Wednesday 18 October 2017

A survival guide for the life partners of startup founders

It’s tough being a startup widow, or ignored life partner
It’s tough being a startup widow, or ignored life partner

Dylan Collins

Given the weekend we had a few days ago, I thought I'd attempt to be topical, or at least topic-adjacent.

There's quite a lot written about equality in startups both in terms of founders but also investors. Companies (and indeed, company law) are structured to maintain a balance between the people doing the building and the people investing the capital. However, this concept of equality doesn't extend to one critical set of constituents who are also part of the startup journey: the life partners.

Every company is different but one of the few universal constants is that the girlfriends/boyfriends/husbands/wives of founders probably get the worst deal in any startup (at least investors get a shareholder agreement).

A founder's job is to build a company (momentum) out of nothing, which is essentially defying the laws of physics (specifically conservation of energy). As the physics-defying analogy suggests, this is at best highly improbable.

I suspect a lot of founders have been faced with a conversation that went something like: "you're putting the company before me". The honest reality is yes, they are. They have to.

Life partners don't become unequal players in this arrangement because of founders explicitly making that choice: it's simply down to the number of hours in the day. I have never been a believer in volume over quality in terms of working but bear in mind the following:

(i) Founders have to set an example for the team. This usually means going over and above what is normal.

(ii) Founders are usually in a situation with too few resources, an imperfect team and lack of momentum

Both of these scenarios (which are pretty normal) mean that your founder's partner will be consistently preoccupied. Imagine someone towing around a trailer piled dangerously high with pieces of delicate equipment teetering precariously.

Now imagine the same thing on fire. That's essentially what goes on in the mind of your partner all the time. When they're at dinner, when they're going for a walk, when they're at home 'relaxing'.

That being said, I often find the main cause of discord tends not to be the long hours but the inability to truly understand to what a founder experiences. The well-known venture capitalist, Brad Feld wrote a book with his wife called 'Startup Life'. I recommend it to everyone (although partners may take some encouraging).

To be clear, this is not a column defending founders to their other halves. The truth is that it's simply very difficult to be the partner of a company founder. As someone who's wife just launched her own company recently, I can genuinely speak about this topic from both sides of the kitchen table.

Over the years, I've found a few things which help:

1. Share your calendar. You'd be amazed at how much this can actually help. When your other half actually gets a sense of the sheer volume of activity, it can give them pause for breath. Also, they get to schedule you, which is amazing efficient for everyone.

2. Decompress *before* you go home (if you live together). A lot of founders walk in the door and they need quiet time. Figure out a way of doing it before you get there. Try walking without listening to music to achieve the same effect.

3. Make them read a couple of startup books. Understanding the sheer grind that the most successful companies go through can give a huge amount of missing context for how and why you do what you do.

4. Organise partner dinners. I've had generally good experiences with these. It's a good way of making partners feel that they're not on their own in feeling occasionally crazy (or that their partner is).

5. Get a better handle on time. Founders often underestimate basic elements of their relationship (such as how long it takes to get to the cinema) because in their head it's less of a priority than, say, finalising a presentation or figuring out how to make payroll that month.

I often think that founder relationships are an area which investors don't sufficiently consider when backing teams. We have board meetings which check in on all the critical KPIs of company performance, we make investment decisions based on our perceived ability of the founders. But I know of precious few investors who actually inquire into personal lives of their founding teams. The obvious response is for them to not care but, frankly, I think that's short-sighted.

This isn't a request for more balanced founder lives as I just don't think it can happen. But it's certainly recognition of the role which partners of founders play in the building of their companies.

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