A business school professor who studied 20,000 startup founders says 'going ugly' can be the key to a successful partnership — or marriage

Strelka Institute/FlickrDon’t avoid tough conversations — ‘going ugly’ benefits all parties in a relationship.
  • Most of us try to avoid tough conversations, but the most successful people tackle awkward subjects head on.
  • A professor who studied 20,000 startup founders said “going ugly” and addressing uncomfortable issues can help you both in the business world and in romantic relationships.
  • From planning for the departure of a company’s cofounder to drawing up a prenuptial agreement, “going ugly” tends to benefit all parties in the long run.

It’s human nature to want to avoid tough conversations.

But the most successful people know that skirting around uncomfortable subjects just makes things worse in the long run.

That’s what Noam Wasserman, a professor of clinical entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California, discovered after almost 20 years of studying 20,000 startup founders.

Wasserman wrote about the lessons he learned from his research in The Wall Street Journal on Sunday, and he said they apply to both business and life itself.

The professor wrote that the best startup founders he studied had a tendency to approach tough discussions head on – “going ugly,” as he calls it.

“In a hypercompetitive environment, there is little wiggle room for balky products or ineffective team members,” Wasserman wrote for The Journal. “As a result, the best founders move quickly to identify and deal with any problem areas they see, despite the natural inclination to avoid tension-filled issues.”


Read more:
How to successfully have a difficult conversation with your boss

In one case he studied, two of the three cofounders of a software startup had doubts that the third founder would remain with the company. The third founder had just become a father, and they suspected he might take his ownership stake in the startup and leave for a more stable job, leaving the company unable to attract a good replacement.

To cover their bases, the founders “went ugly” and drafted a plan about what would happen in such a scenario.

“It was a tough conversation, but it paid off,” Wasserman wrote. “When the new father decided that he couldn’t found a venture while founding a family, the company had a deal ready to go. The co-founders reclaimed his ownership stake, used his shares to lure a replacement executive and, down the road, attracted a buyer.”

But “going ugly” is more than just good business advice – it can help in personal relationships, too.

Wasserman said one of his students had a habit of “going ugly” on first dates, refusing to tiptoe around awkward topics like income prospects and where he wants to live.

Prenuptial agreements are another example of how “going ugly” can benefit both parties in a relationship.

“Just as in the entrepreneurial world, agreements like these can strengthen relationships by surfacing issues early, revealing people’s true intentions and motivations and clarifying expectations while adjustments can still be made easily,” Wasserman said.

Read the full Wall Street Journal article here »

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