Being a Supportive Startup Spouse

Photo by the lovely Ken Yeung.

Yesterday, that adorable scamp I call my boyfriend pointed out this Hacker News thread on being married to, living with, or dating someone who works at a startup. [tweetmeme source=”jolieodell” only_single=false]

The bf and I both relate — I work at a startup of sorts, and he works at a startup by any definition. Our lives are a jumble of midnight coworking sessions, laptops at the dinner table, rushed and exhausted mornings, a constant stream of startup-related events to attend, laptops during “movie nights,” inside jokes about VCs, laptops on nightstands, holidays hijacked by work, laptops on airplanes — the whole shebang.

One commenter in that HN threadwrote, “If you love your wife/husband and want to keep that relationship happy, seems like you either have to marry a martyr or protect those bonds by not turning your no-doubt equally intelligent, equally valuable spouse into a go-fer.

“Support is beautiful and all, but there are limits.”

And so he and I have learned there are things you have to do to be a supportive startup S.O., and there are points where you must draw the line. I’m about to draw the line at laptops during dinner, and Eston just drew the line at temper tantrums over malfunctioning hardware.

When it comes to supporting your S.O. in startup life, there are so many tips and tricks I could relate. Life is a constant juggling act as you strain yourselves to make sure you’re both fed, well-rested, happy, productive, sane. Here are a few things I’ve picked up along the way.

(And yes, I’m using the male pronoun. And yes, I realize this all makes me sound like some kind of doting, 1950s version of an amphetamine-popping housewife. But these loose guidelines really do work; our relationship and our jobs are all better than they’ve ever been, and neither one of us feels neglected or put upon. If it makes you feel better, you can change the male pronouns to “she” and “her.”)

  1. Have unplugged time.
    As I mentioned, I’m about to declare the dinner table No Man’s Land of technology and Internet connectivity. Everyone needs some time to stop reading/typing/staring/fretting and just exist in the moment. That time could be a meal shared together, or it could be a daily walk, a drive through the foothills, or a board game. As long as there are no glowing screens involved, it’s quality time together.
  2. Get out of town.
    Every so often, Silicon Valley gets a bit stiffling. Look at your schedules together and figure out a way to take off for a small, overnight trip. Eston and I like Monterey and Napa. You can do it on the cheap, too. As long as you manage to stay offline for most of the trip, an overnight adventure can feel like a 2-week vacation.
  3. Tend to the mortal envelope.
    Food and rest are vital — vital! — to his success and the success of your relationship. Dude will often be starving, exhausted, and completely ignorant of such or blocking it out until the problem at hand has been solved or the code checked in. Try to keep an eye out for signs of fatigue or malnourishment (hint: he’ll be crankier than usual), and try to offer decent substitutes when taking a nap or sitting down for a 5-course dinner isn’t an option. You’d be surprised what a cup of tea and a shoulder rub can do during an all-night coding session.
  4. Listen.
    Maybe you don’t know a Javascript bug from a hole in the ground, but don’t tune him out when you ask him about his day and he responds. Often, he’ll work out his problems by talking out loud, whether those problems are political, personal, or code-related in nature. Also, it’s just nice to be a good listener; he probably listens to all kinds of irrelevant-to-his-interests palaver from you on a daily basis.
  5. Play nicely with others.
    Forgive me if this sounds too Donna Reed, but you should be willing to hang out with your S.O.’s coworkers and their spouses, as well as any other startup folks your guy is networking with. Being a reclusive biotch won’t serve anyone too well and might hurt you more than him in the end, especially if he has the good sense to go out and network without you.
  6. Don’t ask how long he’ll be there.
    Startup Boy will be done when he’s done. Resist the urge to call and text a dozen times; he probably wants to be home just as much as you want him to be, and reminding him of this fact slows him down and dampens his mood. So suck it up and find something worthwhile to do with your time (like writing personal blog posts… can you tell that isocket is heads-down this month or what?). If you really miss him that much, bring him and his team some sustenance and be prepared to hang out quietly while they finish up work for the night.
  7. Don’t whine.
    Boo hoo, it’s 11 p.m. and he’s still at the office. Boo hoo, he’s been ignoring you and typing away all through the season finale of your favorite show. Boo hoo, he can’t come to your sister’s birthday party because they’re launching tomorrow. Again, suck it up and move on. If you’re dating or married to a startup guy, this is what you signed up for, and complaining ain’t gonna change a thing. It might only serve to worsen everyone’s mood and bring down family morale.
  8. Don’t get caught up in the drama.
    Startups are microcosms of political spheres. There are dictators, megalomaniacs, madmen, savants, slackers, and all kinds of fascinating characters. Don’t gossip or play games, though — ESPECIALLY on the social web, don’t drop so much as a hint about what his company is doing. As much as it might sound like high school, his startup is also a business. Treat it as such, and encourage him to do the same if he doesn’t already. Say it with me: Loose lips sink ships.
  9. Sign a friggin’ prenup.
    Listen, pumpkin, maybe you buttered his bread during “the lean years,” but you didn’t write a single line of code. You didn’t risk your own career. You didn’t design features and ship products. You didn’t sweat it out in board meetings or justify your existence to a row of investors. If marriage is on the table, put your John Hancock on a big, fat prenup and smile. If a divorce is in the cards, you don’t have much of a right to his startup, whether or not you happened to be around while it was being built, and it’s arrogant of you to think otherwise. If you want to make money at a startup, found one of your own or do a legit, 9-to-5 job at your S.O.’s company.

