Founding a business is notably one of the hardest things you will ever do. It is gruelling, time consuming and overflowing with uncertainty. Starting on this journey is such a bold step and so having a trusted partner and confidante to go through this adventure with you is so crucial — it could mean the difference between being successful or giving up.
Notice my use of the word spouse — this is deliberate and intentional. It could be replaced with a long term partner but definitely does not always apply to boyfriend/girlfriend relationships or anything that is not long term in nature. The reason I highlight this is because the maturity of the relationship matters. A newer relationship may not withstand the pressure of building a new business and hence could break apart. This is why we often hear stories of why you should not work with a romantic partner. But I’m here today to tell you it does work and it can be awesome.
Finding a co-founder can be one of the most stressful ordeals for anyone trying to get their great idea off the ground into a business. It can make or break a new business. The absolute key factor in finding a co-founder is , and this is why if your partner has the skills to do the job and is up for the challenge, it could be exactly what you need. Chances of things not working out with your friend or a stranger are much higher than if you work with your partner. This is why my husband, Harsha, and I co-founded a business together where he takes on the role of the CTO while I am the CEO. I had an idea for a tech company and having been in tech sales previously with an MBA and finance background, he was the perfect compliment to build the tech needed for our startup. So off we went.
Now over three years into our business, here are my five key takeaways for anyone considering working with your spouse or partner.
1. Keep your personal relationship private
This can be hard if you share the same surname. Of course, this does not mean to hide your relationship from your team but my point is to not needlessly advertise it to the outside world. For example, if you are out in public, refer to each other as my co-founder. Don’t do the “ermmm uhhh husband slash co-founder slash friend” introduction, it just sounds clumsy, sloppy and makes it all seem less professional. Anyone who is in tune to you can sometimes figure it out through your body language and other times not so much. It’s a fun game to test people’s EQ!
Either way, it really doesn’t matter. You are here to build your business together. Telling people you are also married or live together is unnecessary information. It will give them a chance to speculate. Or to pass comments like “I could never work with my wife or oh that could end in divorce” etc. So save yourself the trouble and don’t bother. Of course, never lie or hide it if you are asked how you know each other by an investor or third party but keep it low key.
2. Conflict Resolution
As with any business there will always be decisions to be made, which not everyone will agree on. Likewise, you and your partner may not agree on every vision for your business. My advice is to keep it professional. It’s easy to become husband and wife in the middle of a board room and really go at it but that really isn’t going to serve anyone. Debate through issues with your spouse the same way you would with an investor or employee. This is healthy not just for you and the business but also for any impact on your personal relationship. This leads me to my next point.
3. One of you is bad cop
In order to keep up the health of your personal relationship, someone will have to be the bad cop and police constant talk about work at home. I have usually assumed that role because every mealtime, workout or stroll together ended up being about work, weekday or weekend. This became very exhausting very fast and left us little time to talk about life outside work. It’s natural to do that as you build something you both care about so deeply but let one person always be vigilant on monitoring the conversation during personal times and change the topic each time work comes up. It’s really important.
4. Assume different roles and sit in opposite corners of the office
This may sound like a no brainer but as a couple, I have the business brain and my husband is the tech brain so it works perfectly but often times if you come from the same background try to divide and conquer. Don’t constantly work on everything together. It is really hard to spend 24/7 with the same person no matter how much you care about them!
Physically assign desks far from each other. In the early days this can be hard when you are working out of your house or a basement somewhere but even then take the time to split, go to a coffee shop or take a call whilst having a stroll. It’s really important you’re not always in each other’s face. It will make the times you do have to collaborate (which will be a lot) that much more productive.
5. Set up your shareholders agreement so one has more shares
50/50 you say? No. The reality is working with your spouse may not be something you want to do forever and in the event of unforeseen circumstances, one of you should have veto power. In our instance, when we built out our shareholder’s agreement, 60% of the shares were assigned to me with the remaining 40% to my husband. In the event we felt that our relationship was at risk due to the business, my husband agreed he would step down and that I would assume full control. Legally setting this up when things are hunky dory is a wise idea because if things do ever get messy, you will not have debates with a 50/50 scenario. I would personally recommend this to any co-founders since it is like a marriage even if you aren’t married and to start a business with anyone let alone your spouse is risky. There are so many things that could go wrong. As such, make one the boss.
Still not convinced? Check out these notable couples.
Kevin and Julia Hartz — Eventbrite
Together they founded Eventbrite, which is now a tech unicorn. Julia reflects on her success working with her husband, in her words (courtesy of Inc. magazine), “Somewhere along the way, I figured out that he’s just nuts because he believes I can do anything. But if you have that person who just consistently says, ‘You can do anything,’ you start to believe it.”
Lesson: Your spouse believes and trusts you like nobody else.
Bill and Melinda Gates — Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
After amassing a large chunk of their wealth from Microsoft, Melinda and Bill Gates set out to make the world a better place through the work of their foundation. Trying to solve global problems is no easy feat. As per Melinda (courtesy of TED talks), “I know when I come home, Bill is going to be interested in what I learned. And he knows when he comes home I’ll be interested. We have a collaborative relationship, but we don’t spend every minute together.”
Lesson: Space and time apart to forge better collaboration.
So go ahead, forget what the VCs say, forget what your family thinks, do what you and your partner think works best. It could be the best thing you ever do for your professional and personal growth both as individuals and as a couple!