David Liu and Carley Roney co-founded wedding/lifestyle portal the Knot (now XO Group) in 1996. It was their second startup after they married in 1993. Since then, they've IPO'd once, gotten delisted, gotten relisted, expanded internationally, dealt with activist investors, raised three children, and kept their marriage intact. How? They're not entirely sure, but they spoke about it anyway.
CARLEY: We always say: Don't do this if there is any other option. There wasn't for us. Oh, well.
DAVID: The stats run against you. Fifty percent of marriages end in divorce, and most businesses close in their first year.
C: How do you do this? David, you start.
D: When you launch a business, it's hard to manage who does what and respect boundaries and avoid usurping each other's authority. We had a technique: One of us would be the boss of a given topic and would have final say. So if we disagreed, the other could still say, "OK, you're the boss."
C: It never worked. Neither of us is particularly respectful of authority. One of the big challenges was moving to a hierarchical structure. More than once, David had to say, "Sorry, I am the CEO and I have to make the final decision." The bitch of that moment is, you just want to go home and complain to your husband about your really annoying boss.
D: Though she tried. All the time. It becomes a good way to check and balance. If you overrule and pull the CEO card, you have to think harder about doing it, because there are personal consequences.
C: Withholding sex, obviously.
D: ... until the next budget meeting. The times of wealth and opportunity are when conflicts emerge, and the challenges of managing expectations and authority become problematic.
C: It's actually the difficult times, when you really want to protect your spouse and business, that I think are the best. You have a common enemy.
D: One thing that's enabled us to survive all this is that Carley and I are very different people. Um ...
C: Yeah, David, why don't you paint our differences?
D: When I am up, she's down and vice versa. There is always a cheerleader there to say, "We will get through this." It smooths the highs and lows out a little bit.
C: One thing we weren't able to say to ourselves, for maybe 10 years, is you have to decide at some point that the marriage comes first. A startup is like a child: You protect your child over your spouse. But eventually you have to say, "Wait. The whole thing falls apart if our marriage doesn't last." That was an important transition. It makes you sometimes shut up when everything seems like life or death.
D: We've been in business six months less than we've been married. While we were trying to figure out marriage, we were also trying to figure out how to have a business. We've heard other couples talk about this in such a utopian way: "One key thing is you separate family and work life." We made a valiant effort to do that. It's impossible.
C: It's ridiculous!
D: We tried, in the early days. We'd say, "Tonight is a date night. We're going out to dinner. We won't talk about work." We'd sit there and stare at each other for 25 minutes. Then we'd go, "OK, fuck that. We gotta worry about this, we gotta worry about that."
C: One saving grace was friends. Having a good time with others makes you see each other in a different context: "Oh, right--he's such a great person. He's so funny!"
D: Only entrepreneur friends, though. If you're with other friends, it gets uncomfortable when they complain about their bosses. Because then your wife says, "Yeah. I've got a boss who's an asshole too."