Prerna Gupta is an entrepreneur and author, currently working on a sci-fi fantasy trilogy set in Silicon Valley. She was previously CPO at Smule. She’s also an active angel investor, and mentor at 500 Startups.
Cofounder relationships can get intense.
When you spend every waking hour with someone, day after day for years, they will get to know you in a way no one else can. You will endure incredible amounts of stress together, experience the highest highs and the lowest lows together, and grow from bright-eyed entrepreneurs into seasoned executives together. Above all, only your cofounders will truly understand the unique passion that drives you, and consumes you, throughout your shared entrepreneurial journey.
In my experience, only one other type of relationship shares this level of intimacy: marriage.
(Note: I use the word marriage in a loose sense here, to refer to a committed, sexually intimate relationship between two people.)
My cofounder and I are married, and I believe that the closeness of our personal relationship gives our business relationship a unique sort of strength. To me, the fact that we are married is an asset. What has always surprised me, though, is that married founders are traditionally considered a liability in the world of entrepreneurship.
When my husband and I started our first company, in 2005, venture capitalists openly told us that they simply don’t invest in married cofounders. No one ever provided us with an explanation for this rule, but over the years, I have come to understand the assumptions that underly this prejudice.
Investors are traditionally afraid that married cofounders run a higher risk of separating, won’t be objective in evaluating each others’ performance, and will alienate other team-members who feel uncomfortable working with a married team. In my experience, these are narrow-minded prejudices that are not based in fact.
The truth is that most normal couples would consider founding a company together to be complete torture. The sort of couple that thinks it’s a good idea means they are likely to enjoy spending all their time together, tend not to argue disastrously, have a clear division of labor, and work well together in a creative capacity. In other words, married co-founders are more likely to be a strong founding team, because they are battle-tested and self-selected to work well in high pressure environments.
Happily, there has been a growing trend in the past several years of successful married founding teams (GoodReads, SlideShare, Wildfire, EventBrite, Bebo), and a few daring investors that will invest in them (most notably, 500 Startups), which together are starting to prove that sleeping with your cofounder can indeed be a recipe for success.
I believe there is a lot to be learned from successful married cofounders. Here are some tips from a healthy relationship that can be applied to all cofounder relationships:
Tip #1: Don’t Let Arguments Escalate
One of the main reasons my husband and I have been able to work together successfully under intense pressure is that we both make a concerted effort to deescalate arguments.
Anytime one of us says something incendiary, the other tries his/her best to respond with a cool head. If my husband says something to me that piques me, in the heat of the moment, I have a choice. I can respond in kind, or I can take a deep breath and deescalate.
If I make an effort to deescalate, odds are that the argument will stop right there, and we can proceed with a rational discussion about the source of the disagreement. There is a difference between an argument and a disagreement. Disagreements are healthy, arguments are not.
It’s your choice. Don’t escalate.
Tip #2 Clear Division of Labor
Founding teams are most efficient, and most effective, when there is a clear division of labor. In general, cofounders should have complimentary skill sets with just enough overlap, so that you can help each other make important decisions, but will generally defer to each other in your respective domains.
Having a clear division of labor is especially important in the beginning, when founder responsibilities are more amorphous and fluid, and it’s easier to get in a situation where everyone is doing everything. This can be a huge waste of time and energy, as well as a source of conflict.
The best approach is to naturally divide responsibilities based on what each of you finds most interesting, and give each other space to grow in your own domains. Trust each other, and focus on doing your own jobs well.
Tip #3 Be Open to Feedback
You will make mistakes. You will come up with terrible ideas. You will say the wrong things at the wrong time and lose an important deal. Shit happens.
And when that shit happens, it’s important that you can take your partner’s feedback in stride. Your partner will be the only person who will tell you the truth, consistently, about your performance with the purpose of helping you improve.
It can be difficult to hear the person you love expound upon your shortcomings. But the more that you can take the feedback as positive, and learn from it, the stronger you will become as a team.
Equally important, always be objective about your partner’s mistakes. Don’t let your love for the person cloud your judgment about their performance. As I mentioned above, a mistake is not a failure. It’s an opportunity for improvement. It’s only a failure if it goes uncorrected.
Tip #4 Take Time to Disconnect
This is an obvious one, but it can get especially difficult when you’re married to your cofounder. Make sure you take time to truly disconnect, and put yourselves in a mental space that is, at times, far away from your startup. Don’t let your startup become the only thing you share. After all, it was the shared experience of your life outside of your startup that gave your relationship its unique strength. Keep that alive.
Ultimately, whether you’re sleeping with your cofounder or not, be sure to carve out time for your personal relationships, even in the busiest of times. Nurture your personal relationships and prioritize them above all else. Because when things get tough, it is the people you love that will give you the courage to keep fighting for your dreams.