It’s generally considered a bad idea to sleep with your business partner — unless your partner is also your partner.
Simple decisions like where to go to dinner can seem impossible to make when you are in a relationship, let alone monumental decisions that relate to building a business. Romantic relationships complicate professional ones, and there is such a thing as “too much” togetherness.
However, in some cases, cofounding a company as a couple is an advantage. The founders trust and respect each other. They can communicate well and their career goals are aligned. Plus, there is the option to take mid-afternoon snuggle breaks.
Popular startup wisdom dictates that the “dream team” includes a “hacker, hustler, and hipster” — otherwise known as people with programming, business, and design expertise, respectively. Complementary skill sets are critical in any cofounding team, whether or not you are in a relationship. When “hustler” Joe Ariel founded Goldbely, his designer girlfriend Vanessa Torrivilla pitched in to help.
“When he began Goldbely, I started helping him because he needed a designer. I thought it was such a unique idea and I wanted a challenge,” Torrivilla said. “It seemed like a really perfect fit because we have complementary skills — he is business, I am art.”
Goldbely is an online marketplace where you can order local, specialty food from around the U.S. Ariel was previously the CEO of Delivery.com and at first Torrivilla was helping him out as a side project. They decided to apply to elite accelerator program Y Combinator, and upon acceptance, Torrivilla jumped in full time.
Like Ariel and Torrivilla, Carley Roney and David Liu have separate areas of expertise and focus. This pair cofounded The Knot — “the world’s leading wedding website” — in 1996. The Knot is now the flagship brand for parent company XO Group, which includes multiple websites, TV, magazines, and books.
“It’s amazing to be able to work with your husband, however, you have to learn how to respect each other’s roles,” Roney said. “David has business acumen and I tend to excel in creativity. So you have to know your place and try not to step on each other’s toes, but also be willing to fight for something you believe in.”
Creating a clear division of labor serves to maintain productivity and limit workplace disagreements. However, all cofounders, regardless of their role, share the same goal — to see the startup thrive. This shared sense of purpose can be an asset professionally and romantically.
Joe Demin and Rachel Connors are the cofounders of Yellow Leaf Hammocks, a social enterprise startup that sells hammocks handwoven from artisans from the hill-tribe communities of rural Thailand.
Demin went on a holiday to Thailand with a group of his friends and discovered “the perfect hammock.” He asked a cab driver to take him to the place where it was woven, and returned home with the idea for Yellow Leaf. His girlfriend Connors thought he was “a little bit crazy” at the time, but quickly jumped into the project headfirst.
“I think the company has benefited from this really close working relationship — we can make decisions quickly and are probably more direct/honest with each other than regular partners would be,” Demin said. “And we can have an urgent meeting at one in the morning if we need to.”
Torrivilla said that after Goldbely was accepted into Y Combinator, she searched for advice on how to make the couple cofounder dynamic work. She found a mentor in Jessica Livingston, who cofounded Y Combinator with her husband Paul Graham.
“What stuck with me that she said is ‘I love our brainstorms,’ and that’s definitely my favorite part too,” Torrivilla said. “Joe and I spend the entire day together — the commute, in the office, lunch. It’s great because we are constantly strategizing. You can bring up an idea, and evolve it into taking action later that day. We feed off each others’ energy, and this makes things very efficient and helps us grow quickly.”
A downside of this intensity is that both cofounders may feel stressed and overwhelmed at the same time, which can cause the romantic relationship to go on the back burner.
“It’s not easy to just go home and not talk about work,” The Knot’s Roney said. “Having a marriage and a joint business is all about finding a balance. It is definitely the biggest challenge. While the company means so much, you must make time for your marriage. It took us about 7 years to do that — and finally start vacationing. My secret to survival is that when I’m home, I’m home. If I’m home and my kids are awake, I’m 100% there. I completely shut off the email, cell phone, etc. But when they go to bed, the work turns on again.”
Striking a healthy balance is not only about complementary skills or separating work from home life. It is also important for managing stress.
“If you are starting a business together, you need to consider that you will both experience periods of intense stress at the exact same time,” Demin said. “There’s not that feeling that one person is working hard and the other can maybe pick up some slack at home that week.”
Stepping back from the intensity of startup life is not easy, but necessary to avoid burning out. It is also key to keep the romance alive.
“Midway through YC I realized there was a shift in our relationship,” Torrivilla said. “We are both very competitive and passionate people, and whereas before we would talk about our future, our conversations became 100% about Goldbely. Then Joe surprised me with an engagement ring, and brought me back to enjoying and planning our life together. We’ve done that for each other at different times. Couples as cofounders only work if you can balance each other out.”
Building a business with your significant other provides a unique glimpse into their workplace personality. Something that is a non-issue in a romantic relationship can become a disagreement in an office setting, or a dynamic that works in the office may put a strain on a relationship.
“I am not a morning person at all, while Joe jumps out of bed and starts attacking the day,” Connors said. “If we didn’t work together, that wouldn’t impact our relationship — but it was definitely something we needed to figure out once we started our business. We will also make rules about ‘earmuffs.’ If one of us has earphones in, that’s a sign that they aren’t supposed to be interrupted.”
Demin and Connors currently work out of a home office, and said sometimes they realize they’ve spent 90 of the past 100 hours together. Extreme togetherness means these couples get to know each other really well, but also requires extra effort to carve out time for other interests and friends.
“I know him so much better now, even though we lived together before, and know things about him that probably would have taken longer to see,” Torrivilla said. “But taking time off from each other is definitely important. Sometimes it can be challenging to relax together, so we will physically go to two different places.”
Right now Torrivilla is dedicating most of her limited spare time to planning their wedding.
“People say you need a year to plan a wedding. No. We can do it in a three weeks,” Torrivilla said. “The experience of building a startup with limited funds in a short amount of time to demonstrate growth and product market fit — nothing in our life compares to that. The nature of Joe’s hustle has rubbed off on me. Now I am fearless.”
Roney and Liu initially built their entire business on making it easier to plan a wedding, and the business has grown along with their relationship. They found the idea for The Knot after getting engaged and realizing how outdated, cluttered, and chaotic the “world of weddings” was.
“I was working 70 hours a week and no vendors were open when I finally could sit down and plan after 7 p.m.,” Roney said. “I also couldn’t find any ideas on how to plan a wedding for a little blonde girl marrying a six foot tall Chinese guy. After I had my first baby, Havana, I was dying to grow the business from weddings and newlyweds to pregnancy and babies.”
XO Group has since evolved to include The Nest and The Bump, which provide resources for newlyweds, pregnant couples, and new parents.
When your romantic partner is your business partner, your whole lives are enmeshed. That intermingling can be extremely tricky to navigate. Talking about business in bed may lead to incredible ideas, but it also makes it easy for work seep into your entire life. Striving for the same goal is a powerful bond, but also makes it harder to unplug and unwind.
These companies all emerged from the shared passions and complementary skill sets of their founders. Discussions over dinner turned into ideas, and ideas into business plans. Each person had something unique to contribute, and together they tackle challenges as they come. Couple cofounders are quick to say, “It’s not for everyone,” but ultimately working together makes their business and their relationship stronger.