Well, now I know what I’m getting my husband for Christmas.
Well known VC, entrepreneur and blogger Brad Feld has written a book with his wife on how to be in a relationship with an entrepreneur. I can’t wait to read it. In the book, he draws on his own marriage and solicits experience and advice from about 20 other entrepreneurial couples.
I can’t believe no one from our ecosystem has written this book before. Trying to hold onto a relationship while building a company is one of the hardest things about starting a company. It’s one of the biggest reasons VCs back very young entrepreneurs, because they are single. It’s one of the biggest reasons I’ve heard young entrepreneurs prefer San Francisco over LA or New York: not a lot of girls to distract them. And one of the biggest regrets I hear — after failures and successes — is letting that love of a lifetime slip away.
Entrepreneurship just seems particularly set up for relationship failure. There are the obvious work-life balance issues. Entrepreneurship is supposed to be all-consuming, and even on those rare days it’s not, many entrepreneurs feel a lot of guilt about taking an hour or so off to, say, go on a date (without your phone on the table).
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are very real issues of loneliness while starting a company, because even the most well-meaning spouses struggle to understand a lot of the pain, uncertainty, and doubt of building a company. Best case, you may still have to lay off best friends and make gut-wrenching decisions. The pressure of millions of dollars in investment and paying hundreds of salaries is very real but very hard to understand if you haven’t lived it. In the worst case, when co-founders or board members backstab you, when no one uses your product, when you go down in total flames through no fault but your own (even if you’d like to believe it’s market timing), building a company can be mental and emotional torture, making you paranoid, jumpy, hostile, and resentful.
Run away successes have challenges too. There’s the issue of rapid wealth and the impact it has on dating. I’ve talked to dozens of entrepreneurs over the years who struggle more with dating once they’ve been successful, because they were shy, awkward types to begin with, and live in fear that someone loves their money and fame, not them. I’ve talked to others still that just accept this, viewing their accomplishments as part of the package the same way they may be attracted to blond hair. I’ve seen others still hold on to high school relationships out of a desperate need to be with someone that knew them before everyone kissed their ass.
And all of this is before you even introduce kids into the picture.
It’s not something you see written about a lot. But it’s something entrepreneurs ask each other about, as much as they might ask advice on raising a Series A.
Being an entrepreneur changes you, and I’ve found that most of the traits that make you a great entrepreneur, make you a horrible significant other. Companies need to be run like dictatorships — you fire fast, you make snap decisions, you go with your gut, you’re brutally honest. Not all the best advice for navigating a marriage.
Building a company is such a super human task, that you frequently live outside your own body in a way. You neglect your health. You go days without showering. You wear the same startup T-shirt everyday. Days turn into weeks turn into years. If you add a kid into that, any extra mental energy you had for yourself goes to caring for them. If you can’t even take a moment to do the basics for yourself, how are you expected to do them for another able-bodied adult in your house who just doesn’t need you in the same way? Being an entrepreneur is about putting out fires. Doing things just because they are nice tends to go out the window.
Fortunately, I had some practice at separating the married me from the professional me before starting a company. After all, being a good journalist also makes you incredibly annoying: You second guess everything, poke holes in every argument, and feel the need to win every conversation. My husband has frequently told people who’ve asked about our marriage, “Oh, if Sarah treated me the way she treats you, we wouldn’t be together.”
While I try to leave my work-persona at work, that common advice on leaving work at work doesn’t work for me. Work is my life as much as my family is. There’s just no way of separating it. And the more my husband understands the given stresses of the company, the more there’s empathy for the inevitable times I’m a total jerk. Don’t assume your significant other “can’t possibly understand.” Try to help them understand.
(FWIW, I asked my husband what advice he’d give spouses of entrepreneurs and he groaned and left the room.)
Living in Silicon Valley and being friends with almost all entrepreneurs, I’ve had years of conversations about this.
The best piece of career advice I’ve ever heard — particularly for women — is from Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg who says to make sure you marry well. (Or, I’d add, just don’t marry at all. Bad spouses create more work and stress and distraction than no spouse at all.) We definitely live the 50-50 parenting rule in our house, and that’s the only real reason I can manage two small children while building a company. A less supportive spouse would have changed my career trajectory dramatically.
One of the best pieces of family advice I got early in starting this company came from Ben Horowitz, the famed CEO coach. He told me, simply: “Remember, you’re not the CEO at home.”
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]