What Should You Do If Your Co-Founder Is A Jerk?

This post was originally published in Japanese on The Bridge.

A lot of people that worked with Steve Jobs seemed to think that he was a jerk. Yet, he became wildly successful. Jerks can surprise you sometimes. But does that mean that you should work with a jerk?

If you start a company with someone who turns out to be a colossal jerk, here is what you need to think about. As a co-founder, this person is likely going to have to deal with investors when you are trying to raise money. He may have to meet with customers or build relationships with potential partners. He may have to help with hiring. These interactions require a certain level of likability to get anything done. So if his role requires any human interaction, being a jerk is likely going to hold the company back.

But what if the jerk co-founder is absolutely brilliant in a very niche technical field that is critical to the business? In that case, you may have to make an exception. But tread carefully. As this person is an early member, he or she is going to be an instrumental part in forming the company culture, so whether to keep this person largely depends on the extent of their damage. How is their personality going to impact hiring and retention? Are people going to avoid joining because of them, or leave after they’ve had to work with them? Are they going to have a gravitational pull for hiring more jerks? Are they going to create a toxic work environment where everyone is unhappy and nothing ever gets done? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” then there is probably no hope. Leave, have them leave, or shut it down, because it is likely to always be a bottleneck.  Otherwise, it may work, but this person may have to be confined to the technical side and work independently as much as possible.

The other thing to consider is your co-founder relationship. If you already think this person is a jerk, then you may have a deeper problem. Maybe he’s a jerk, or maybe you’re actually the jerk. The point is that if you already think he is a jerk then it is just going to get worse. It is only a matter of time before the relationship blows up. Are you going to be able to put up with this person through the late nights and stressful times, for the next 5 – 10 years, with no guarantee of a big pay day? Because that is the reality that you face.

Perhaps you know your co-founder is a jerk, but you actually get along. You understand each other, respect each other, and you think his heart is in the right place. If that is the case, then it may work, but you still have to consider their impact on company culture. As long as their damage is limited, and they make up for it in other areas, then it is not necessarily cancerous. It may just be a tumor that you can live with and still be successful.

From a personal standpoint, some of the most successful people I have known have also tended to be the most kind and gracious. Maybe they weren’t always like that. Maybe they’ve finally made it and now they’ve loosened up. Maybe kindness does not cause success. But to me, it certainly seems to correlate with it.  

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