The Start of a Company, the End of a Marriage
"Daddy, you have on your business face. I can't talk to you when you're looking like that."
When entrepreneur Tim Askew sat down to dinner, part of him wasn't there. And his wife and daughter knew it. So Askew, a former Broadway actor, tried to fake it. Though his brain was still churning with thoughts of running Corporate Rain International, a New Rochelle, New York-based provider of sales-outsourcing services, he forced himself to smile and tried to participate in dinner conversation. Even to him, it felt artificial.
There were other absences. Askew traveled frequently for work. He resisted taking vacations. (On the rare occasions he did join family trips, he was glued to his BlackBerry.) He made decisions that would affect the family's future without consulting his wife. He couldn't remember her friends' names at parties. "She said I'd get this faraway look in my eyes all the time, and it embarrassed her," he recalls. "There's part of your mind that never stops whirling, I think, if you're a passionate entrepreneur."
This May, Askew and his wife of 16 years signed the divorce papers.
Maintaining a marriage is hard enough as it is. The national divorce rate is at an all-time high, and it has doubled for Americans over age 35 in the past two decades, according to an April report by researchers at the University of Minnesota. Nearly half of all people who have been married undergo a divorce or separation by their late 50s. Though there has been scant research on the topic of entrepreneurs and divorce, many founders say that the overwhelming pressures and demands of launching a company have wreaked havoc on their marriages. What's worse, a failed marriage can all too easily destroy even a thriving entrepreneurial business.
Even some of the most successful entrepreneurs have experienced marital failure. Last year, Google co-founder Sergey Brin separated from his wife, Anne Wojcicki, the co-founder of DNA-testing company 23andMe. In 2010, Wynn Resorts founders Steve and Elaine Wynn got divorced--for the second time. And Elon Musk, founder of Tesla Motors and SpaceX, has been divorced twice since 2010.
"Any marriage is going to have fault lines, of course, but the particular stresses endemic to entrepreneurial businesses can add great pressure," says Inc. contributing editor Meg Cadoux Hirshberg, the wife of Stonyfield co-founder Gary Hirshberg and the author of For Better or for Work: A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and Their Families. Even if you try to shield your spouse from the daily travails of running a company--the nearly missed payrolls and the personnel problems--those pressures have a way of following you home.
For entrepreneurs and their partners, some of the largest strains are often financial. "Other professions keep people away from home and preoccupy their thoughts," says Hirshberg, "but they don't produce the toxic cocktail of anxiety and resentment that is created by putting the family's financial security constantly at risk." Research suggests that these sorts of money conflicts can be especially poisonous to marriages. Couples who argue primarily about money are more likely to get divorced than those who fight mostly about sex, in-laws, chores, or other highly charged topics, according to a 2012 study published in the journal Family Relations.
Talk about a money conflict: Launching a startup often requires headlong financial risk--investing everything you have (and more) to get the business up and running. And your family is taken along for the ride, like it or not. "I basically jeopardized the family's finances to fund my startup," says Penelope Trunk of her third company, Brazen Careerist, which hosted virtual job recruiting events. "We cashed out our 401(k)s. We ran out of money twice. We had the electricity turned off."
At one point, the family was living in a 400-square-foot New York City apartment, and Trunk, her husband, and two young sons all slept on the floor. "If 23-year-old guys are sleeping on the floor in Cambridge, no one even cares, right? The Reddit guy slept on the floor," she says. "But I made my family sleep on the floor so I could get my company off the ground. When I think about that…" Her voice trails off.
By the time Trunk and the father of her children divorced, after 14 years together, she had ruined both of their credit scores. (She now runs another company, Quistic, which provides career-building courses, and has a common-law marriage to a farmer in Wisconsin.)
In many ways, marriage and entrepreneurship seem almost diametrically opposed. Entrepreneurship is a risk-taking solo act, while marriage is about security and togetherness. Frequently, the marriage and the business become like rivals, each vying for a precious piece of the business owner's time. "If you're married, a startup competes directly against your marriage," says Trunk.
That can leave you feeling torn in two. Tim Askew describes being a married entrepreneur as standing on top of two moving trains, with one foot on each. "The trains are both going the same direction, but they increasingly begin to get further apart," he explains.
