Co-founder therapy teaches tech bros how to be in their feelings

A year in, Keegan Walden and Cameron Yarbrough discovered just how tough long-distance relationships could be. Yarbrough wanted Walden to move from Buffalo to San Francisco as soon as possible. He was shouldering all of the day-to-day responsibilities in the Bay Area, and needed the support of his partner. But for Walden, relocating across the country wasn’t easy. For one, he’d have to pull his kids out of school. It would happen eventually, but how soon was “eventually”?

The two talked on the phone every day, but they could never come up with a firm move date. The situation threatened to derail everything they’d worked so hard to create: Torch, a scalable coaching platform for business leaders. Walden and Yarbrough are not in a romantic relationship, but they’re just as committed to each other: they’re co-founders. And for this CEO and COO, they work through their issues the same way a lot of couples handle their problems: with therapy.

Luckily, co-founder therapy teaches startup bros about a new kind of growth: emotional. Walden and Yarbrough had been going since they founded the company, and they immediately knew their situation called for professional help. During their next therapy session, they gingerly worked out a compromise: Walden agreed to move a bit earlier than he’d originally wanted to. Yarbrough conceded that it didn’t have to happen immediately. They’d made it through a rough patch and were now stronger than ever. It was a breakthrough.

Today, co-founder therapy has shifted from a squishy emotional outlet to a necessary leadership tool, adopting the language of growth and optimization along the way. As tech leaders struggle with the stresses of running a company, they’re turning to coaches to learn how to work out their differences. “It’s such a unique relationship,” says Sasha Lustgarten, a therapist in San Francisco who specializes in co-founder therapy. “You have higher levels of stress, the buy-in on both sides is financial as well as emotional.”

While this type of counseling risks becoming just another metric that Silicon Valley can measure and track, it’s also providing a much-needed outlet for tech leaders to slow down and listen — even if the reason they’re doing so is largely to help their businesses grow. “As a co-founder CEO, the most important thing to be able to do is scale as a leader,” says Yarbrough. “It’s all about me seeing my own blindspots so my own growth is not stifled. If my growth stops, I become the central limiting factor of my entire company.” It’s the hockey stick curve but for feelings.

San Francisco is — unsurprisingly — ground zero for co-founder therapy, where companies like the Well Clinic specialize in helping leaders grow. Maya Johansson, the Well Clinic’s co-founder and CEO, says when she started the clinic eight years ago, her goal was to make therapy more accessible. “The quest for a therapist is very daunting, and so much of that is scheduling and availability,” she says. “Our population tends to be very busy working and have limited time in their day.”

The Well Clinic’s central office works with roughly 45 clinicians, many of whom specialize in business leaders. Today, the clinic sees about 600 people a week, and nearly 40 percent work in tech. Some, like Walden and Yarbrough, have their companies pay for the sessions, which typically cost between $200 and $250.

Johansson saw early on that the methods she’d learned in couples therapy could easily be applied to co-founders. “Seeing co-founders is not that different from seeing a couple,” she says. “It’s a systems approach. That system can be anything — a family, a workplace, a couple. When people come in for co-founder therapy, usually the issues are very similar to what couples come in for.” She pauses. “Obviously, not the sex.”

Co-founders — like most couples — rarely come in right at the beginning of their relationship. “There’s a honeymoon phase in the first year or two,” Johansson says. People start companies together because they like and respect one another — not necessarily because they’re best friends (although that happens sometimes). Then, often when they’ve raised a round of funding, they start to realize they don’t know each other as well as they thought. A disagreement erupts. They seek help.

The majority of co-founders who come to the Well Clinic are men, as are the majority of tech founders. And while there’s certainly more comfort with therapy-speak now than there used to be, clinicians like Johansson are still careful to couch their words in the language of business and startups. “People feel very comfortable saying, ‘My coach said this or that,’” she says. “It’s so much scarier to say ‘my therapist.’”

Knowing this, Lustgarten (who previously worked at the Well Clinic) begins his first co-founder therapy session by interviewing each founder separately. “It’s still not common to talk about your feelings in a business context,” he says. He’s found people are more willing to open up one-on-one.

Then, he meets with the founders together to talk about what their key stresses are, assess how comfortable they are with conflict, and note any big decisions they might face in the near future. Next, he’ll introduce communication tools to help each party clearly convey how they feel. It’s a stark change of pace from what most co-founders are used to — and likely one that’s needed to develop a personal relationship. “It’s a process of learning more about each other,” Lustgarten says. “A process of slowing things down and really listening, to help rebuild trust, learn to be vulnerable, and share. From there, it’s easier to think about how to address future conflict or tension that emerges.”

It sounds a lot like couples therapy — which makes sense if starting a company with someone is comparable to marrying them. But Lustgarten doesn’t see it that way. “I think a better analogy is co-parenting,” he says. “You don’t have to love each other to be good co-founders. You just have to learn to work well as a team.”

Lustgarten says there’s still some stigma around seeking help in the first place. “The concern from co-founders is what other people would think about them needing to work on their relationship,” he says. “If people think the relationship isn’t good, it’ll impact the business and their ability to get funding. And if you can’t get funding, you’re dead in the water.”

It’s easy to deride co-founder therapy as just another gimmick Silicon Valley has concocted as part of its obsession with growth. But speaking to Walden and Yarbrough, I couldn’t help but reflect on the CEOs I have worked for who could have benefited from a bit of self-reflection.

One of the key issues the pair faced early on was their vastly different ideas of conflict. Yarbrough grew up in a big family; his brothers would fight around the dinner table, then wake up and laugh like normal siblings. Walden, in contrast, grew up with a single mother and no other siblings. He estimates he and his mom have yelled at each other perhaps once in their lives.

These childhood dynamics played out in the co-founders’ relationship: Walden often left tough conversations feeling much more affected than Yarbrough. “What felt like a hard conversation for him, for me, was just absolutely natural,” says Yarbrough. Walden nods. “It’s very easy for me to think about how Cameron runs things and think he is creating all these arguments that don’t need to be there,” he says. “It’s harder for me to see that I’m, in fact, not engaging in conversations that need to be had because of my discomfort with conflict.” They were learning the basics of emotional growth. But in business — particularly in tech — the basics are sorely needed.

Walden and Yarbrough both come from mental health backgrounds and were predisposed to embrace therapy as a business tool. Yet, they see the practice as something all tech leaders should embrace. “The business of running a tech startup is high stress with high expectations,” Walden says. “Working in that environment, it’s inevitable that some of that stress will get expressed in the co-founder relationship. You need some additional layer of support and additional insight to understand how you’re contributing to the tensions because of your history and worldview.” Yarbrough agrees. “Co-founder therapy is really a means to an end,” he says. “The whole concept is to enable founders to become more exceptional leaders.”

It makes sense that he’d say that — since in addition to his startup, Yarbrough co-founded the Well Clinic.

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