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Sunday, January 29, 2023

The Pandemic Drives Cofounders to Couples Therapy

Before they were cofounders, Kris Chaisanguanthum and Ryan Damm were friends. Then in 2016 they started Visby, a holographic imaging company. “You talk about getting into business with somebody that you get along with, but there’s nothing that you do with your friends that is as intense as starting a company,” says Chaisanguanthum. “It’s in many ways like having a child.”

Chaisanguanthum, who already had a child, was not prepared for the commitment he’d made. He and Damm had trouble navigating decisions when they disagreed. After a difficult day, Damm liked to commiserate; Chaisanguanthum preferred to be left alone. After a few years, the hurt feelings had compounded to make their working relationship untenable. Chaisanguanthum remembered an article he’d read about cofounders going to therapy, like troubled couples. “I remember thinking, that’s the most Silicon Valley thing ever,” he says. But what did they have to lose? The two booked an appointment.

Cofounder therapy belongs to a long tradition of self-betterment in Silicon Valley, alongside mindfulness meditation and intermittent fasting. But it has rapidly become more mainstream after a stressful pandemic year, which drove many more founders into therapy sessions.

Laura Kasper, a psychologist in San Francisco, noticed a significant uptick in cofounder clients during the pandemic, when external stressors made startup life even more intense. “The majority were in crisis,” she says. Communication issues magnified when conversations were limited to email and Zoom. Power struggles, one of the most common problems among founding teams, were exacerbated by an onslaught of new business decisions, like whether to pivot.

Reid Hoffman has likened running a startup to “throwing yourself off a cliff and assembling an airplane on the way down.” Elon Musk has compared it to “eating glass.” But many founders still underestimate the challenges that come from working alongside another person, day in and day out, with a kind of intimacy often reserved for marriages. Noam Wasserman, who spoke to thousands of founders when writing his 2012 book The Founder's Dilemmas, estimated at the time that 65 percent of startups fail because of cofounder conflict.

Those conflicts only intensified under the stresses of last year’s lockdowns. “If there was anger and resentment that wasn’t being addressed, that really started to show up more intensely,” says Matthew Jones, a psychologist and creator of the Cofounder Clarity Coaching Method. “I saw several partnerships that, in different circumstances, may have been able to last a bit longer.” Much like the rash of pandemic breakups, Jones says, the pandemic didn’t cause conflicts between cofounders so much as bring existing ones to the surface. Since colleagues are generally less likely to talk about their feelings than couples, those tensions drove a number of exasperated clients into his virtual office.

Jones charges a $2,000 monthly retainer to help his cofounder clients “leverage self-awareness” in their decisionmaking. While the work is distinct from executive coaching or couples therapy, he brings a similar emphasis on trust-building and communication. “Most business-related disagreements are actually due to unaddressed emotional difficulties,” he says. “I teach cofounders the art of navigating conflict by slowing down and really listening to each other in a way that helps one another feel heard and understood.”

It can feel a little woo-woo, but some swear by it. One startup founder told me that simple exercises, like repeating back what his cofounder had said to him before responding, had likely saved his business relationship. “If you think about startup culture, there’s a premium on speed,” he said. “This is getting us to slow down deliberately.” As helpful as his sessions were, he wasn’t sure the startup community would look favorably upon those practices. He and his cofounder spoke to me on the condition of anonymity, because they are raising their Series B and don’t want to alienate investors. “Going to therapy,” the founder told me, “suggests there is a problem.”

Indeed, Kasper says her clients are almost always in “crisis mode” by the time they seek her out. “People wait until it’s already bad,” she says. “Cofounders typically come to me with one question on their mind: Should I stay or should I go?” Jones says it’s normal for founders to “regret choosing their cofounder in moments of distress,” but he says coaching can help redirect some of the anguish away from each other. “The fantasy of choosing a different partner is a symbolic desire for relief—not a sign the partnership is doomed.”

Other services seek to meet founders before they’re at each other’s throats. Eric Friedman, a former founder and investor, developed a tool last year called Tapestry to guide cofounders through their individual strengths, weaknesses, and reasons for creating a company together. “In investor-speak, it's about exits,” says Friedman, but founders usually have different guiding lights. “Is this a stepping stone to like, do something else? Is this your life's work?”

For $200, founders can access Friedman’s template to explore their startup “superpowers,” their strategies for managing conflict, and their expectations for the future, including the likely scenario that their venture will fail. “Some people have said, ‘I don’t want to do trust falls in the forest. I want to grind away and build something,’” he says. “But you spend all day every day with your cofounder. Wouldn’t you like to know how they like to process a problem?”

Of course, trust falls and therapy cannot solve many of the existential problems startups face. One founder, who asked to remain anonymous, told me that counseling failed to address what he saw as the real problems in his startup, including a lack of funding and poor market fit. He believed that the startup’s bank account—not his communication style—was in need of immediate attention. Kasper says her role is not to solve business problems, but relationship ones. “I can help them deescalate, listen to each other, and make a good decision about whether they should move forward as partners or not,” she says. “I’m their relationship adviser, not their business adviser.”

For Chaisanguanthum and Damm, nearly a year of cofounder therapy revealed that they had different expectations for the company, and for their relationship. Chaisanguanthum felt that the sessions provided a space “where we could believe we were being heard by each other, in good faith.” Damm, on the other hand, didn’t feel that he accomplished much. “In hindsight,” he says, “I don't feel cofounder coaching was a good use of my time and money, and I would not do it again.” In the end, they split up; Damm left the company at the end of 2020.

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