Have a co-founder? Don't let these 7 toxic scenarios poison you.

How we try to anticipate tensions between us.

Nov 22, 2017

You’ve finally found the ultimate co-founder. They’re smart, they deliver, and they have impressive experience. What can go wrong?

Well, it seems A LOT can go DREADFULLY WRONG.

Your friends probably have horrific co-founding stories. Your lawyer has more. And the Internet can inspire infinite nightmares.

– Ok, let’s review Catastrophic Scenario #27
– The kraken attack?

So before starting our first company together, we (Julien and Bastien) tried to identify what we were up against.

We wanted to find the situations that could cause tension between us, and discuss them way before they could divide us and compromise the company.

Here are the 7 toxic scenarios we currently want to avoid the most:


Scenario #1: Burnout

We tend to be enthusiastic and work long hours. But pushing ourselves too hard is not sustainable in the long run. It can lead to burnout.

How we prevent it:

  • Define realistic monthly and weekly objectives.
  • Don’t try to “outperform” our co-founder with crazy hours.
  • Put things in perspective. We want to do great work, but no client is going to die if we ship a feature one week late.

How we see it coming:

  • Raise the question of workload during our Monthly Retrospective.

How we react if it happens:

  • Mandatory vacation!

Scenario #2: Missing our revenue targets

We’re bootstrapping and don’t generate enough for salaries yet. Not being able to pay ourselves for too long would compromise everything.

How we see it coming:

  • Look at our own sales graphs in CashNotify. 😇

How we prevent it:

  • Follow our KPIs. Each action needs to impact a KPI.

How we react if it happens:

  • Fiscal year 1: Live on our savings.
  • Fiscal year 2: Take freelance missions to pay the bills.

Scenario #3: Decline in job satisfaction

We did not start a company to become millionaires or die trying. We did it to support ourselves with meaningful creative work. If we become unhappy, we’re free to decide to move on.

How we see it coming:

  • Work becomes boring. 

How we prevent it:

  • Talk about our own satisfaction at our creative retreats every 3 months.
  • Allow ourselves to pick fun tasks, even if they’re not the highest priority.

How we react if it happens:

  • If it’s only been a few weeks: suck it up, it will pass.
  • If it’s more serious, we could put one project on hold. Or look for help on a difficult topic. Or take a short break.

Scenario #4: Unbalanced effort

If one of us invests more time and effort, the situation can become unfair.

How we see it coming:

  • One of us makes a lot of promises, but has no results.
  • One of us is much less available or online, without warning beforehand.

How we prevent it:

  • Agree on a workload that we’re both comfortable with.
  • Accept short-term imbalances. It’s normal that one of us has less mojo for a few weeks. Or is on holiday.

How we react if it happens:

  • We talk.
  • If one of us has less time to invest for an extended period, we can imagine setting different salaries to compensate.

Scenario #5: Unexpressed tensions

It’s easy to start imagining negative intentions. Especially under stress, fatigue, and when money is involved.

How we see it coming:

  • We find ourselves imagining that the other is doing X on purpose, avoiding to do Y, refusing to do Z.

How we prevent it:

  • Consider the other as benevolent by default.
  • Express any resentment before giving it time to build up.

How we react if it happens:

  • We talk.

Scenario #6: Creative disagreement

We both have our own design and writing style. One of us should not have the impression that he has to compromise too often.

How we see it coming:

  • One of us gets frustrated.

How we prevent it:

  • We explain the reasoning behind what we’re proposing.
  • We’re quick to admit when the other has better arguments, without placing any pride in “being right”.

How we react if it happens:

  • Specify who has creative control over each project.

Scenario #7: Full-blown conflict

This new adventure can become stressful. There might be strong divergences in opinion between us. And this could divide us or even damage our friendship.

How we see it coming:

  • We resent our collaboration and start to dislike working together.
  • We disagree about the direction the company should be going.

How we prevent it:

  • We talk.
  • Creative retreats every 3 months to decide on strategy together.

How we react if it happens:

  • Put everything on hold except support requests.
  • Take a one-month break before making more big decisions.
  • Eventually one of us may have to leave the company.


Why creating this list was helpful

1- It forced us to review important questions

We had to discuss topics we don’t usually bring up. It’s easy to focus on work and forget to ask: “Why are we doing this?” or “Is anything bothering you?”.

2- It became a commitment

We take some of these topics more seriously now that we we’ve listed them as threats to the company.

3- It made us stronger

Having discussed these situations in advance helps us see them coming. And address them.

Our shareholder’s pact is just a larger collection of scenarios we want to avoid, written in fancy legal jargon. 


What are YOUR toxic scenarios?

Our experience

We’re sharing our own examples here. It’s the result of our objectives, personalities, and the fact that we know each other really well.

In August 2017, we bootstrapped our own company dedicated to creating projects like CashNotify. It’s our full-time job.

But we had a long history before this, since we:

  • built projects together as students.
  • worked 2 years for the same web agency.
  • worked 7 years for a startup (respectively as COO and Product Director).
  • were roommates for 1.5 years in India where we managed a dev team.
  • built experiments like InviteRobot to confirm we could create value when we didn’t have a team of engineers/designers.
  • had already launched CashNotify in June 2017.

This means that when we decided to become co-founders, we already:

  • trusted each other.
  • knew what we were good/bad at.
  • had gone through many challenges together.
  • knew we could strongly criticize each other without ever “blowing up”.

Your experience

Some ideas of questions to start identifying your own toxic scenarios:

  • How many hours per week do you expect to work?
  • How many months could you go without a salary?
  • What would make you unhappy?
  • What are you absolutely not ready to compromise on?
  • What’s the worst that can happen?

They are even more important if you have a spouse who will need to support your plan. Or a family to provide for.



We like what Charlie Munger calls “thinking backward”:

A lot of success in life and business comes from knowing what you want to avoid: early death, a bad marriage, etc. […] Figure out what you don’t want and avoid it and you’ll get what you do want. 
— Charlie Munger

With our toxic scenarios, we’re doing exactly that.

The main takeaway was that it outlined how our worst scenarios did not feel unmanageable. As long as we saw them coming early. And talked. 🙂

We hope reading about our experience helps you. If you did something similar when you started, we’d love to hear about it!

You’re welcome to join the conversation on Indie Hackers.


Illustrations by Domitille Camus.