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June 27, 2005

Starting a Business with Your Spouse

Mary_1 It’s a risky thing to do, no doubt about it.  But starting a business is risky anyway.  You wouldn’t be doing that if you weren’t a risk taker.

Mary (whose birthday it is today) and I have started several business together.  When it works, there is nothing better.  When it doesn’t, it really sucks.

Most couples don’t want to work together.  That’s fine and they shouldn’t do it.  Twenty-four hours a day of being in the same place is intense.  There are excellent relationships that don’t want and would be damaged by this intensity.  There are also many couples who each have different skills and different ambitions and ought to each be in the place where he or she can best achieve what is important to him or her.  It is hard to see how a cellist and a physician could be in business together and both be doing what he or she likes.

Mary and I are lucky that our skills are complementary.  I invent stuff and implement it; Mary makes me describe sensibly and simply what I’ve invented and then markets it.  During the early stage of a business, Mary makes cold calls and opens doors; I negotiate and close.  We interview potential employees from two very different points of view.  Mary designs offices and creates company cultures that make working fun;  that complements my making work challengingly hard and covers my weakness of forgetting to say “thank you”.

Mary makes personal friends of the relevant trade press of whatever industry we happen to be in; I pontificate to them on demand and stay up drinking and being literary with them spontaneously.  Mary has often taken a trade show booth as checked luggage; set it up halfway around the world; womanned it; given a lecture or two on the side; and trundled back home with a huge list of leads and some new friends.  She thinks everyone is a prospect; I think almost no one is.  Between us we often get it right.

Our co-entrepreneuring was tough on our kids.  We paid a lot of fines for not arriving at day care on time, and, worse, left the kids lonely and last to be picked up.  We didn’t stop talking business when we got home.  We traveled a lot although usually not together on business except for the really big trade shows.  (I remember a romantic interlude when I surprised Mary by meeting her inbound flight at the end of Concourse B at O’Hare while I waited for my outbound connection.)  We definitely should have had a nanny which I refused to do out of an exaggerated need for privacy.  The kids did a very good job of gluing pockets for floppy disks into the documentation booklets for our software company; and, although they all swear NOT to be entrepreneurs, it’s been great fun seeing them succeed at what they are doing by using entrepreneurial skills and working as hard as founders.

By the time we co-founded ITXC, the kids were gone except for some odd times at home during which both Kelly and Kate were drafted into the new company.  As empty-nesters good family time was a late night in the office, no guilt about anyone else needing our care.  We stayed up with the standby crew for Y2K.  We comforted ourselves by comforting our people during and after 9/11.  Then Mary drafted them to work extra hours at the Red Cross.

But there is a real downside, too.  Ma and Pa companies make investors and some employees uneasy.  Our VCs told us later that they broke their own rules by investing in us.  There is good reason for this unease.  There is a risk that something business or not business related will happen to the relationship and damage the business.  I found myself  (I was the CEO in this business) trying so hard not to appear to favor Mary that her ideas and plans got less support than those of everyone else.  Debate is important to a functioning executive team and it is harder on the other execs when the CEO’s spouse is also a team member – not impossible, just harder.

Ultimately, we’ve found that Ma and Pa isn’t scalable.  But it may well be that Mary and I don’t scale well as individuals.  We’re at our best in startup mode.  And at our very best in startup mode together.

Happy Birthday, Mary.  Wouldn’t have wanted to do it any other way.

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Tom Evslin, shares his experiences starting a business with his wife: Mary and I are lucky that our skills are complementary. I invent stuff and implement it; Mary makes me describe sensibly and simply what I’ve invented and then markets... [Read More]

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