How to start a business and not destroy your marriage?


68

Although the question has the word "marriage" in the title, it is really about any most important relationship in a founder's life, be it husband/wife, fiancee, boyfriend/girlfriend, partner or significant other.

During my first startup, there were times when I thought the pressures of the business were going to result in my wife leaving me. Thankfully, she didn't and we got to a reasonable exit (for the business!) without a matrimonial disaster.

This subject obviously has a lot to do with work/life balance and I note there is a question on that subject, but as I get into my second start-up, I'm interested specifically in how other successful founders maintain healthy relationships with the one they love. A great example on husband and wife startup give-and-take can be seen in Jason Cohen's article and his wife's response - can anyone else share their personal stories, provide helpful tips or point out relevant articles?

Founder Personal

asked Jan 14 '10 at 09:25
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Steve Wilkinson
2,734 points
  • Great question. My wife is taking on a lot of extra work with our son while I am working a day job, launching one business and selling another. – Tim J 7 years ago
  • Haha. I really like the question! – Jpartogi 7 years ago
  • This is an issue that I also have been thinking lately. – Graviton 7 years ago
  • Thanks to everyone who took the time to put in their answers. As there are quite a few answers, I thought it would be helpful to summarise the key insights for me: 1) Accept that being in a start-up is a lifestyle choice - make sure your SO is bought in 2) Open communication channels are vital for survival of the relationship 3) You need to have an understanding wife/SO :-) 4) Eat dinner together 5) Rent an office - working from home can create pressures 6) Find a co-founder to share the load with 7) Plan some family holiday time well in advance – Steve Wilkinson 7 years ago
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14 Answers


42

Being at a startup is a lifestyle. Your spouse has to buy into this lifestyle, first and foremost, or things will go south quickly.

When I approach my spouse about any startup, I have to sell her on it too. If she thinks it's a waste of time or stupid, then she will not be bought into the long hours or zigs and zags that will happen. So, for me, it starts with buying into the vision. Not that she has to totally understand everything but it has to be a compelling story. What I mean by compelling is that the opportunity will enrich our lives at some point, be it money or a stepping stone to something else.

I also have her meet the people I will work with, including their spouses. If a company values the work-life balance, which they all should, then it shows in how they interact with spouses. A good CEO and executive team will sell the spouse as well as the employee.

Another important thing is to be honest about the sacrifices you need to make. Nothing pisses your partner off more that broken promises or lies about the real effort required to make stuff happen.

Always make time for your spouse. Have them demand that you put the computer down and take a break. Even little breaks are fine. Being consumed with work, startup or not, is the surest way to make your home life miserable.

answered Jan 14 '10 at 13:04
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Jarie Bolander
11,411 points
  • Another great benefit of getting a buy-in from your spouse is that it forces you to formulate your thoughts in a way more people will understand. Too often we have our wild ideas and it just seems so clear in our heads... until we explain it to someone and get "wtf?" look. – Apollo Sinkevicius 7 years ago
  • Good point Apollo. If it's a great opportunity then it should be easily explainable and get non-techies excited. – Jarie Bolander 7 years ago
  • +1 on the lifestyle perspective – Jason 7 years ago
  • Thanks Jarie - I agree it's a lifestyle thing - about my current (second) startup, my wife says "we're not going to go through all that again, are we?" and I am trying to make sure it isn't as all consuming this time round... – Steve Wilkinson 7 years ago
  • I get that too. How I solved that was to tell my wife she needed to do a startup. Presto, now she gets it. It does help if your partner knows what a startup is like -- both the thrill and the hard work. – Jarie Bolander 7 years ago
  • By only reading this `Being at a startup is a lifestyle` I knew I'd upvote. – Carlos 6 years ago
  • Thanks for that. It really is a lifestyle that both you and your spouse have to agree too. – Jarie Bolander 6 years ago
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14

I learned the following over the past year while writing code, working with a business partner and trying to make it all work with a wife and 2 year old son.

  • COMMUNICATION is the key. You both need to communicate clearly and the other needs to listen and act.
  • Flexibility is very important.
  • Keep your priorities straight.
answered Jan 14 '10 at 09:33
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Tim J
8,334 points
  • Tim - thanks - I quite agree - communication is one of the keys to survival in any relationship. Your point about priorities is also relevant to me - I have to think about why I'm doing this - to build a better long-term future for us both - no point wrecking the relationship in the process! – Steve Wilkinson 7 years ago
  • As Abe Lincoln wrote, "I'd send you a shorter letter if I had more time." – Jeff O 7 years ago
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11

Have at least one co-founder.

