Resolving Co-Founder Disputes


Editor’s note: Mike Knoop is co-founder of Zapier. Follow him on Twitter @mikeknoop.

In the summer 2012 batch, one in four Y Combinator companies lost a founder. It’s not hard to conclude that startup co-founder disputes are universal. They range from the big decisions (What should our product do? Should we hire? Should we raise capital?) to the small (What should you work on today? What should the blog design look like? Should we allow non-profit discounts?).

I have identified a few trends from my experience with my startup Zapier. Not every founding team is meant to work out, but the ones that stick together may find these trends useful to relieve tension and frustration.

Start With Your Surroundings

Surrounding myself with like-minded founders has preempted many arguments from occurring in the first place — because we already agree! Some of the best founders are old friends and many old friends come from similar walks of life. Seek out these people. Be wary of radically differing lifestyles because they often signal differing tastes and ultimately lead to the most frustrating and difficult disputes.

Define A Tie-Breaker Policy

We do not resolve every dispute. It is very useful to have a tie-breaker when two founders are at an impasse. A third co-founder is particularly effective at enabling this – as long as politics remain on the sideline.

Another tie-breaker is simply to default to the person with more expertise in the area of debate. At Zapier, a backed or infrastructure problem is typically deferred to co-founder and backend engineer Bryan Helmig, a frontend issue to myself, and a marketing or customer-related topic to Wade Foster, co-founder and CEO.

Practice Empathy

I always try to remember: every (good-faith) founder only wants what is best for the company. Failure to realize and re-affirm this is a quick path to resentment and frustration. I ask myself: Why do they think this is what’s best? Taking this simple step back always helps me. I can feel the frustration lift immediately.

A Zapier Example

Allow me to highlight a real-world example by describing a problem, dispute, and resolution we had at Zapier: deciding on our name.

When we sat down to build the minimum viable product of Zapier at Startup Weekend in 2011, Wade came up with our original name “Snapier” within minutes. We operated under that name for a few months until we discovered a similarly named company in the space.

The hunt was on for a new name. Early in a startup’s life, every decision seems monumental (especially a decision as public-facing as choosing a name). If you can survive the first few months of hard decisions, team unity tends to kick in and the dispute process gets easier. We were not at this point.

We spent an entire evening brainstorming names. Bryan wrote a script to auto-generate names and look up .com availability. Somewhere in the brainstorming process Bryan or Wade suggested replacing the “Sn” with a “z”. I hated it. I was never in love with the original name and a small spelling change was not improving much in my book. I made my position clear, but I also did not have a better suggestion.

So a few days went by, then a few weeks. Two blurred months later and we had adopted the name “Zapier” by the most informal, non-committed decision ever. Fast-forward one year and I couldn’t be more happy with that informal non-decision 12 months prior.

I was the defector in this dispute — two against one. It was apparent that the onus was on me to come up with a better suggestion or else “Zapier” would stick. But we all trusted each other. Bryan and Wade constantly reminded me that we could always change it again later if a better name came along. We all only wanted what was best for the company. Over the next few weeks I cared less and less until my attention was elsewhere. By the start of Y Combinator S12 I had bonded with the new name and the rest is history.

Healthy Conflict

In the end, debate is healthy and encourages outside-the-box thinking. To that effect, I realize that I cannot control other founders and I can never eliminate disputes, but I can impact the company positively through my own behavior and decisions.

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