Tend to your marriage as carefully as you care for your company. (In other words: Don't do what I did.)
I have some significant but difficult news to share. After a decade of marriage, my wife and I have divorced. As with many divorced couples, the two of us never, ever thought we'd be here.
A critical factor in our decision was my evolution as an entrepreneur and a startup CEO, making me distant when I was on the road, and distracted when at home. I must confess that, at times, I was more married to my job as CEO of BzzAgent and more committed to the startup community than I'd been to my wife, Beth. The two of us might have stayed together if I had known what to do to keep her from feeling like a "founder widow," as she puts it.
Married to Your Startup, or Your Spouse?
If you're in a leadership role or live the lifestyle of a startup CEO, are you wedded to your career---or to your spouse? Is your real marriage at risk?
Let's face it. A focused entrepreneur is something like a drug addict: obsessive, aggressive, and focused intently on "scoring." For those with the startup "bug," everything--from hatching the company to building the team to creating the first product--is intoxicating, all-consuming and fulfilling in a way that is difficult to describe. Thinking of anything else feels impossible. Wrong, even. The high of actually seeing your idea spring to life can be compared to only one other all-consuming experience: true love.
How It All Began
Back when my wife and I first met in the mid-90s, I was leaving a stable, corporate job to try my hand at running my own show. Neither of us really understood what it meant to be part of a startup, but she said my ambition was intoxicating and she was proud of my drive to create something out of nothing.
Beth was a wonderful start-up wife, mentally supporting me through a myriad of stressful moments like partner issues and negotiations that led to the sale of my first few businesses. I remember her partnership well: She joined me on a last-minute trip from our home in Boston to New York to pay my respects to a co-worker's father who passed away. We spent countless hours discussing whether or not I should sell my first company and what I should do next. We planned trips together around my schedule. By the time BzzAgent, a social marketing company, was in full-swing, I was happy and she was proud.
The Truth About Startup Marriage
But there were signs of cracks in our foundation. One day I called Beth on a speaker phone from the office and asked her to write a post for one of my blog projects (the Bento Box) to articulate what it was like to be married to the CEO. She never liked being called on a speaker phone--especially with others in the room---and she didn't seem thrilled about being asked to write this telling piece. Even so, she started writing and a few days later sent me the post. It detailed how difficult it was to be a co-pilot to someone who was glued to his Blackberry, in the habit of leaving half-eaten pretzels all over the house (I forgot I was eating them), and constantly bemoaning "getting the barf-poop bug" on long flights." Yes, it ended with a touching note about my good qualities, but the impact of my thoughtless behavior on "us" was there. In writing. She was starting to doubt she wanted to be along for this nutty ride. Me? I wasn't willing to be different.
After the birth of our first child, I felt torn between the prioritization of family and the business. In Home Game, an autobiographical novel about being a new father, Michael Lewis writes that some fathers don't fall in love immediately with their children. He confided that it can take many months for love to happen and, for me, there was little doubt I fit that mold. In those first few months, my newborn was a fleshy bag of drool and poop; a distraction who kept me up at night and made my wife a touch unhinged. Of course, I fell in love soon enough. But not before Beth asked me why I wasn't sacrificing work to spend more time managing our new child. Selfishly, I told her: "I already have my baby." That was BzzAgent. That was work.
What a horrible thing to say.
When Startup Addiction Worsens
Our second child arrived in 2008 and the fractures were turning into a divide. There were now venture capital partners, a board of directors, and a full management team at BzzAgent. I had to be more attentive to the business than ever. Life-balance was impossible. When my wife said she wanted more help at home, I suggested we get full-time help. She didn't want that. She wanted me to be there for her and for the kids. But I wanted to be in New York, San Francisco, and London. I wanted to feel the energy of structuring deals, creating new ideas, shaking hands, and making smiles.
And as I learned to become a better executive, the startup addiction only worsened. I started investing in other startups, advising friends, sitting on boards, and even launching new business ideas. Sure, we had the home with the white picket fence (green, actually) and the two kids in the yard, but inside, Beth and I were living separate lives. Yeah, we did our time in couples' therapy and that served as a Band-Aid for some of this, but the truth became evident: I wanted to build companies and my wife wanted to build a family.
How to Avoid Startup-Induced Divorce
I've had some time to dwell on the reasons my marriage failed and what I might have done differently. I haven't figured everything out but if you are trying to balance being an entrepreneur with family, I do have some advice:
1. Choose a partner who wants to live the startup lifestyle.
This is easier said than done. When love is young, life promises to be as simple and blissful as it is during the courtship period. But if you can have any deep discussions before you officially commit, it would be whether you're both ready for this rollercoaster ride of entrepreneurship. More to the point, I've come to the following conclusion: a startup-oriented individual should be with one of two types of spouses. Either someone who is another startup-oriented person who gets the workaholic lifestyle, understands the importance of evening events (that look like parties but aren't), and rolls with the rowboat-in-the-middle-of-the-ocean emotional swells of a business that is changing every day. The alternative is a spouse who will be utterly--and almost to a fault--acquiescent to the needs of the entrepreneur. That means he or she is completely understanding when you're rarely home, flexible when schedules shift suddenly, supportive when you're forgetful, and accepting when you always have one eye on your smartphone. In short, this person would need to be a total saint.
In my case, my wife didn't sign up to be a startup executive's wife. I don't think either of us knew what that meant. She was too much her own woman to be totally deferential (and I loved her for that) but also didn't really get my insane drive to do more all the time. I wish we'd talked about that a lot more a lot earlier in our relationship.
2. Treat your spouse like a co-pilot.
After choosing a partner who is ready for the ups and downs of entrepreneurship, it's important to communicate to a fault. Over time, there's a natural tendency to pull back on discussions about work. Perhaps you're worn out from talking about work all day. Or maybe your spouse would rather set her hair on fire than hear about who-said-what at the office. But this is a kiss of death, because if both of you aren't somewhat in it together, there's no way you can understand each other's points of view well enough to remain true partners. I wish I had spoken up more often and asked for Beth's input.
3. Make time for each other--and time just for yourself.
You need three things: dates, breaks, and help. Make a standing dinner date night, and find the time to relax with each other at least once a week. Remember why you got married in the first place. Take breaks. Go on vacations and enjoy life without the distractions of kids and work. And get help from other people. As Michael Norman notes in his book Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, one of the shortest routes to being happy is to create time. The best way to do that is to obtain resources when you can: Hire Taskrabbits to do odd jobs, get an accountant, hire a Nanny, and find free time to enjoy each other.
Also, a note on therapy: Most couples only go when there's something disabling enough to need it. My suggestion is therapy should become something consistent, that you find a couples' therapist to see at least once a quarter. Someone who helps you communicate even when it's hard. Someone who can be the canary-in-the-coal-mine to those tiny fractures that can turn into divides.
From Founder Wife to Widow
Beth and I only did these things from time to time. And, eventually, we found ourselves at the end of this section of our highway. We'll be fine. We're still incredible friends and we're moving forward as co-parents who have affection for each other and our kids. We still enjoy doing things as a family. As one friend recently remarked to us as our families enjoyed lunch together, "This is so not weird, it's weird."
Beth and I missed out on the opportunity to make a marriage that lasted forever. Looking back, I realize I could have nurtured our relationship and my company if I asked myself--and her--some tough questions early on. And then, if we'd decided to make the journey together, I should have tended to our marriage as carefully as I cared for my company.
I suppose there's a lesson in this for others. Act now. Do hard work on your relationship. If you treat it as important as your startup, you will have a solid chance of keeping your marriage alive as your business thrives.
Read more recent articles by Dave Balter: