Ten Tips for Combining Love and Startups

I started working on a company (Terrafugia, Inc.) in 2004 with two good friends from graduate school.  In June 2006, a month after we incorporated, I married one of them.  Today, as we start 2015, both the marriage and the company are going strong.  Here are ten things I learned along the way:

  1. Be kind. If you’re stressed, they probably are too.  It’s very easy, and very destructive, to unintentionally take stress out on each other. Normal couples get to vent about work and their infuriating coworkers over the dinner table.  Not so much for us.  Fortunately, with practice, compassion and gratitude can overpower frustration.
  2. Be clear about where & who you are.  You’re going to spend a LOT of time together. Maybe 24 hours a day for days on end.  To make that work without losing yourselves, you must define boundaries and roles.  If you need to talk to your partner in one role or the other, tell them which hat you’d like them to wear for the conversation so they know how to approach it.
  3. Be conscious of power dynamics.  Pay attention to the power dynamic between the two of you and the rest of the team.  How collaborative are you with each other and the team? Do the two of you decide things and then only “pretend” to get input? Do you ask the team to form coalitions against your partner when you disagree with them?  Also, start-ups are unpredictable and shit happens.  It’s easy to be controlling towards your partner when you feel out of control in other circumstances.
  4. Be professional and respectful with each other, even more so than you would to a stranger that you’ve hired.  After all, it’s a lot easier to fire the stranger than untangle both your personal and professional lives.  Plus, you’re going to be a lot more sensitive to how your partner treats you than you are to just some guy at work.
  5. Share praise, pride, and passion - a lot.  Being on the emotional roller coaster together intensifies it, which can be a challenge, but also means that you have someone to share it all with.  Make that a positive by helping each other celebrate the successes and dust off after the defeats.  Help each other keep your emotional buckets full by adding good stuff; help each other plug leaks when they happen.  
  6. Get on the same page about how to relate to the rest of your team.  The people that work for and with you will want to know what the expectations are for conversation, how (not if - it will) your interpersonal dynamic influences office politics, and if you’re comfortable seeing employees and their spouses socially on double dates.  Talk about PDA.  Be conscious of the “mom & pop & kids” dynamic. Don’t assume that either your partner or your employees have the same idea about what is okay as you do.
  7. Set aside time to think about other things together. This is harder than just doing other things together, and more important. Be present with each other when you’re not working.  You can work a lot, even from home and on weekends, and enjoy the fact that your partner is more likely to understand and appreciate why you’re doing it.  But when you’re not working, make the effort to set that all aside and just pay attention to the person you love. Do this on business trips too, even if it’s just a dinner out.
  8. Cultivate and rely on your own friends. Having friends together is great, but when you get frustrated with each other, it’s nice to have someone else to help you make your own space and to talk to about things that aren’t the company. Find that fine line between venting when you need to and being malicious behind the other person’s back.  It may feel good in the moment to complain about that stupid thing they did in the office, but careless negative words can make a situation worse, even if your partner doesn’t hear them.
  9. Make time for yourself.  Kind of like #8, but this includes exercise, meditation, pleasure reading, hobbies, etc.  Anything that recharges your batteries.  You have to take responsibility for making yourself happy and whole: since you’re going through the same ups and downs, it’s just that much harder for your partner to help you recharge.  And no matter how much you love them, 24 hours a day can get to be too much.
  10. Let it grow up.  Just like with kids.  You have to let the company spread its wings and your team take on more and more responsibility as time goes on.  It means you’ve been successful “parents.”  It’s okay if your roles change - both at work and at home - as part of this process.  It’s okay if it’s not always what both of you want to spend all of your time doing; moving on isn’t a rejection or abandonment either personally or professionally.

And the bonus lesson: the only reason to do something like this is if you both really want to do it for yourself.  Not for the other person, not because you think it’s your duty as a spouse, just because you want to. And if you really want to, don’t let anyone else tell you it’s a mistake: I wouldn’t have done it any other way.


Oshkosh 2013 Demonstration of the Terrafugia Transition: Carl & Anna at the Performers Tent
[photo: Ann Mracek]