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This Column Includes a Marriage Proposal

I looked for people to talk about love and entrepreneurship. One founder seized the opportunity to stage a public marriage proposal.
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Have you asked your spouse or significant other to sacrifice for your entrepreneurial goals? I know I sure have. Still, when I started researching this article about love and entrepreneurship for Valentine's Day, I was amazed by all that husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends really do for their business-starting partners.

Take the story of Andrew Laffoon, for example. Laffoon is the CEO and co-founder of Mixbook, which allows people to design photo books on the Web and mobile devices. When he told his wife, Rebekah, that he wanted to start a company (which meant she would have to support them financially for a while, while she simultaneously attended graduate school), he told me he offered an irresistible pitch: "No pay for two to three years. All of the money we've saved toward a house is probably gone. We'll have to be in an apartment for the foreseeable future, and by the way, the chances of this all paying off are extremely small."

She went for it, and years later, things have worked out. The company employs 60 people, made $25 million in 2012, and is now No. 176 on the Inc. 5000.

I've been deluged with more than 100 similar stories after letting the word out that I was thinking of turning today's column into a Valentine's Day-themed piece in which entrepreneurs could publicly thank their significant others. Along the way, I came across amazing examples of how behind every great entrepreneur, there is often a great special someone.

Here are the top things you have to be thankful for--with something I am sure I've never done in a column, at the very end:

Making big sacrifices

Selena Cuffe visited South Africa on a business trip in 2005, and she realized that there was a huge imbalance in the country's flourishing wine industry, due to the legacy of apartheid. Black-owned wineries made up only 3 percent of the South African industry, even though 80 percent of the population was black. Sensing an opportunity, she persuaded her husband, Khary Cuffe, to co-found Heritage Link Brands, which has grown into the largest marketer of black-produced wine in the United States.

The company now has distribution deals in several countries and has deals with Walmart, the Minskoff Theatre (home of the Broadway production of The Lion King), and three airlines. On the personal side, things have paid off as well. The Cuffes have two sons and will welcome their first daughter next month.

"It hasn't been easy, to say the least," Selena Cuffe said. "[My husband] supported the decision even though we had to drain our family's personal savings. The biggest demonstration of true love and entrepreneurship was him working with me to plan our finances so that he would very likely be the sole breadwinner, at least for a a few years."

Being the stable and supportive one

When Paul Allen (no, not that Paul Allen) met his wife, he was wrapping up a failed venture. He had $75,000 in credit card debt, no income, and he was volunteering as a girls high school basketball coach.

Still, they got engaged after just two months. His wife, Lexie, supported them financially while he got his next business, a talent acquisition and consulting firm called Embark, off the ground.

Embark now has 10 employees, but it was difficult on Lexie, especially as she gave birth to her and Paul's two children. "She's one of the unlucky ladies that pregnancy hits very hard," Paul Allen said. "She would listen to my daily reports and give me encouragement from the bathroom floor, as she fought off wave after wave of nausea."

Inspiring the product

Michael Bergman met his future wife, Bree, at a speed-dating event. When she tried to look him up online afterward, he recounted, "She ran into a bunch of Michael Bergman's in her search and was unsure of which one I was. Was I the good guy, or the Michael Bergman with a long list of felonies?"

The experience--and the realization that misinformation in an Internet search could have kept him from getting together with his wife--inspired them to launch Repp, a verified profile management service.

"While I went off to start the business, Bree kept her job to keep our family afloat and our startup dreams alive," Bergman told me. "Bree has been there every step of the way."

Riding the roller coaster

Casey Halloran moved to Costa Rica after he graduated from the University of Rochester and started a travel agency. When he was dating his future wife, Keyra Gonzalez, in 2006, he was expanding his business to Panama, but then he got caught up in real estate as the market began to crash in 2008.

"The bubble burst," Halloran said. "I had to clean out my savings, sell assets, and take on consulting gigs to stay afloat. I even had to ask my [then] girlfriend to help with rent," he said. "Despite my foul temperament and failing health, she stuck with me throughout the ordeal, encouraging me in my worst moments."

His business has recovered, and Halloran and Gonzalez live in Costa Rica with their 10-month-old son. The travel agency employs more than 100 people and grosses approximately $20 million annually, he said. "I have made plenty of bad decisions in my career," he said, "but marrying my wife was a no-brainer."

Enduring a public marriage proposal

I wish I could have included more of the great stories I heard, but I hope you'll understand why this last one made the cut.

Jacques Bastien's social-media and creative agency, Boogie, grew out of a small business he started at the University of Albany. A fellow student, Dahcia Lyons, helped him with copywriting and ghostwriting. They graduated, grew close, and started dating. Two years ago, she quit her full-time job to join Boogie as the vice president of strategy.

"We've been building for the past few years," Bastien explained, and added that he wanted to take this opportunity to make a nonbusiness proposal. So, let me turn it over to him: "Dahcia, from the day that I met you, I knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with you. I am sick and tired of calling you my girlfriend. Will you marry me?"

Want to read more, make a suggestion, or be featured in a future column? Contact me or sign up for my weekly email.

Last updated: Feb 13, 2014

BILL MURPHY JR. | Columnist

Bill Murphy Jr. is a journalist, ghostwriter, and entrepreneur. He is the author of Breakthrough Entrepreneurship (with Jon Burgstone) and is a former reporter for The Washington Post.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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