How to avoid conflict with your business partner

Is your business partner from another planet? When companies are growing fast, pressures can bring personal differences to the surface, and these can become major disagreements. In the following piece, Stefano Maifreni SEMBA2012 shares his thoughts on these questions. How do you prepare for conflict, and deal with it in a professional way?

Experience has brought me into contact with many start-ups in different disciplines (strategy, product marketing and business development to name a few). I’ve also worked at different stages of product development, from the birth of an idea through to looking for growth capital to bring it to market on a major scale. I’ve witnessed the rollercoaster of emotions this brings a small business owner.

It’s easy for the excitement to take over when starting out. Targets, finances, campaigns, spreadsheets and regular business issues are vital. But all this activity can mask significant differences between a company’s co-founders.

It’s crucial not to neglect the personal and emotional side of your business, and to consider how the company’s founders are feeling about how things are going and about each other.

Let’s explore four key areas where differences can put a strain on working together.

1) Different dreams

What does each of the founders want in five, 10 or 25 years? To change the world or to get acquired by a large player and exit with wads of cash?

It’s important to be on the same page from Day One. Having different business goals will lead to conflict and seriously affect the company’s direction.

An outside expert can provide a listening ear, work to create a common objective at the outset, and provide a strong sense of direction and purpose.

2) Different geographies

Your team’s proximity to each other is directly linked to the ability to manage expectations.

The people that live and work in the same place can meet, discuss and make decisions – often in a spontaneous way. But remote colleagues can feel excluded from the decision-making process.

Even with the latest tech offerings, face-to-face communication is always better in this scenario. It’s easy to misunderstand the tone of an email and miscommunications can have disruptive effects and erode trust.

Remote partnerships can succeed with good communications, equal input from everyone, and regular calls. Sometimes decisions need taking quickly, so the remote partner needs to make herself/himself easy to contact – or delegate some decisions.

3) Clear decision making

Often, friends go into business together and find it can be difficult to enjoy the same strength of relationship at a professional level.

It’s important to have a structure in place, to define how to make decisions and what to do in case of disagreements. Formulating a shareholders’ agreement at the outset is fundamental.

Think about what can go wrong and add it to the agreement. If things are working you’ll never have to read it again. But if things become challenging, the agreement is essential. I know of co-founders who have an equal share of the company but no shareholders’ agreement. They were unable to decide if and how they should bring their start-up to the next level, and lacked the legal ground to unlock this difficult situation either way.

4) Different levels of resilience

Disagreements can drain the life out of people, and early enthusiasm can ebb away.

Even in healthy and active working relationships, sooner or later, you’ll disagree. This is usually amplified by stress, workload, lack of sleep… and is ultimately governed by each person’s level of resilience.

Here is where points one to three come together. Primarily, you need to have a deep respect for each other, patience and an understanding of each other’s skills, roles, and experience. Sometimes a decision is more to do with the other person’s side of the business. Sometimes you just have to ‘let things go’, while the other person does the same on points that matter most to you.

In short, these things are worth considering seriously before you take the next step in any new start-up business or offshoot operation.

I would strongly urge anyone in this situation to get a sympathetic expert to work alongside everyone to agree to some helpful ground rules. It doesn’t have to be a dry, awkward, clinical experience but is a good way of thrashing out important details before politics or other problems rear their ugly heads.

Ground rules will give everyone added confidence as you move forwards. Over time, they’ll effectively serve as that grounded and sensible voice in the boardroom that everyone can count on for impartial guidance.

Without thinking ahead, that first rush of enthusiasm that got your company started could disappear as quickly as it arrived.

About the author: An engineer by education, product manager by role and expert at achieving growth by career, Stefano has an outstanding track record in strategy, operations, product and business development, with extensive P&L management and international expansion experience.

His professional journey includes Senior Manager roles in global Blue-chip companies, Growing Businesses and Startups in technology-intensive and innovative industries (IT, Technology Manufacturing, Drones, IoT, Insure/FinTech, Immersive Theatre).

Stefano is an Executive MBA graduate of the London Business School, a published author (Forbes, The Guardian, and various SME-focused publications), and a regular speaker and moderator at AI-, IoT- and Blockchain-related events in London and Milan.

In 2014, he founded Eggcelerate to help Founders of ambitious B2B start-ups gain a position in the market and deliver upon investors’ expectations from post-seed to Series-A.