The arguments for and against co-founders and how many co-founders shouldn't be repeated here (although it's a great topic generally). But having a family to tend to puts a big hash mark in the "have a co-founder" column.

In general, my personality leads me to being a single-founder, but now with a wife and child I wouldn't do that. At least one other person has to be at least as dedicated as I am, otherwise I wouldn't be able to have the right priorities.

answered Jan 17 '10 at 12:25
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Jason
16,241 points
  • Jason - I think this is an interesting subject - having someone in the business to share the day-to-day load makes a lot of sense in terms of being able to prioritise your own family time properly. At the moment it's less likely I am going to have a co-founder this time round for a bunch of reasons, although that could of course change. However Employee #1 is going to be crucial for me so I will naturally be studying your article on the subject :-). – Steve Wilkinson 7 years ago
  • To me having a co-founder just complicates things a little bit more. Now, besides having to convince your wife that you are doing the right thing... you'll also have to convince someone else to work hard and support your idea... why?! I understand the idea of having someone to share the work with, but it also means having someone else to keep happy and interested in your project... IMO – Ricardo 7 years ago
  • Having done it both ways, cofounder is a LOT less work. If you have to "keep someone else happy" you've chosen the wrong cofounder. If you can't convince anyone else your idea is that exciting, maybe it's not a good idea. Even egomaniacs like Steve Jobs had cofounders. – Jason 7 years ago
  • No to "co-founder". I have a strict "No 'co-anything' policy" because it muddles the accountability trail. But, I think what you may mean is to always delegate any work to any skilled individual you can find and bring into your venture. – Alphadogg 6 years ago
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11

What has helped with me is:

1) Marry the right person. I'm very independent as is my wife. If my wife wasn't as independent, it probably wouldn't work.

2) Get your financial house in order. Finances are a big marriage killer. Startups can be a big financial drain, especially if you're leaving a job and losing income for months or even years. So get your financial house in order, track what kind of financial runway you have, and be very open about it. When I hire a new person or spend more than a couple of thousand dollars on something, I discuss it with my wife to make sure she understands why and make sure she's on board. She really wants a new elliptical machine and windows for the house. I really want to remodel the basement and build a theatre. All are on hold because we're trying to keep the cash stockpiled and the runway long. It's a lifestyle sacrifice for her so I want to make sure she's in the loop and an active part of decisions that prevent us from doing things we would normally just do, like buy an elliptical machine.

3) I make it a point to be home at 7 PM every night and cook her dinner. This frees her time to work out and do things she wants/needs to do. It's not hurting my business really at all because it forces to me to focus and get things done at work and will likely extend my burnout runway. I can do some work after she goes to bed but most nights I don't.

4) We have some shared interests/hobbies that I make it a point to make time for on the weekends. This also helps keep me sane and extends my burnout runway.

answered Jan 15 '10 at 02:15
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Scott Drake
176 points
  • Scott - marry the right person - I was was taking that for granted, but maybe I do just that too much! I agree that finances are one of the big killers - it's been the single greatest source of conflict so far for us & there is certainly some work I need to do in that area. Sadly I can't cook, but as per Thomas's answer below, I think getting home for dinner as a habit is a must. Your final point is particularly useful - make time to do things of shared interest together - I'm definitely going to give this some more thought. Many thanks! – Steve Wilkinson 7 years ago
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7

Stay single. But barring that, my rather unqualified two cents...

Usually it's not the quantity of time together that leads to the most frustration. Being fully unavailable is less frustrating, at least to my particular companion, than being physically present but emotionally unresponsive.

So if you're like me, this means the best thing you can do is: get enough time for yourself. It sounds crazy, but it helps. "Techies" tend to be introverted. Even if it's just 15 or 20 minutes a day, you need a little silent space (when you're still awake) to feel at rest. Otherwise, life will start to feel like a constant deluge, you'll start withdrawing from your partner, and he'll respond by forcibly inserting himself into your every waking moment (part of a vicious cycle) or leaving you altogether.

