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Navigating Co-Founder Relationships

By Cara Lee

Since its inception, Echoing Green has always placed our focus on the leaders of organizations—rather than the organizations themselves.

Even if the Fellows in our community leave their startups and go on to other ventures, we select them knowing they are leaders dedicated to lifelong social impact. So along with seed funding, technical support, and access to networks and resources, Echoing Green’s Fellowship program prioritizes our Fellows’ wellbeing. This includes ongoing secular support from three Echoing Green Chaplains, focusing on mental and emotional wellbeing, as well as self-care workshops designed specifically for the struggles of entrepreneurship.

One common issue we see in our Fellow community is navigating a co-founder relationship. Like any personal or professional relationship, maintaining a strong partnership with your co-founder is essential to a healthy and productive working environment. Social entrepreneurs who are co-leaders endure particular successes, challenges, milestones, and setbacks—all while at the helm of organizations on the frontlines of social and environmental justice. We asked our Chaplains, Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Eric Dawson, and Shaundra Cunningham, for advice on navigating and nurturing these unique relationships to ensure the best co-leadership a social enterprise needs to thrive. Here’s what they shared:

Starting an organization with a co-founder

What advice, general or specific, would you give co-founders who have just started their organization?

We encourage co-founders to start the work right away around communication, conflict, and change—don’t wait until a problem presents itself. We also encourage folks to be clear eyed about the range of experiences that are likely ahead and to ask for help when they need it.

What advice do you have for co-founders who are geographically separated?

First, commit to regular check-ins or hang outs that are virtual, and do not focus on work. When you work remotely, it can be easy to just communicate in a functional way about work. You miss out on the “water cooler or morning coffee” conversations that help build and sustain connections between people. Some partners schedule a weekly or bi-monthly time to hang out over video and just chat over coffee, tea, or beer.

Second, make sure you see each other in person when possible. If you are both traveling to a conference, come in a day earlier or stay late so you have some in-person time to work together or spend time together. Some partners will build in regular strategy sessions or work retreats to bookend conferences.

Being remote, you have to put some extra effort into connecting in these ways but like all things, once it becomes habitual, it feels easy and natural.

The ups and downs of co-founder relationships

What are some of the advantages of having a co-founder?

You’re a team—you have more capacity working together; you each have super powers and areas of growth and can balance each other; you will invariably push and strengthen each other’s thinking; you have each other’s back in the rollercoaster and sometimes lonely world of launching a startup; you can have more focused roles rather than needing to do it all.

What are some of the challenges?

The three primary challenges that we see co-founders navigate are:

  1. Communication: You each have different communication styles and your work will require that you are in constant communication. It’s important to be self aware about your own communication patterns and to build awareness about your partners.
  2. Conflict: Conflict is inevitable, and it can be really healthy and important to both the development of your organization and your respective individual development. And…navigating conflict is an art and a skill. It’s important to understand your own habits, wiring, and needs related to conflict, and to understand those of your partner. Building skills and tools to address conflict is one of the most important pieces of work co-founders can do together, and investing in these leadership skills invariably ripples out throughout the organization, modeling how you’ll address conflicts at the staff and organizational levels.
  3. Change: Change happens, whether we want it or not. Each of you will change, your partnership will change, the organization will change, the world will change. How do you handle these inflection points and stress tests as a team?
What are some surprising things that most people aren’t aware of before they start an organization with a co-founder? How should they factor in these considerations?

You’re going to get to know each other incredibly well, and it’s likely that launching a startup will push each of you tremendously—personally, professionally, emotionally, spiritually. Doing that alongside someone else is a whole different experience than doing it as an individual. The relationship itself becomes an entity of sorts.

Struggling with a co-founder relationship

What would be your advice for someone navigating a difficult relationship with their co-founder?

Talk about it—ideally with your co-founder, and also with a trusted mentor, confidant, chaplain, coach, or peer who will see the situation with fresh perspective. The first two steps I recommend to folks in this situation are to take a step back and figure out what they want, what they need, and what they have agency over.

What would your advice be to someone coming to terms with having to end a co-founder relationship?

It’s OK. Change happens, and endings happen, and you’ll feel a lot of different things— maybe loss, maybe relief, maybe guilt, maybe freedom. Figure out what you’re feeling, and be honest about it. Think about what a good ending could be for you, for your partner, your staff, the organization, and the community you serve.

We have worked with partners to achieve “good endings” even after periods of great tension and difficulty—it’s possible.

Sustaining a co-founder relationship

What are the best ways to ensure a co-founder relationship thrives?

We encourage partners to make a set of commitments to each other that they review and update on a regular, perhaps annual, basis; we encourage regular check-ins and getting help as soon as you need it, rather than letting issues fester. And try to never stop talking to each other, even if it gets hard.

What advice would you give to co-founders who are 3–5 years in?

It’s probably a good time to take a fresh look at your partnership and share with each other what you’ve learned about your relationship. What’s working? What needs attention? Are there patterns you’ve settled into that you’d like to change?

What is some helpful advice that you’ve learned from co-founders themselves?

There’s no single formula for sustaining a co-founding relationship, but one consistent theme is joy. Stay connected to the joy and sense of purpose you find in the work; stay connected to the joy and sense of connection you find in relationships.


Acknowledgements

Thank you to Echoing Green Chaplains Jasmine Beach-Ferrara, Eric Dawson, and Shaundra Cunningham for sharing their advice based on almost 10 years of supporting hundreds of Fellows through their social entrepreneurship journey.

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