Over the past 11 years, I’ve been involved with 3 start-ups:

  1. In 1999, while working for PricewaterhouseCoopers, a co-worker and I designed and built StockTipster.com, a site where people could submit stock tips and we would track success/fail rates – and assign reputation points to the best “tipsters”. With the NASDAQ crash in April 2001, so went StockTipster.com.
  2. In 2007, while on vacation in Maui, my beloved partner and I conceived of a realtor reputation system called What-Customers-Say.com (still technically live but not ‘alive’), where clients of realtors could rate their experiences – good or bad. Unfortunately, as a group, realtors don’t want their clients being honest about their experiences, so our target customers were ultimately against us.
  3. In July 2010, Joanna and I decided to build Page99Test.com, another user feedback system – this time targeted at aspiring writers – that enables readers to rate the quality of writing from a single page of a manuscript (you guessed it… page 99). We sincerely hope it’s a success story in the making…

In those 11 years, probably the biggest challenge for me, as an entrepreneur-in-training, has been working through disagreements between co-founders. It’s something that all co-founders will eventually face, so the goal should not be to avoid the inevitable, but to handle it in a way where everyone walks away feeling heard and supportive of the decision.

Compounding the challenge for me is the fact that my co-founder in 2 of the 3 above ventures is also my amazing partner in life, Joanna. And while many of you may have decided to part ways as start-up co-founders due to a conflict – and this is certainly an option even for life partners who run a business together – dealing with a business casualty can add significant strain to what is otherwise a loving personal relationship.

This post is about reflecting back on what has worked for me and what hasn’t, but I am most interested to read your suggestions for how to do it better.

Here are the most common conflict resolution options and outcomes in my own experience:

Option #1: Game of Chance

It’s possible to resolve a conflict using some form of chance, such as flipping a coin or playing ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’.

  • Pros: Quick, easy to implement (providing both parties agree to use this form of conflict resolution).
  • Cons: It’s kind of like throwing your arms up – or giving up on your point of view without a fight.

Option #2: Art of Persuasion

This is where one co-founder tries to convince the other to come around on their point of view, and vice versa. From my experience, the intensity of the conversation can vary between completely calm and over-the-top-crazy-with-emotion (the former usually resulting in a better outcome for all). The key here is to really listen to the other party. You don’t get to speak until the other person has stated her point of view – and listening doesn’t mean formulating your response in your head as the other person speaks. You may also agree in advance that whoever feels strongest about the issue is the person whose solution is implemented, but this is easier said than done.

  • Pros: Likely more effective than flipping a coin because reason is used, both parties can come away feeling good about the solution.
  • Cons: Can be an exercise in debating skills, really only works if both co-founders are open to listening.

Option #3: Tell It to the Judge (or Democracy Rules)

If there are three co-founders and two are not in agreement, then the third can be the tie breaker, although the perception of alliances can create different problems for a team. A better option may be to present both sides of a conflict to someone who can act as a mediator and a judge – whereby both parties present their ‘case’ and then the judge makes her decision.

  • Pros: You’re not trying to convince each other, so it’s less of a debate.
  • Cons: It may be just as difficult to agree on an impartial judge.

Option #4: Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

It sounds extreme, but it happens. A conflict about one thing can be the symptom of a much bigger issue, and if neither co-founder is willing to give or explore other options for resolving the conflict, then sometimes this is the only possible solution.

  • Pros: No more conflicts to resolve.
  • Cons: Is holding onto your point of view really worth dropping a great business idea over?

I’ve tried the first three options with varying degrees of success, and for me, no one method of conflict resolution has worked consistently well. Yet option #2 is still probably my favourite because it usually results in both parties feeling pretty good about the solution – but it all rides on how well you listen and your ability to keep pride out of the discussion.

What little tricks for resolving conflicts have worked for you in your start-up? Any disaters?