Co-founder ‘couples therapy’ helps avoid company-killing pitfalls

Like romantic partners, founders can easily fall into unhealthy patterns

My co-founder and I go to couples therapy.

Our partnership is not romantic — we’re both married to other people — yet as co-equal parents of a venture-backed startup, we live our professional lives under similar strain. Our “kids” don’t always get along. We don’t always set the right boundaries or model the right behavior. Problems in our company that I consider small agitate my co-founder, who doesn’t shy away from conflict if he thinks it will lead to a better outcome. I think he creates more unnecessary conflict, he thinks I avoid conflict and let problems escalate. We both have a point.

As with many romantic couples, the co-founder relationship is a forum in which old patterns reemerge disguised as basic questions.

Our patterns run through questions about our company. How should our product evolve? When should we raise our next fundraising round? Should we let our team work remotely? Each question is a litmus test revealing both our wisdom and our insecurities. Without high degrees of self-awareness on both our parts, the resulting conversation can devolve into a cold war. So, we go to co-founder therapy to stay aligned.

Here are three pitfalls that co-founder therapy has taught me to avoid:

  1. Being the good cop. My co-founder is an instinctive, emotional leader with a keen sense of strategic direction. When his instincts draw his attention to a growing problem in our company, he doesn’t wait for our executive team to wind its way toward resolution. He becomes animated and aggressive, confronting other leaders and provoking action. His bad cop approach can be beneficial — problems are not left to fester — but it also creates tensions that can linger and grow into other problems. I’m a natural good cop, the interpreter-in-chief, a go-between who helps the other execs understand my co-founder’s psychology. Therein lies the problem. I prefer to work with them, to help them see past his reactive exterior, to understand his underlying intentions and motivations. I have a harder time working with him. I dislike conflict and when my co-founder is upset I can let my conflict aversion prevent me from giving him hard feedback on the downside of his approach. Our therapist helped me realize that by not giving this feedback, I was failing to uphold my end of the co-founder bargain. Co-founders need to balance each other. When stress causes one founder to behave unwisely, it is the other’s responsibility to intervene.
  2. Avoidance. I prefer the present to the future. Today’s challenges feel real, concrete, and accessible, whereas tomorrow’s problems seem fuzzy and vague. My preference for the here and now can lead me to avoid grappling with the future.=I’m likely to assume those dots on the horizon are far away mountains rather than an invading army. This kind of avoidance can kill a startup. Markets change, buyers become more sophisticated, and products must adapt to the evolving needs of their users. My co-founder is more inclined to look toward the future. In an early session of co-founder therapy, when we were at the seed stage, we explored this tension. He described the issue this way: “If I see a potential issue brewing in the company, I have to spend more time convincing Keegan that this problem exists and is a real threat than it would take to solve the problem itself.” I’m an introvert. I like the safety of my own head. Being confronted with issues that seem non-essential feels like an intrusion. Downplaying the issue or avoiding it altogether lets me quickly return to the task at hand and the privacy of my internal world. In co-founder therapy, I’ve learned to be more curious about the dots on the horizon, and to trust my co-founder’s intuition.

  3. Elitism. This last one may surprise you. Of all the traps a founder could fall into, elitism may seem like an odd choice. Yet it’s one of the most dangerous traps for founders, and one that has slowed my development for years. I was lucky enough to attend Yale as an undergraduate. Yalies range from smart to ungodly smart, the kind of intelligence that lets you to breeze through AP physics as a 7th grader. As a merely smart Yale student, I was keenly aware of the difference between my intellect and theirs. You could see the difference in our respective papers, problem sets, and dining hall conversations. Theirs were elegantly crafted, mine were comparatively awkward. It was depressing. Elitism is a great defense against the pain of feeling less than, and you don’t need any ivy league education to wield it. The logic goes something like this: “I may not be as smart as these people, but I’m probably smarter than those people, so at least I’ll have some value if I can show those people how smart I am.” After college, surrounded by normal everyday people, my elitism helped me weaponize my intellect. I showed them how smart I was by poking holes in their arguments, by showing them how much less smart they were (or so I thought). Over the years, despite working a lot on this defense and the underlying insecurity it tries to protect, I still occasionally use elitism against my co-founder. He’s very smart, but he did not go to a fancy college or slog through a merciless PhD program. Instead, he built three companies from the ground up. The leadership instinct is so ingrained in him that he’s literally never had a boss. He’s always been the boss. In our most tense co-founder therapy arguments, I use elitism to dismiss his point of view, to show how my more thorough, informed analysis leads to a “better” conclusion. Our therapist helps me connect with the fears underneath my elitism. Speaking from that place, I can acknowledge that my fears make it hard to trust his instincts. That one vulnerable sentence—my fears make it hard to trust your instincts—shifts us out of an argument about who is smarter, and allows a creative conversation about our company.

As a trained psychologist and former couples therapist, I should know how to avoid these pitfalls. I have seen these patterns and the resulting damage firsthand. Yet under the stress of company building, all co-founders fall into unhealthy patterns. Co-founder therapy harnesses tensions within the company to build a closer working relationship, increasing the chances of a positive outcome and preventing a bitter divorce.