Could you start a successful company with your spouse, partner, boyfriend, or girlfriend? Many people tremble at the thought, but according to Maya Mikhailov, co-founder of GPShopper, it's a great way to go.
GPShopper is a mobile shopping platform used by such brands as Best Buy, Estee Lauder, and The North Face. Mikhailov founded GPShopper with her husband Alex Muller in 2007, and the company received its first round of funding early this year. It now has 70 employees, with offices in New York and Chicago. According to Mikhailov, 12 percent of the U.S population has encountered GPShopper at one point or another in the course of their mobile shopping.
Starting a company with Muller was a lot better than doing it with someone else would have been, Mikhailov says. "Founding a company with any co-founder is ultimately very much like a marriage and can have similar challenges," she explains. "You are joined in a union of equity, spend long hours together and cannot throw away the relationship with every disagreement." That's why many founders refer to their co-founders as spouses, she adds. "Starting a company is difficult with anyone. However starting a company with someone who is in it with you and whom you trust is a bit better."
Here's her advice for making sure your entrepreneurial partnership is as successful as your romantic one:
1. Select your turf.
"Figure out your roles quickly," Mikhailov says. "You cannot both be all things or else it will create unnecessary overlap and conflict. If you were starting a restaurant together, for instance, both of you could not be executive chef-there would be no one running the front of the house and you would likely find yourselves featured in a "Kitchen Nightmares" episode."
2. Give each partner final say on his or her turf.
Having distinct roles also creates a layer of trust, she says, because each partner will naturally defer to the other on decisions in that partner's domain. "Disagreements are going to happen, but it's how you deal with them that matters and this took learning. Alex and I have separate domains of expertise. We trust each other's judgment and that makes it easier to find agreement."
3. Act like colleagues, not lovers, in front of employees.
"One lesson we learned early is to talk to each other in front of staff as professionals and not husband and wife," Mikhailov says. This is especially important if you and your partner disagree about a course of action. Let your staff see your conflict and you risk losing their respect. Or worse, having them take sides, or play one of you against the other.
4. Hire when you can to add strength where you're weak.
We all know that a single company founder can't be good at everything. While two founders can be good at twice as many things, it still won't be everything. There are bound to be gaps in your expertise. So, Mikhailov advises, as soon as you can, make hires that fill in those gaps.
"Understand your strengths and weaknesses," she says. "As we've grown as a business, we have added key management team members who can bring new insights and opinions to a problem."
5. Go ahead and take that dinnertime call.
One big advantage to being married founders is that there's no start-up widow or widower. "Starting a company with your spouse is in some ways a complete plus because start-ups can be all-consuming," Mikhailov says. "You think and talk about the business all the time, you are completely invested. So if you spouse is doing something else it may be difficult to explain why you have to take a call in the middle of dinner, or fly somewhere on a day's notice. When you are both in it together that becomes one less thing to worry about."
6. Go all in.
"The most difficult times for our startup, similar to any startup, were during the precarious months when funds ran low and tough decisions needed to be made," Mikhailov says. "Early in our history, we needed to survive the major recession of 2008 when most VC funding simply dried up. It was very difficult to continue-in fact many startups didn't."
When times were tough, Mikhailov and Muller discovered an unexpected benefit to being married co-founders. "Both of us walked into the situation eyes wide open," she says. "It's not like one partner was sacrificing for the dream of the other partner-we were just in it together. We both knew what it would take to survive and the choices we would have to make together, for example, we had to pivot the business model to something more profitable."
Ultimately, those tough times strengthened both the business and the marriage. "Those days furthered our resolution to solve the problems together, and gave us the confidence to know that we could work through anything."