The Case for Marriage

Single Founders Shouldn’t Put Marriage Off

For many people, the stereotypical image of a founder is a single person in his early 20s. This stereotype is reinforced by what we see in media and what we read about on social media.

Whether it is the latest hot founder at Disrupt or what is covered in movies or on TV, the single (too frequently male) founder is what many think of when they think of silicon valley.

This image is so strong that among my male founder friends, many believe that in order to succeed with their startup they must remain single.

This is terrible and empirically wrong.

Founders are Frequently Married

For every single founder, there is a married one. In fact, the data suggests that for every single founder there are two married ones.

The Kaufman Foundation does significant research when it comes to entrepreneurship.

Their data has found that nearly 70% of all founders are married.

In fact, founders are not just married. They are frequently married with children. To quote the Kaufman foundation:

One common stereotype of an entrepreneur is a childless, unmarried workaholic with no time for a wife or husband and children. This stereotype appears to be false, as 59.7 percent of respondents indicated they had at least one child when they launched their first businesses, and 43.5 percent had two or more children. Additionally, 69.9 percent of respondents indicated they were married when they launched their first businesses.

Married People Are Happier, Healthier

And not only are founders frequently married, but married people are happier and healthier. Married people are in a better position to start and run companies.

Let’s go through the science first.

Married people are far less likely to get sick or be in poor health. They are far less likely to get headaches or suffer from serious psychological distress.

Married couples live significantly longer and healthier lives than people who are single, cohabiting without marriage, or divorced. That’s regardless of age, sex, race, education, income, or pre-marriage health conditions.

And this association between being married and being healthy is actually strongest among young people. In other words, the benefits of marriage are stronger the younger you are. (CDC study here and here and a report on cardiovascular health improvements here.)

Similarly, married people are wealthier. Controlling for all demographic information (except age), people who follow what the American Enterprise Institute calls the “success sequence” have a poverty rate of only 3% (compared to general US population’s poverty rate of around 15%.) The success sequence is: a) graduate from high school b) get work experience c) get married and d) have children. All exactly in that order. Study here.

Marriage is a Great Modulator

Startups are emotional roller coasters. (PG essay)

One of the hardest things for a founder to do is to manage the constant up and down of a startup.

In fact, one of the reasons why many recommend having a co-founder is to deal with the emotional rollercoaster. Ideally when you are in a valley, your co-founder is at a peak and can help you pull out of the emotional low.

But as this article makes clear, there are a subset of issues that having a co-founder will not really resolve. When you doubt yourself or your own abilities, your co-founders can’t really help you — mostly because you don’t want to go to your co-founders and admit that you may not be up to the job. Almost all of my single founder friends suffers terribly from these doubts. Yet, none of my married founders friends do.

Also, having a good, healthy marriage is the ultimate anti-roller coaster. When things in your startup are going poorly, your marriage will remind you that all is well in the world and that the worst case scenario is not that bad — after all you can still have a glass of wine with a loving, caring partner no matter what happens at work.

Having Two Incomes Changes a Family’s Risk Profile

Many founders I know think getting married forces one to take fewer risks. This is the least true thing about marriage that so many people believe. It is simply wrong.

Ask any married founder and they’ll tell you that the ability to have a second income helps one person in the marriage to take bigger risks.

The story of Jeanne Hall and Alan Hall is very common.

He recalls the worst moment of his life being when, in his forties, one of those failures left him with a business debt so deep that it required Jeanne going back to work as a teacher and counselor to help to pay it back off. “She managed to raise our children on a salary that was below the poverty line for an entire two years,” he recalls.

I, and many other married founders, have similar stories. For the first 18 months of my company, my wife paid every bill, covered every mortgage payment, and brought in 100% of the money we spent in our family. This allowed me to take bigger risks.

Don’t Forget about the Long Run

Clay Christensen, the Harvard academic, has a very good TED talk (and Amrit Pal tells me book) called How Will You Measure Your Life?

In the talk, Christensen argues that the reason big companies fail is because they “maximize their profitability and typically the way you calculate profitability, tomorrow’s investments that pay off tomorrow go to the bottom line and are much more tangible than investments that pay off 10 years from now.” This is covered in multiple other good books as well, but it is one of the common reasons why startups win.

There are good parallels to this, as Christensen points out, when it comes to our personal lives.

Highly driven people, as most founders are, are driven to accomplish things. So we discount the value of families. As Christensen puts it:

Investments in our families don’t pay off for a very long time. In fact, on a day-to-day basis our children misbehave over and over again, and it really isn’t until 20 years down the road that you can look at your children, and be able to put your hands on your hips and say, we raised great children, but on a day-to-day basis achievement doesn’t at hand when we invest in relationships with our family, children and our spouses.
And as a consequence, people like you and I who plan to have a happy life, because our families truly are the deepest source of happiness in our lives, find that — although that’s what we want, the way we invest our time and energy and talents, causes us to implement a strategy that we wouldn’t at all plan to pursue.
And so I wanted to just offer that one, is something to think about. The reason why successful companies fail, is they invest in things that provide the most immediate and tangible evidence of achievement. And the reason why they have such a short time horizon is that they are run by people like you and I. And we then apply that very same thinking process in our personal lives with sad results.

I think Christensen gets this only half right. Yes, families pay off in the long run. But they also pay off in the short run. A well functioning marriage removes and helps remove distractions that would otherwise harm a founder’s ability to build a great business.

Every founder I know has asked themselves “what if this fails, what have I done for the past two years?” The answer for a married founder is easy “I’ve lived a great life with my spouse.”

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