Relationship management

How to deal with a sales cofounder?


December 30th, 2020

I am struggling with working with my cofounder. We met at a previous company and worked well together, which is why we decided to start this venture, a tech company. We are 50/50 in equity. He has a sales background and initially listed himself as CEO with the intention of being just that: the CEO. I was put as COO.

We initially spent a lot of time working together and it became quickly apparent that he has to be the star of the show but also doesn’t have the attention to detail, management style, or planning/vision nature to truly lead the business. In fact, during most meetings, once the topic shifts beyond initial pitch, changes to “how,” and focuses on me, he zones out entirely or begins having other conversations (and this happens on Zoom calls and is witnessed by 3rd parties). However, due to his insistence on being CEO he wanted to try to help and contribute to everything non-sales related (which I am primarily responsible for out of necessity). This led to lots of fights. Additionally, when we meet with prospective investors or advisors, he takes credit for everything, minimizing the contributions of others, and boasts about the strength of his network/relationships (always seeming to be “good friends” with anyone that is mentioned we should seek out). I understand that this is in his nature after spending 20 years in sales. But I also see that it rubs others the wrong way.

A couple of months ago, we discussed this and he told me that he is better suited to lead the organization than me (because his sales background helps him move the needle better) and that he doesn’t need me. This hurt, as I feel like I am the one actually driving us forward.

Recently, I pitched a penetration plan to him and he thought it was an awesome idea. We reached out to others about it and were tasked with creating a proposal- unfortunately, though, he had zoned out by the end of the meeting . Marketing built the proposal with me and we presented it to him for feedback. He proceeded to have side conversations during the meeting and asked us to wait to discuss for over 10 minutes. He finally became seemingly present, and rejected the proposal without reading it. Marketing pressed him why and he left the call.

Since then, he has now “gone rogue“, refuses to speak to me (telling me we should be separated for a while), calls me a bully for “dominating calls”, and has completely blocked out his calendar. He refuses to share client contact information with the rest of the organization and has resorted to texting the prospective clients instead of emailing them.

I am concerned that this behavior in a startup environment is extremely childish and is going to doom the potential success of the organization. I believe that this is happening in an attempt to “prove” that he knows best and should be in charge. I worry that all of the hard work we have put in is going to be undermined by his ego.

Does anyone have any advice on how to help him see the light or what I should do next? I appreciate any insights. Thanks!

Satwik Bardhan Founder CEO, Advisor & VC

Last updated on January 1st, 2021

He's demonstrating a narcissistic personality which is not the skill you need at the top. At this moment, it's obvious that he's acting less in the interest of the company or product you're creating and more for his glory. And he's demonstrating this behavior mostly out of incompetence. Several factors will determine what your potential options are.

How big is your team currently? Is your business registered ? Have you engaged your advisors to address the situation yet?

Paul Garcia marketing exec & business advisor

January 2nd, 2021

It sounds like a common problem where a 50/50 split was not the best decision. Title inflation is also a common problem. Just because you're first or in-charge does not make a person the C-level anything. Maybe the founder, but C-level titles mean something SPECIFIC. They engender specific sets of business skills and experience that others will expect from those roles. CEO is not merely the one in-charge.

As for what to do, it sounds like you may need to dissolve your partnership. What method of separation did you put into your operating agreement? He's deliberately sabotaging the business, and unless he can change his behavior immediately, it will only destroy the business over time.

Do you have access to any of the people he likes and respects? Can you enlist them for help in corralling him into more professional behavior?

I'm sorry to hear this happened to you. A co-founder must share an IDENTICAL vision for the company. Vision is the ideal experience of your product/company by customers, both external and internal. It is not simply a meshing of complimentary skills. Without that identically shared vision, this break-down tends to happen and wrecks a lot of start-ups.

Good luck.