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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