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.