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  • Writer's pictureNaëtt Atkinson

What divorce mediation taught me about founder fallout

I remember the session I decided to stop doing divorce mediations. The couple in front of me was arguing about who was going to walk the dog.... Of course it is never really about the dog and I knew that, but that was the moment for me.

I've done more than a hundred divorce mediations and I didn't stop doing them because I found the emotions too much, the people too difficult, the process too unbearable. I stopped because I found it petty and yet I will probably do it all over again for the learning curve!

When the chips are down in a relationship or partnership and you feel that you have to fight for everything you want, or fight because you have nothing left to lose, people hook into emotional states, behaviours and thought patterns that often leave bystanders in disbelief.

Here are 6 things I learned from divorce mediations that help me read the dynamics when founders want to part ways:

1. Generally one partner is further out the door than the other.

This was clear to see when a couple sat down in front of me. One person might be trying to reconcile or find a way to reconnect or be more focussed on the past and what would be lost, whereas the other party had clearly started a new life with new possibilities - sometimes a new love - even if it was just in their imagination at that stage. They were adamant that too much water had gone under the bridge and there was no going back.

You do get the rare occasion where both parties are in full agreement that their relationship was done, what they wanted as the most amicable and reasonable solution and in the case of children what would be in the best interest of the children.

At Let's Resolve we often help one founder find the best way to negotiate an exit strategy. Sometimes the other founder is aware that an exit is on the table, often not, but when a founder finally comes to me, I know that their head had shifted a long time ago. For founders the new life/ or love is often a new business and the kids the current business.

2. What is this actually about?

It is seldom about the dog or the kids or the money. It is actually about the underlying dynamics of control, power, attention, anger, retribution, punishment. One of my favourite questions is: "Why does this matter?" it holds the clue to the real interests and motivation of the parties.

Founders who are splitting up have the same dynamics at play. It is also a lot trickier and more emotionally loaded if you life partner and business partner is the same person.

3. You don't wake up one day and think "This is a good day for a divorce."

For research into my divorce preparation offering I asked a pool of 60 people who had been divorced or left their partners, how long it took them from the first time they thought about it seriously and not in anger, to the time they actually left. In not one single case was the answer " a couple of days". Generally it takes years from knowing that you want out, to actually getting out.The saddest answer was from a woman in her early seventies who said 30years! The reasons for staying when we know we actually don't want to be there, is a whole different blog.

In my experience it is the same for founders. Most founders have been thinking of getting out and leaving the partnership long before they actually do. I don't think founders have 30 years, the whole ecosystem moves way quicker than that but I have yet to come across a founder who left completely out of the blue without any premeditation.

4. The things that bothered you throughout your relationship are probably what brought you to this point

A very long time ago I read an article that stated that if you can't resolve your recurring arguments in the first year of your relationship, that is what you will argue about for the duration of your relationship. Most couples have a recurring theme they argue about. Money, time, respect, chores, parenting, habits etc.

Similar is true for founders. Arguments about equity split, effort, care and closeness, power dynamics, ways of working, commitment, cash flow, direction are fault-lines and these often get more pronounced during the split.

5. Money matters

Divorce isn't all about money but it certainly matters and sometimes a great deal. Mediations can go smoothly and then we get to talk money.... How much, for how long, split in how many ways? Who made it, who deserves it, who gets to keep it. What is fair, what is not vs what does the law and the contract say? Who fights harder for it, who plays dirtier to keep it? However, money is also an exchange for power, control, punishment, need, want, settlement of guilt, commitment to responsibilities, show of generosity and reasonableness.

Money seems to play a bigger role when founders split. Maybe because a marriage has different connection points than building a business, I don't know. Who put what in, whose idea was it, who executed, is it enough to start again, what is a share worth, who wants to leave, who wants to stay. Is there anything left after we paid all our debtors, SARS and our lawyers?

6. A good prenup saves a lot of time and energy

A good prenup doesn't safeguard you against loss and heartache. It doesn't mean that your divorce is going to be easy and equanimous with no curved balls but it certainly reminds you of what you agreed to when things were rosy and can instantly recalibrate your expectations in case you had forgotten.

Most founders have a term/cap sheet and sometimes a basic contract or MOU. They don't have a prenup. I think a "Prenup for a Start-up" would be brilliant. It can work because a good prenup deals with more than just numbers. It deals with the people, the business and the future. A good prenup can save a lot of time, money and frustration if you see a different future for yourself and want to have a smooth exit.

Which leaves me with:

Partnerships and marriages are not that different. Both have people, commitment to a goal, a shared vision, interactions. People have needs, wants and desires in business and personal relationships. They want a reason for being, power or control, care and closeness, a goal and a vision and someone to share these with or not and if these ideals get thwarted it can get messy.

People change and move on and that is ok. What matters is the way in which they do it.

At Let's Resolve we help people move on with dignity and mutual respect intact. You can book a session here:

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