Communication Breakdown

Over the last few months, I’ve watched three separate episodes of blowups between co-founders or between CEOs and board members. In each case, it’s evident in hindsight that it wasn’t a single act, but historically poor communication which led to pent up anger that ultimately boiled over into fractured relationships. These wrangles have not only caused harm to the individuals, but created collateral damage among the management teams of the companies as well.

During the early years of marriage, many young couples inevitably reach a point where they have to learn to communicate better or watch the foundation of their new relationship begin to crack. Little things like left-open toilet seats, uncapped toothpaste tubes and lights left on foster passive-aggressive behavior until someone explodes over something silly like dirty coffee spoons left on the counter instead of in the sink by their mother-in-law (yup, that was me). Luckily I’m married to Pam, a woman who has patiently taught me to be a better communicator and finally, after more than twenty years together, has been hinting to me lately that her work with me might be nearly completed.

As anyone reading this knows, building startups are indescribably taxing, even among the most functional teams. With everyone moving at warp speed, it’s easy to get frustrated and annoyed by little things that colleagues say and do. As someone who leaned towards passive-aggressive behavior when I was younger, looking back, I know I didn’t always handle these types of situations with patience and understanding. I can think of a couple of valuable relationships in my career that were irreparably harmed through poor communication on both sides. While I’m not big on regret as life is one big learning experience, in hindsight, I’m confident that healthy, open and honest communication would have saved those relationships which mattered a lot to me.

Two years ago, David Cohen told me he wanted to bring in David Brown as our partner to manage the operational growth of Techstars (absolutely brilliant move, he’s an operations ninja). He and David had worked together for almost 25 years across three startups. I soon found myself in a partnership with two people who had been working together since college. The two of them talked like an old married couple while David Brown and I spent the first few months feeling each other out. We certainly had our share of miscommunications (and still do) but we quickly developed a real knack for diffusing them in real-time or shortly thereafter. “Hey, when you said yada yada about that thing this is how it sounded to me” or “Your email to me earlier today felt a little off, is everything ok?” has become the norm between us. It’s fostered an incredible working relationship and a deep mutual respect.

After a couple of decades of being around management teams and boards of startups, it’s clear to me that healthy communication is a big stumbling block for many and causes a good deal of harm not only to the two parties, but the momentum of the company itself. If you see it happening in your company, you might want to consider bringing in a coach like Jerry Colonna and his team at who can help a team get through these issues.

Halfway through my 50th trip around the sun, I’m far more focused on quality, high-functioning relationships than being right or getting my way these days. As those close to me might attest, I still have my moments, but I’ve learned that being thoughtful, proactive and choosing my words carefully produces much better outcomes than the power play of passive-aggressive behavior or the instant gratification of lashing out.

Showing 6 comments
  • Jon Gordon

    Great post and agree that poor communication can lead to breakdowns in effectiveness, efficiency, collaboration and teamwork. It seems more and more that email has become a more predominant way to communicate with one another, rather than just simply picking up the phone or walking down the hall to talk with someone. Unless you are using all caps in an email, the tone can be misconstrued causing the reader to become uneasy and reply hastily to perpetuate the situation. Therefore, part of my past experiences has taught me to not read into the tone of an email, but to simply just pick up the phone and call that person to more effectively communicate and nip any misunderstandings in the bud. The telephone is about 140 yeas old, but still as efficient as ever. Let’s go RANGERS!!!

    • Mark Solon

      Heck of a game Jon, wasn’t it?

      • Jon Gordon

        The intensity of each playoff game is amazing and I hope we can pull off three in a row Wednesday night at the Garden!

  • Eric Fishbein

    Great article Mark.
    I think we’ve all learned some of these lessons the hard way.
    Eric Fishbein

  • Roger Rowles

    Hello Mark,
    I am a young business owner here in Boise and I’ve really enjoyed reading your blog. It’s great to have someone with your experience, insights, and motivation in the Valley to help the city reach its full potential.

    I’ve noticed you’re starting to get a fair bit of traction with your blog and a lot of people are beginning to read and share your articles. I’ve also noticed you’re using the default WordPress theme. I am a WordPress developer and would be more than happy to help you change out your theme to something a little more modern to spruce up the site a bit, no charge.

    In exchange, I’d love the opportunity to bend your ear on a project I recently started. I’m not looking for funding, rather, an objective third party to give me their honest two cents. I’ve convinced my technical co-founder to put in 5 or 6 hours a week on it with me and I want to make sure my ambitions are not just wishful thinking. We could do it over the phone, email, or a cup of coffee if you have the time. Of course, I understand you’re very busy, so regardless, I’d still be more than happy to help you out with your blog.

    Thanks again for posting and I look forward to reading more!


    Roger Rowles

    • Mark Solon

      Thanks and what a terrific offer Roger (though I’d meet with you without it). Email me at mark dot solon at techstars dot com and let’s set it up!

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