Sometimes, the passionate relationship you form with your company begins to feel almost like, well, cheating. "The first love of my life was my company," confesses Askew. "And even though I married my wife and I loved her, I don't think it ever came up to the passion that I feel for my company." ("That sounds so awful," he quickly adds.)
It does sound awful, and for a spouse, it can certainly feel that way, too. Jonathan Bush, the co-founder and CEO of Athenahealth, a company with annual revenue of $595 million that provides electronic medical records and billing services for doctors, faults his single-minded devotion to Athenahealth for creating a rift between him and his first wife. His relationship with the business was "a kind of infidelity," he admits. The couple divorced in 2006, around the time Bush's business made the Inc. 500 list of fastest-growing companies for the second time. The job of running Athenahealth was so all-consuming that it didn't leave time for a private life, he says. "People say 'work-life balance,' but what they really mean is 'work-life both,' " he explains. "And work-life both is a big, fucking lie. We are finite vessels."
The fear is that if you neglect your business for your marriage, it could cost you the company, and all those sacrifices you and your family made would have been in vain. But if you choose your company and neglect your marriage, you could lose your partner--and sometimes the company, too.
When a founder's marriage crumbles, it's not only devastating for the family, but it can be disruptive for the company and its workers. "It's just a mess," says Dianne Hively, president of Hobson Advisors, a Chicago provider of outsourced CFO and financial advisory services for businesses and families. Hively recalled the travails of one of her clients, who ran a privately held firm--and had a particularly bitter ex-husband. "The divorce was so ugly that his attorney subpoenaed four of the top officers, just to embarrass her," Hively says.
The humiliation, at least, is temporary. But in some cases, divorce can do lasting damage to your business. Nine states (Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin) have community property laws that dictate all assets accumulated by the couple during the marriage be split down the middle. That includes company stock. In some cases, companies have been sold to raise cash to pay off spouses. In others, brawling exes have been forced to become business partners.
In some instances, founders' divorces have simply crippled their companies' growth. That's what happened to FuzziBunz, a cloth diaper company that was based in Louisiana. After founding the company in 2000, Tereson Dupuy split with her husband in 2006. At the time, FuzziBunz was generating about $3 million in annual revenue. When dividing the assets, the judge set the company's worth using its projected sales in 10 years, rather than its present cash value, she says. To buy back Dupuy's husband's shares, FuzziBunz took on $2.2 million in debt. What's worse, during settlement negotiations, the judge temporarily awarded control of FuzziBunz to Dupuy's soon-to-be ex-husband. "Being removed from my company was more stressful than anything," she recalls. "I built this. I invented this. I owned the building, and I couldn't go in there."
Dupuy regained control after the divorce was finalized, but her efforts to expand the company stalled when would-be investors were scared off by its debt. In 2013, she licensed the FuzziBunz brand to an investment company and began a new career creating educational materials for entrepreneurs.
There are some steps you can take to protect your company from a similar fate (see "4 Tips for Protecting Your Company From a Divorce"), but most of them need to be in place well before anyone starts throwing around the D-word.
For most entrepreneurs, the more pressing question is, how do you save your marriage from your company? The first step is admitting there's a problem. For Brad Feld, co-founder and managing director of Foundry Group, his wake-up call came 14 years ago, after his marriage nearly imploded. At the time, his wife, Amy Batchelor, told him simply, "I'm done." One of their problems was deceptively simple: Feld wasn't walking his talk.
"I would say to Amy, 'You're the most important person in my life,' " he recalls. "And then we'd be sitting at dinner and my phone would ring, and I would--without even looking to see who was calling me--say, 'Hang on. I've got to take this call.' "
Together, they began setting rules and expectations. They created quarterly off-the-grid weeks. They invented a ritual--a monthly "life dinner"--for reflection and catching up, along with exchanging gifts and going out somewhere fun. They tracked how many hours Feld was working (more than he thought), and made a plan for him to cut back. They also asked other entrepreneurial couples for advice. What they learned grew into a book, Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur, which they co-authored last year.
Setting aside regular time for each other is very important, even if those shared moments are brief, says Meg Cadoux Hirshberg. "For Gary and myself, there were years when he was so damn busy--we were raising a family, and there was so much havoc and chaos in our lives--that the best we could do for long stretches was to walk down the block and back," she says. (Neither were allowed to carry their smartphones on the walks.) "It doesn't have to be much," says Hirshberg, "but you do need to give your spouse your complete attention."
