Starting a company is really hard. Unreasonable Institute got started under circumstances that are fairly prototypical: we didn’t have salaries for 15 months; we were working 18 hours a day; we had to make a lot of decisions without knowing what we were doing while racing against our quickly depleting savings.

Co-founder conflict is responsible for 65 percent of startup failures. Tweet This Quote

Under this tension, I definitely said hurtful things to my teammates that I didn’t mean. I dropped the ball. I let the team down.

Over the past couple of years, I’ve learned we all fall prey to stress, being overwhelmed, a lack of sleep, and a lack of self-care. In those moments, we sometimes hurt the people we care about the most. According to the author of The Founder’s Dilemma, it turns out that co-founder conflict is responsible for 65 percent of startup failures.

That’s why I think startup founders need to know how to apologize. Here are some tips and tricks I’ve picked up (through both delivering bad apologies and receiving apologies from others that left me unsatisfied).

1. Take 100% responsibility

Unreasonable Institute Board Member and VC Seth Levine coached our team through some internal tensions we had a few years ago. Here’s a pearl of wisdom he shared with us:

“You might ask yourself, ‘Why is it my job to apologize?’ I wasn’t at fault. But a good relationship isn’t one in which both people are 50 percent responsible for the relationship, where they might wait for the other to act. A good relationship is one in which both people are 100% responsible for the relationship. If something is off between the two of you, it’s always your job to do something about it.”

A lot of apologies don’t happen because both people in a conflict think it’s the other person’s job to initiate the healing process. People involved say things like “I apologized first last time!” or “Why should I say I’m sorry? I’m right!” Ultimately, keeping score and being right are far less important than being united. Have no doubt: it’s always your job to apologize first.

Keeping score and being right are far less important than being united. Tweet This Quote

2. Be specific

You’ve got to articulate exactly what action you’re apologizing for. This makes it clear to someone that you get what upset them. Here are some examples of how to be specific in your apology:

  • “I am sorry for not letting you run the meeting.”
  • “I am sorry for getting here late.”
  • “I’m so sorry that I didn’t acknowledge all that you put into it with the board.”

3. Acknowledge the impact of your actions

Sincere remorse requires understanding exactly how your actions affect another person. Here are examples of how to acknowledge someone’s emotions:

  • “I am sorry for not letting you run the meeting. I undermined you in your new leadership position.”
  • “I am sorry for getting here late. I know you have a meeting in 30 minutes and you had a lot of ground you wanted to cover today.”
  • “I’m so sorry that I didn’t acknowledge all that you put into it with the board. You worked so hard on this project and I want you to be recognized for it.”

Co-founder conflict is responsible for 65 percent of startup failures. Tweet This Quote

4. Leave the words “if” and “but” out of your apology

This point is so important that I wanted to explicitly mention it. Here are some bad apologies:

  • “I’m sorry if I made you feel angry”
  • “I’m sorry but you didn’t do a great job.”

These apologies translate to: “I did something I’m fine with having done, and it’s your fault that you have feelings about it.”

A lot of apologies don’t happen because both people in a conflict think it’s the other person’s job to initiate the healing process. Tweet This Quote

If you’re using the words “if” or “but,” you are communicating that the person you’re talking to doesn’t have a right to be mad at you. Maybe you’re right. But conflict will likely persist until you can find a way to recognize the validity of how they are feeling.

5. Make a commitment, even if it’s small

Apologies don’t mean much if you keep repeating the actions that hurt someone. Identifying your hurtful behavior sets you up well to avoid that behavior in the future. Committing, even to a small action, demonstrates your sincerity and reaffirms your relationship with the other person. Once you commit to it, though, make sure you deliver on it. Here are some examples of how to commit to future action:

  • “I am sorry for not letting you run the meeting. I undermined you in your new leadership position. I promise to play an observer role in our next meeting and let you facilitate.”
  • “I am sorry for getting here late. I know you have a meeting in 30 minutes and you had a lot of ground you wanted to cover today. It won’t happen again and I’ll commit to writing a thorough update on where the project stands right now.”
  • “I’m so sorry that I didn’t acknowledge all that you put into it with the board. You worked so hard on this project and I want you to be recognized for it. I will email the board right now and let them know what a pivotal role you played in this project. And next time, I’ll make a special note of what you’ve contributed to the project.”

Conflict will likely persist until you can find a way to recognize the validity of how the other person is feeling. Tweet This Quote

A good apology can work wonders to help startup teams (not to mention all human relationships) navigate immense pressures. Practice taking responsibility, being specific in your apologies, acknowledging the impact of your actions, leaving out “if” and “but,” and committing to a future action. It will go a long way to restoring peace and alignment in times of tension.


A version of this post originally published in June 2014. It has been updated and reposted to inspire further conversation.

About the author

Teju Ravilochan

Teju Ravilochan

Teju is co-founder and CEO of the Unreasonable Institute. He is driven by the desire to live in a world where every human being can be the master of their own fate, unbound by the chains of poverty, oppression, or injustice.