Once you've satisfied this, it'll be easier to make every bit of the time you spend with your partner count.

answered Jan 14 '10 at 12:54
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Arkaaito
300 points
  • Interesting - for sure when I feel really under pressure, I am not so much fun to be around, so I take onboard the need to find time/space for yourself. I couldn't agree more - it's not about the quantity of time (founders rarely have an excess) but absolutely about the quality. A great piece of advice - time with your partner is precious - make it count. Thanks! – Steve Wilkinson 7 years ago
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5

I just got a son so things are even more critical. I would say the following three rules.

  1. Always eat dinner together (you can work later)
  2. Every second weekend you take out one day for your wife and or your kids
  3. Try to work as much as possible at home
answered Jan 14 '10 at 09:31
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Thom Pete
1,296 points
  • Thomas - thanks for the feedback. My kids are older now so it's easier, but I am trying to get back into the habit of sharing dinner - I think it's very sound advice. I need to give some thought to my weekends - how much do I want/have to work, and what can we spend time on together instead. For sure in my first business, the constant pressure regardless of the day of the week was a big strain. I'm in two minds about the working at home thing - whilst it's nice to be around, it isn't so nice to just be there but not engaged - it's certainly a tricky balance that I need to work on. – Steve Wilkinson 7 years ago
  • Yes it is a tricky balance I am totally with you. But I think the best thing you can do is to make agreements with your wife/girlfriend and keep them. This will prove that you want this relationship. Women are ok with you working it's if they don't feel that they are part of what is important. In other words. Make dinners important and you make her feel important. – Thom Pete 7 years ago
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5

There is really only one way it will work and that is to have a very understanding wife. Looking over my shoulder at my wife who is trying to get me to come to bed.

answered Jan 14 '10 at 14:48
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John Soer
596 points
  • Are you saying you wrote this under duress? :-) – Jason 7 years ago
  • It's funny - without realising it, you start to forget genuinely how understanding your wife is - thanks for the reminder, John! – Steve Wilkinson 7 years ago
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5

A start-up is similar to graduate school in that it is a time-sink and a gamble. You are gambling with your family, so having your spouse as a partner is important, and she should be treated with the same respect as any co-founder.

Make certain you spend time with your family, and if your wife wants to take an overnight trip, then do it.

It may mean that things happen less quickly, but, I would hate to have my children remember me as a work-a-holic that wasn't really there for them when they were younger.

They need to learn how to balance life and if that means I sacrifice some health issues by cutting back on sleep, then such is life, but my children should not be a sacrifice.

Succeed or fail, your family should be in your corner regardless, as long as you don't push them away.

So, as others mentioned, communicate often and make certain that you don't take out the stress of what you are doing in your relationship. Your SO shouldn't be a punching bag when you are stressed, for example. Take up running or get a punching bag, but make certain you don't destroy by being too selfish.

answered Jan 14 '10 at 19:50
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James Black
2,642 points
  • Thanks for your thoughts James - my kids are older now and I imagine there are times when they would remember me as a work-a-holic - you can't turn the clock back but somehow I wish I had made more time for them when they were younger. I try and make up for it now. Motivation is a factor here - you think you're trying to make a better life for your family, but by the time you're done, they're all grown up and many opportunities have been missed. I need to make sure I don't make the same mistake with my wife this time round. Thanks for the wake-up call. – Steve Wilkinson 7 years ago
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4

Seduce your significant other into the business and the great passion and fire that goes with it, so that they too are working insane hours right along with you, and it's now something the two of you are sharing, vs. being at opposition with. Of course watch out for the great battles that will erupt once you to disagree on things.

answered Jan 14 '10 at 11:11
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Centurion Games
626 points
  • +1 if you have no kids, otherwise this is the opposite of having a family. – Jason 7 years ago
  • Curious - I know a few people who work with their SO successfully, but I can't imagine that working for us. Having said that, my wife did the books for the first three years of my first start-up and that worked quite well. We had a young family then so she couldn't spend an insane amount of time in the business even if she had wanted to, but at least she had some insight into my working environment. Personally I think it works for a few couples, but not the majority - and for myself, I think it's good to have something outside the business to go home to. – Steve Wilkinson 7 years ago
  • I've had this both work, and fail in the past. Agree though it wouldn't work well with kids that is for sure. I also think it depends on what your company does. For instance, doing game development, this encompasses something that I also do as a hobby, and enjoy doing regardless if its for the business or not. Likewise the previous SO that did work with the company, worked along side as a artist which she loved doing, as it provided a professional medium for her art. She also liked playing games, and this naturally rolled over into QA and play testing. – Centurion Games 7 years ago
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4

There's been a lot of wisdom shared on this thread. Very useful! One thing I would keep in mind is that the dreams that fuel and entrepreneur may seem a bit unsubstantial to significant others, so make sure you also pay attention to their dreams for the future, for the family, for the year, for the weekend, whatever.

