The healthiest romantic breakups happen when those involved recognise that it’s simply not a good fit. It’s not about assigning blame or finding faults – it’s just that there is no longer a strong match. In a healthy romantic breakup, neither party is left feeling less than. It’s a shame it hasn’t worked out, but it’s no reflection on the worthiness of the individuals.
That same healthy perspective represents the best way to view co-founder breakups.
At EF, we aim to take the heaviness out of co-founder breakups. There’s no shame and no awkwardness, because it’s not seen as a failure.
We actually celebrate co-founder breakups because it means you’ve put the work in to discover that it’s not a good match, and you’ve been honest enough with yourselves to cut your losses.
That honesty is essential when it comes to co-founding. At EF, we encourage co-founders to have radically honest conversations with each other. Crucially, those conversations need to happen from day zero. You need to iron out any doubts or concerns early on. If you wait for issues to resolve themselves, those issues are likely to grow as the company grows. Don’t let it get to a point where you resent your co-founder.
One of the worst traps you can fall into as an aspiring founder is to jump into co-founding with your childhood best friend. You might think that knowing each other well is an advantage, that there’ll be fewer barriers between you. In reality, the opposite is true. You’re far more likely to tiptoe around problems. In the worst cases, you avoid confronting reality.
You need to be able to have the frank conversations needed to make progress. It’s common for co-founders to discover that their working styles don’t match, or that one feels as if they’re doing the bulk of the work, or that maybe you’re just not as passionate about the product as you first thought. Don’t let these kinds of conversations become the elephant in the room.
Your co-founder relationship is the foundation of your business – it needs to be rock solid.
At EF, you join with the explicit desire to test out co-founder relationships, and find your match. Celebrating co-founder breakups as part of the process removes any awkwardness, and allows you to make progress.
There’s no single formula for co-founder chemistry, but there is one thing you can clearly measure: productivity. Productivity is traction for teams. Once you have a product and customers, you can relatively easily outline the metrics that matter. Prior to that, your rate of learning is likely to be the best measure of your productivity.
Founding isn’t about being correct, it’s about learning. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve proved or disproved your initial theory, so long as you’re able to move forward based on your learnings. Successful co-founding teams find that their shared learning process is much faster than any solo endeavour.
Your productivity levels and your ability to iterate around an idea together are good indicators of a strong co-founder relationship – but those things aside, you need to listen to your gut.
Founders typically avoid the break-up conversation for far too long. Some mismatches are obvious within hours. Others could work relatively well together for weeks without ever generating the right spark. Don’t be afraid to call it. You’re not doing your co-founder any favours by shying away from the fact it’s not working.
There’s an opportunity cost to the wrong co-founder – especially when you’re at EF, where you have a unique and special opportunity to test co-founding with some of the smartest and most creative minds in the world.
When ending a co-founding relationship, try to reduce the emotional impact of the breakup. Focus the conversation on where the partnership isn’t tracking against your goals, and stay away from assigning blame. If you openly acknowledge that you’re testing the co-founder relationship, as we do at EF, then it’s no bad thing when you decide to move on. At EF, we make co-founder breakups almost the default. We encourage founders to have a low bar for pairing up and starting, but a very high bar for staying together.
When founders break up at EF, they get applauded by the rest of their cohort for making the right call. Breakups get posted on our internal Slack channels and are covered in emoji celebrations. A really lovely outcome of breakups that we often see, is that founders often try to ‘sell on’ their co-founder. They recognise that they weren’t the right fit for each other, but they’re effusive in expressing the strengths of the other. Co-founder breakups aren’t a failure, they’re a learning that only serves to better equip you to continue your founder journey.