When her husband first joined a startup, a woman I’ll call Cindy had saved up a comfortable nest egg for her family. Even with several young children, their financial situation was stable enough that their personal risk in the venture seemed minimal.
But a year later, when the seed funding dried out and no substantial revenue was forthcoming, things went downhill for them. Her husband stopped receiving a salary, yet continued working and traveling extensively for the company. Cindy had to care for their children, including two toddlers and two autistic preteens, mostly on her own.
She begged her husband to find another job, but he didn’t want to leave a business that he had already invested so much in. She offered to go back to work and have him watch the kids; he refused.
Within two years, their financial reserves and their children’s college funds had disappeared entirely. Their home was eventually foreclosed on, and the family had to move in with a relative.
Only then—on the brink of financial ruin and with their marriage in serious jeopardy—did Cindy’s husband reconsider his employment options. He eventually left the startup and found another job with an established company.
Several years later, their family is still recovering. Their relationships have been strained and tested; their financial outlook is far bleaker than it used to be.
The dream of starting the next big startup unicorn may have belonged to only one member of the family, but the resulting stress, relational strain, and material loss were borne by all of them.
Cindy’s story is unusual only in terms of the extent of the costs her family suffered for the sake of a startup. Every day, entrepreneurs’ spouses, partners, and children, sacrifice and contribute—often in invisible or immeasurable ways—to help their loved ones’ dreams come true.
Why Entrepreneurs Should Engage Their Spouses in the Business
We often think of the typical entrepreneur as young and single, but in reality more than 70 percent of business founders are married and the majority of those have children.
And if one person in the family is living the startup life, so is everyone else.
At a minimum, here’s what your significant others and kids may be sacrificing for the business: financial security, certainty, a scheduled life, and time spent together. Spouses often give even more: they may need to stay in a job they don’t like to help pay the bills; they may do a disproportional amount of child care and housework; they may even have to relocate, leaving behind their social networks and professional opportunities.
Even if you are fortunate enough to have a startup that is well funded and relatively stable, your family will still be impacted. Entrepreneurs are more content with their careers than the average American employee, but they also experience far higher levels of stress.
Social scientists have found that stress caused by factors wholly outside the relationship can deeply affect marriages. They call this phenomenon stress spillover, and it can do everything from increase marital conflict to cause you to like your spouse less. Stress is also as contagious as the common cold. Being around a stressed individual or even just seeing him or her on video—beware video chats!—is enough to elevate cortisol levels in someone else.
Though we like to think of startups as the result of the hard work and sacrifice of one ambitious, courageous soul, startups are, in fact, a family affair. Your loved ones will be affected—financially, emotionally, logistically—no matter how much you might want to shield them.
Now, to be clear, the many contributions and sacrifices provided by family members are almost always given willingly. I’ve had the privilege of interviewing dozens of entrepreneurs’ spouses across the country, and they have all expressed pride and enthusiasm at seeing their significant others pursue their passions. But that doesn’t mean giving such support is easy. Spouses often wrestle with fear, anxiety, exhaustion, and resentment along the rocky startup journey, which can lead to long-term problems for the family.
In addition to regularly offering acknowledgement and gratitude, one of the most important ways entrepreneurs can support their partners is to empower them as partners in business decisions, especially those that directly affect the family. Here are 4 way that you can engage your spouse:
Make all major financial decisions together.
While the reasons for divorce differ across various studies, conflict over money is almost always at the top of the list. The typical new business requires about $25,000 to get off the ground, though a more ambitious business plan could require significantly higher investment.1 If there will be any financial sacrifice, the entire family will have to be part of it. Decide on a family budget that everyone is comfortable with. Set limits on how much you will invest in the business and agree to revisit this number if circumstances change. Establish a timeline for reevaluating the family’s financial outlook.
Set a work schedule together, and proactively communicate if that work schedule ever needs to change.
Understandably, entrepreneurs have trouble setting boundaries on their work. But if you’d like to spend meaningful with your family, it’s essential to schedule time with them. Establishing agreed-upon times for work and family life will get you and your partner on the same page and reduce the amount of resentment or isolation he might feel. Your schedule will likely need to change as the company grows, but make sure to discuss this with your spouse and get his backing first.
Keep your significant other updated on the company’s significant goals and milestones.
Your significant other will appreciate knowing what her sacrifices are contributing to and why this matters. Keeping her up to date will also give her a picture of what’s to come: Will the amount of work increase, stay the same, or decrease? Is the financial outlook of the company going to stabilize? Are you getting closer to realizing your dream? Providing a fuller picture of what’s happening with the company will help your spouse set realistic expectations for your family life.
Give one another permission to raise a red flag and ask for help.
The startup life is nothing if not intense. It’s likely that you, your spouse, or both of you will experience burnout at some point. Finding a sustainable way of doing things is critical, though it will likely take you some time to figure out what that looks like. In the meantime, let one another know that it’s okay to ask for help if life gets overwhelming. Sometimes just knowing that change is possible is enough; other times it’s helpful to get explore the other options and resources that are available to you.
You can’t prevent your family from being impacted by your startup, but you can mitigate the negative effects while also building a stronger level of partnership with your spouse.
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