Just as important is being honest about your feelings--and really listening to your partner, says Alisa Bowman, the author of Project: Happily Ever After: Saving Your Marriage When the Fairytale Falters. That's a lesson Bowman learned the hard way after her own marriage nearly collapsed seven years ago. Her husband, Markus, had opened his dream business: South Mountain Cycle and Café, a combination bike shop and espresso stand in Emmaus, Pennsylvania. And it had devoured his every waking moment. Bowman, who was pregnant, says her husband began skipping birthing classes, leaving her to partner with the teacher. He wasn't there at the doctor's office when she heard their baby's heartbeat for the first time.
After she had the baby, Bowman had to keep working full time as a writer so the family would have reliable income. (Revenue from the bike shop went to paying off a line of credit against their home, which had been leveraged to fund the business.) She and Markus began growing apart.
"There was a time when I thought we were going to split up," Bowman recalls. "I thought, 'OK, this is just broken. I married the wrong person.' " They tried date nights, but conversations died over dinner. They had stopped having sex, too. "We didn't have fun together anymore," she says.
After reading more than a dozen marriage-improvement books, Bowman realized that their problem wasn't incompatibility but a lack of communication skills. Things started to change when she got more assertive about telling Markus what she wanted from him at home, rather than hoping he would figure it out--or dropping passive-aggressive hints. "Once you get used to doing it, you can say these things without any anger," she says. "You have normal conversations again." Bowman also suggests turning toward each other in times of stress--even when you're tempted to pull away.
Debbie Madden says her 14-year marriage also hit a breaking point after communication broke down. She and her husband, Rex, had been fighting over whether to sell their stake in Cyrus Innovation--a New York City-based software development consulting firm--to a business partner. At the time, she was CEO and he was a board member.
"I was doing my thing, talking a mile a minute. He was just silent," she says. "We were eating dinner at home, and, out of nowhere, he stood up and threw the whole kitchen table." Plates and glasses shattered against the wall. He stormed out of the apartment and didn't return for an hour. Days passed before they could speak to each other again.
Since then, she says, they've slowly walked back from the brink. They survived the stress of exiting their company, and, more critically, they began changing how they communicate. She's learning to slow down, resisting the urge to make on-the-spot decisions when he needs time to think. And he's working to become less of a quiet ruminator, trying to vent frustrations before they grow.
"He's absolutely trying. And I'm also trying," Madden says. "We're not perfect and we never will be, but we've made a realistic commitment to each other."
Though business ownership can fray relationships, the opposite can happen, too, says Trisha Harp, founder of the Harp Family Institute, a research and coaching firm for entrepreneurs and their families in San Mateo, California. She suggests that struggles--when shared--can actually bring couples closer together. "You have something to fight for, a common goal," she explains. "It's this sense of, 'We're going to get there together; we're going to make this happen.' "
In addition to personal check-ins, you and your spouse should schedule formal meetings to discuss the state of your company, she says. "You have staff meetings once a week to share what's going on in the business with everybody on your team, right?" says Harp. "The same should happen with a spouse."
Harp suggests spouses work together to set long-term goals for both family and business. She also advises them to help each other communicate more effectively, with questions such as, "How much do you want to hear about the business?" and "Are you looking for input here, or do you just want me to listen?"
Though it was too late for their first marriages, some entrepreneurs are learning to do things differently the next time around. That's the case for John Schnipkoweit. He and his wife divorced in 2012 after he sold his first company--Ovation Networks, a wireless Internet provider in Cedar Rapids, Iowa--and then jumped right into a new startup.
"I literally took two weeks off," he says. By the time he finally slowed down, they had become strangers.
Schnipkoweit now has a girlfriend, and he's trying to use the lessons of his failed marriage to be a better partner. For example, he knows that he lives by his calendar and "time has a way of getting away" from him. So, like Feld, he is careful to schedule time with his girlfriend.
"I'm a constant work in progress," he says. For him, that goes along with being a problem solver and a creative entrepreneur. After all: "If your relationship is something that's a priority," he asks, "why wouldn't you use your aptitude to solve it?"
JESSICA BRUDER | Columnist
Jessica Bruder teaches at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and is the author of "Burning Book: A Visual History of Burning Man." In previous lives, she was a senior editor at Fortune Small Business magazine and wrote Start, a New York Times' blog on new ventures. You can find more of her work at Jessicabruder.com