Work will disrupt your time with them, but for each member of your household, try to make a clean mental break, drop your preoccupations with the business, and give each one your undivided, fully-present attention for at least 3 5-30 minute episodes per week. If you have some discretionary time and you could putter away at something business related or just relax, make a clear choice to focus on each family member in turn, instead.

If each person gets a clear sense that they matter to you, and that at time you are only focused on them and nothing else, then you are essentially not abandoning your family for your job. If you maintain the connection, and you respect some of the things that they dream about too, then they can forgive you when you honestly can't get away from the business.

answered Jan 15 '10 at 01:06
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Neil La Chapelle
51 points
  • Thanks Neil - I agree that it doesn't take too much to make each family member feel they matter and that you give them your wholehearted attention when they need it, but it doesn't hurt to be reminded how important that is! – Steve Wilkinson 7 years ago
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3

Good time management and self control.

Here's what I do:

1- After coming back from my day job, I spend the time with the family and when the kids and wife go to bed, I start working on my ideas.

2- Two days a week (Friday evening and Saturday) it's family time only. No work is done.

The point is that you have to let your spouse and kids feel you are available. Give them quality time.

Note: it's OK to spend some time on your work here and then if they are busy with their own stuff. Just don't bury yourself in work all the time. It's not good for your health either.

answered Feb 5 '10 at 10:35
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Abdu
384 points

2

I just had to reply to this question.

Though in most ventures I was in I was an "intrapreneur", at the last venture I was a co-founder. Sadly, the company did not work out (many reasons, but the main was what the market has shown us). My wife was the biggest supporter through it all. There is a reason I call her my "angel investor", because she is my best supporter and also best BS detector.
I went through hell during those 7 months at that venture and having someone really smart to bounce thoughts off was absolutely invaluable asset.

I will agree with other posters here, COMMUNICATION is extremely important. Especially when things go bad, walking around all angry and frustrated will not help you or the marriage. But if you communicate all that to your partner and use him/her as an advisor, you may just get through it faster and get to a much better place.

Lastly, one should never forget to have some time sacred for the relationship. Date nights with no business talk are crucial and should be a regular weekly occurrence.

Our wives/husbands/partners are true unsung heroes. Some of the most successful business people had a great supporter behind them in their personal life.

answered Jan 14 '10 at 17:00
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Apollo Sinkevicius
3,323 points
  • Amen - sacred time is a must - just gotta make it happen! I completely agree too about the unsung heroes. Thanks for the feedback Apollo. – Steve Wilkinson 7 years ago
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0

This is a tough one and I guess it always depends on the type of startup. I had 2 startups, one in services, which didn't require me to have a crazy life. Basically, I was on my customers schedule so it wasn't bad. Another one was an online SaaS product which required a lot more ground work and background work. The best way is to consider that your wife and kids are part of the process. If they don't feel well, you won't be able to execute on the long run on your startup (at least if you want to stay married). It is critical, and part of the success of your startup, to manage time for your wife and time for your kids. In reality, it is not that much time in a day..

Specific action item:

- Budget some money for baby sitter and go out for dinner with your wife every 10 days or 2 weeks. Just the two of you.

- Go home and stop working before 7pm and enjoy your kids until they go to bed. Then you can start working again. It's a good for you too.. Beware that short term solutions don't turn into long term fixes..

Also, you can look at that great article from Steve Blank (and fantastic entrepreneur and professor).

answered Feb 17 '11 at 12:22
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Antony P.
714 points

0

Avoid Debt! It puts out a huge amount of risk, and if you get an SBA loan and your biz fails then you may lose your house! That would be really bad.

answered Feb 17 '11 at 21:53
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Zachary K
208 points

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