This couples counselor left his job to coach Silicon Valley tech workers — here's why he says a good business partnership should be like a good marriage

Syda Productions/ShutterstockCounseling couples and cofounders is not so different, according to executive coach and former couples therapist Cameron Yarbrough.
  • Cameron Yarbrough said when he worked as a couples counselor in San Francisco, he would see a lot of tech company cofounders seeking help in their relationships.
  • The parallels between counseling a married couple and a set of cofounders were shocking, Yarbrough said.
  • There’s one key way in which a business partnership is like a marriage, according to Yarbrough. Both pairs should aim for having “symmetrical values” and “complementary skills.”

Cameron Yarbrough was working as a couples counselor in San Francisco when he started booking appointments with a new type of client: would-be tech startup founders who were trying to launch the next billion-dollar company together.

The fit made sense, according to Yarbrough. Couples counseling is typically more affordable than individual therapy, because two people split the bill, and startup cofounders are typically eager to save money.

“The pricing was right,” Yarbrough said, and the “expertise” of his clinic was the closest fit they could find to mediate the differences between business partners experiencing conflict.

In 2014, Yarbrough left his job running a mental health clinic in San Francisco to become a full-time executive coach. He meets with tech founders, CEOs, and billionaires to develop their soft skills, like stress management, empathy, and conflict resolution, that help these managers be more effective leaders in and out of the office.

Over the years, his clients have included Reddit CEO Steve Huffman and Atrium CEOJustin Kan, best known as the cofounder of Amazon’s Twitch. Now, the tech icons are pouring money into Yarbrough’s new business venture.

Yarbrough heads up a company called Torch that provides leadership development for managers through personalised coaching. Torch has just closed $US2 million in funding from investors including Alexis Ohanian’s Initialized Capital, as well as Huffman and Kan themselves.

The relationship cycle is the same

Yarbrough told Business Insider that at first he was “shocked” by the parallels of counseling couples and cofounders.

Both clients go through the same stages of a relationship, he said. There’s a honeymoon phase, when the pair sees “only the good in each other,” followed by adolescence, when they “start to see their warts, their vulnerabilities, their weaknesses,” Yarbrough said.

The couples and cofounders who reach the final “mature” stage of a relationship have learned how to communicate in a way that works for them, how to have healthy conflict, and how to repair their relationship when conflicts leave damage, according to Yarbrough.

Cameron yarbrough torch ceoCourtesy of Cameron YarbroughCameron Yarbrough is cofounder and CEO of Torch.

Symmetrical values, complementary skills

There’s one key way in which a business partnership is like a marriage, he said. Both pairs should aim for having “symmetrical values” and “complementary skills” for a lasting relationship.

A dating couple might have conversations around their spirituality, parenting styles, and their financial goals, which fall in the category of values, to help build the foundation for a stable marriage, as Yarbrough sees it.

Similarly, a set of cofounders will have to agree on their company’s core values, such as integrity and collaboration, which can never be compromised, either for convenience or short-term economic gain, he says.

Couples and cofounders should have different, but complementary, skills, however, according to Yarbrough. In most healthy relationships, each person brings behaviours and strengths that help the couple achieve what could not be done separately. Sometimes this is expressed as a division of labour, where one person takes on a project while the other provides support for that person’s success.

Most startups have a founding team that includes people with sharp technical skills and people who have expertise in business development, sales, and marketing, for example. This makes it easier when it comes time to divide responsibilities, because the cofounders fall naturally into the roles they know and do best and bring their own perspectives to solving problems they encounter.

No two couples or sets of cofounders are alike, Yarbrough said. But they might be more like the other than they first think.

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