason not to be in therapy given how easy the Well makes it for you to land with someone who can really help you from day 1.
Other therapists I recommend who see many YC founders (and YC Partners!):
Affording a Therapist
Cost is commonly a blocker for early-stage founders but the investment is worth it and it shouldn't stop you from getting into therapy. You should expect to pay somewhere between $80-$180/hr for therapy, and should plan to go to therapy once weekly for a few months at least.
There are two things you can and should do to unblock here: First, pay yourself more, and second, negotiate the cost of therapy down.
First, pay yourself an extra $500-$1k per month as a "'personal development" allowance to help defray the cost. Have a conversation with your cofounder if necessary and say that YC and I both recommend this line item. You can mention in this conversation that you know you'd really benefit from seeing a therapist AND if you were to do so, you'd be more productive for a much longer time (anecdotally, by multiple years) at your company. It's a win/win to bump your pay up for this reason and if YC just happened to fund you $150k, this increase is both reasonable and justifiable. I suggest you provide the same salary increase for your cofounder if they're interested in the idea too. FYI, investors won't freak out about this line item on your financials (if they ever even see it) because it's symbolic of your proactively caring for the most important asset of any early-stage company: the founders.
Second, you can negotiate the cost of therapy down. Advertised rates are almost always negotiable but you have to ask (and it's not weird for you to do so). When you call the Well, you'll tell them in the intake call what your budget restrictions are and they'll put you with a therapist who can match that. If you're engaging with non-Well Clinic therapist, ask whether they have any "sliding scale" slots available and describe your circumstances including the ideal hourly fee you can comfortably afford (after having decided on the amount of that 'personal development' allotment).
If you're located outside of the Bay, you'll also want to specify for the Well Clinic on your intake call that you need a therapist who can work remotely or via Skype. Many therapists don't because of the many legal and ethical considerations their licenses bind them to that preclude remote work. One therapist who is particularly incredible, who does work remotely, and has developed a near-cult following among YC founders is Virgine de Paepe (https://www.emdrtherapistsf.com). Virgine is experienced in navigating the many ethical/legal considerations that remote therapy entails, and is a fantastic therapist to boot.
Thoughts? Questions? Post them below!