What’s it like starting a company with your spouse?
I get this question fairly often.
Several times now, I’ve heard investors say they don’t like to invest in couples, while in the same breath saying that they like to invest in companies with co-founders who have known each other a long time. So … starting a company with your high school best friend, good. Starting a business with your spouse, bad.
This makes me very curious about the types of marital and family relationships these investors have. I’m well aware that many marriages end in divorce and possibly many families that stay together are dysfunctional. However, it’s also true that family businesses are a staple of the American economy.
I can think of reasons why working with your family can be a disadvantage in growing a business – the primary ones being nepotism – promoting relatives over more qualified applicants, and difficulty separating work and family relationships.
However, I think there can be significant advantages, especially, as in our case, when we have been together a long time.
- We know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The Invisible Developer is great with software but he hates meetings. He is never going to pitch – ever. On the other hand, if a new language, Swaboomi, is invented next week and it would be a significant benefit to our business, he will be writing excellent Swaboomi code before anyone else you know.
- We have learned to work together as a team. My husband does the lion’s share of his debugging in the Unity editor on a top of the line Mac. Last week, I spent 50 hours going through our latest game on Windows, on a cheap computer with crummy wireless, playing the game over from beginning to end. Bugs that might have slipped through the cracks, I picked up and fixed.
- We can communicate with each other without getting emotional because we are on the same team. Not all couples can do this but you have to understand that I am married to the calmest person on earth. So, I can say, “Look, it’s 4 am and we have spent the last year working on this game. I know we want it to be perfect but unless you find a bug that causes the computer to turn into a dinosaur and eat the player, we are releasing this public beta tomorrow.”
- We have commitment. When starting a company, losing a key team member is the kiss of death. The sole founder of another startup in our building (who doesn’t know we are married) tells me every time he sees me that he is going to lure The Invisible Developer away as a co-founder. Since his fringe benefits at 7 Generation Games include having sex with him and raising his children, I’m not too worried.
- We’re used to pulling our weight. I hate audio editing, but I do it. Dennis doesn’t like design meetings, but he does it. It’s like in a good marriage. When something needs to be done, there’s no saying, “That’s not my job.”
- We don’t have problems at home with a spouse because of all of the hours put in on the job. In fact, it is appreciated and understood because we are both pursuing the same goal.
Of course some couples have dysfunctional relationships and that can be a disadvantage. It seems to me that a couple who would have enough shared interests to start a business together are more likely to be the type who have commitment and good communication. Why would investors assume that all couples starting a business are the other type? Do they all have dysfunctional families themselves?