Relationships fail. Breaking up can be ugly. Get a pre-nup.
I recently went through a founder bust-up of my own. As a mentor, I’ve seen hundreds, and I disagree with Tolstoy. He famously said that all happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is different. I think founder bust-ups are banal in their similarity.
Founding a company requires faith and founder alignment. No amount of preparation, however, can predict or replace the experience gained from events. Some relationships survive events. Some relationships grow. Other relationships do neither. Be prepared.
Dating vs. Being Engaged vs. Being Married
Everyone needs to be clear on which status applies. I’m an enthusiast. This can be dangerous, so I have a partner, Peder, who keeps me on the straight and narrow. Peder made sure we all were just dating. We talked a lot about what it would take for us to tie the knot with the other guy and how to quantify the decision. KPIs work the same way that the concept of breaking distance does, so you can stop or change direction in time to avoid a crash.
“Get a pre-nup”
We advise founders to write pre-nups. Like Peder, one of my recurring concerns with the project was probably always that we saw the business differently from the other guy. In this, we were completely normal. It’s utterly common for one person to be more invested in a relationship than the other. The trick is ensuring that there isn’t a major imbalance.
Things didn’t work out
It didn’t go the way we hoped. The concept we had hoped to map from the other guy’s city to ours proved to need a lot of adjustments. The list of compromises both sides had to make got longer and longer. The other guy started handing out ultimatums.
We all want to be respectful and mature, but…
Founder bust-ups are usually emotional, much like romantic bust-ups. We said something along the lines of “it’s not you, it’s me” and “let’s just be friends”. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that didn’t go over so well.
Our friend was furious. He immediately blocked our email and social media accounts. He demanded all the assets. The situation was just like founder bust-ups everywhere. It could have been a big mess. The fallout has been minor, however, because we kept our breaking distance.
As a mentor, it’s good to have first hand experience and to occasionally renew old lessons learned. It was interesting to be in the middle of something we see startups wrestle with all the time. We never reached the pre-nup stage, because we never became full-fledged co-founders. There was plenty in the break up, however, to remind us why an agreement on how you manage a founder-split is a really good idea. It’s good advice to take and to give.