Creating a startup from scratch by yourself is tough, no debate. Naturally, startup founders gravitate toward finding co-founders to help share the load. You’ve spent months prowling online boards, networking in communities (maybe even IndieHackers), and undergone an exhaustive interview process. But it’s all paid off: 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.

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 seven 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 Some time off gives us space to clear our heads, and focus on fulfilling the personal progress that we’ve delayed for work.

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 (Key Performance Indicators). 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, monotonous, or feels too much like a chore.

How we prevent it:

  • Talk about our own satisfaction at our creative retreats every three 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. Anything that might push the project forward and help us re-evaluate our efforts on that project.

Scenario #4: Unbalanced effort.

If one of us invests more time and effort than the other, 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. (Also helps with burnout!)
  • 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. (You’ll notice this reaction comes up a lot in this article; we value communication and honesty very highly; it’s vital that you and your co-founder stay open and communicative during both the easy and the rough patches of your journey.)
  • 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. We are both human, so this kind of tension is bound to bubble up eventually.

How we see it coming:

  • We find ourselves imagining that the other is doing X on purpose to hurt us, avoiding doing Y because it’s uncomfortable, refusing to do Z and not saying anything.

How we prevent it:

  • Consider the other as benevolent by default. Neither of us wants to see this business fail, and to think that the other is doing these things purposefully is ridiculous.
  • Express any resentment before giving it time to build up. Nip the bud off the toxicity, as it were.

How we react if it happens:

  • We talk. And we make sure to speak to each other with respect and understanding.

Scenario #6: Creative disagreement.

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

How we see it coming:

  • One of us gets frustrated with the philosophy, direction, or style or the project.

How we prevent it:

  • We explain the reasoning behind what we're proposing, while keeping an open ear to valid criticisms.
  • 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.
  • Understand that creative difference is a simple truth of working with anybody, and to not take it personally.

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 if we aren’t careful and respectful.

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. (Remember, vital!)
  • We hold a creative retreat every three months to decide on strategy together.

How we react if it happens:

  • Put everything on hold except support requests. This should lessen our workload so we can get our house in order.
  • Take a one-month break before making more big decisions. More space to think and some time to cool off should lead to more respectful discourse.
  • Eventually one of us may have to leave the company. If things get dire, it is a unfortunate reality that one of us may have to leave the company, despite not wanting to.

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’ve listed them as threats to the company. Without this list, we could suffer from “out of sight, out of mind” syndrome.

3. It made us stronger.

Having discussed these situations in advance helps us see them coming, and address them before they poison our efforts.

4. It helped us draft legal documents.

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 two years for the same web agency.
  • worked seven years for a startup (respectively as COO and Product Director).
  • were roommates for one-and-a-half 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”.

You might not have these advantages with your new co-founder. Taking the time to find out more about your co-founder can help smooth over the bumpy process of becoming co-workers.

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 list, 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, IndieHackers. If you did something similar when you started, we’d love to hear about it! Leave a comment below and share your experiences with the IndieHackers community!

Illustrations by Domitille Camus.