So yeah. That’s my learned-on-the-fly advice for those of you who are dating or married to startup folks. If you’ve got any helpful pointers for me, please do include them in the comments.

Love y’all and thanks for reading — and if you’re working at a startup or attached to someone who is, good luck!

42 thoughts on “Being a Supportive Startup Spouse

  1. Well-written and snappy, of course, but I can’t imagine competent divorce counsel endorsing #9’s reasoning. If the steadfast lady (for the moment) SO has sacrificed in areas 1-8, you can bet that the startup never would have happened without it. All that support is in-kind investment in the success of the business, though difficult to enumerate, and you hope you never need to. But if the startup comes into being after your item-hood begins, gals, stand up for the value of your contributions.

  2. I was with you up till #9. I say this as a man who’s a “head of the house hold” (i.e. my wife works at home). Yes, I wish my wife would listen to me ramble about Javascript or be more supportive when I come back home late after a long day at work.

    But, when you marry someone you marry them through and through, and what we make is what “we” make, even if my wife doesn’t write a single line of code, what’s mine is hers and what’s hers is mine.

    Prenuptial agreements are in my opinion a recipe for divorce. I chose my wife because I intend to spend the rest of my life with her, and if doesn’t work out then everything we made should be split evenly between us.

    Thanks for the post though, now I need to figure a way to make my wife read this😉

  3. PS The advice for the SO to take employment at the startup especially scares me. Unless both are exceedingly mature in the face of all that life can throw at them, this risks conflating personal conflicts with the business at a high level. That usually has toxic effects on the people involved, and the business, with employees and customers as collateral damage.

  4. the biggest disconnect for me is between points 1-8 and 9. so… the start-up spouse is supposed to turn one’s life inside out, and be the perfect person, never whining or complaining despite living with an emotional vampire, yet when time comes to divide marital assets, please don’t be uppity and take a fixed sum?!

    if there are any potential start-up spouses reading this, let me assure you, as an attorney, that thankfully, the courts do not take this approach. they do value the emotional and economic contributions you make to the relationship, and include existing and future business income in distribution of assets. women have fought for 50 years to make sure this was the case. it is a complete stab in the back to the entire feminist movement to be dismissive of it.

    for the record: i AM a start up spouse. and we’ve come to an agreement: there’s nothing more important than our relationship. the valley is littered with start-up successes (and failures), pining for the one that got away while he was building a business. that’s not going to be us.

    it’s one thing to argue for being a supportive spouse. but that’s a two-sided exchange. if he can’t be a good, supportive spouse because of his job, something’s gotta give: either he has to leave the company, or you have to leave him. everyone has a bad week or two, but anything longer than that is emotional abuse and shouldn’t be tolerated by anyone.

    • Emotional support is something you should both be giving to one another all the time. It has nothing to do with business, and it doesn’t entitle you to a share of someone else’s hard-built company.

      It’s a “stab in the back to feminism,” as you put it, to think that a woman’s emotional support of her spouse is real work for which she should expect financial compensation — women are capable of so much more! Unless her title is “gold-digger,” she should be able to create amazing things for herself and support herself financially, especially in the event of a divorce.

      • As I suspected, you’re turning feminism on its head, Jolie. Now it’s more “feminist” for a woman to act affirmatively against her own economic interest in the shared resources of her relationship or marriage. For a marriage, the relinquishment is huge because the law grants her an interest in a business begun during the marriage.

        A woman has the privilege of creating her own amazing children. In the event of a breakup, she will be expected to share those fruits, so why is the husband’s business interest (morally) exempt?

        Emotional support in a relationship does not actually come for free, nor as an entitlement. Each needs to earn it from the other. Fielding a startup requires enormous energy from the principals and many bystanders. Why should an SO or wife forfeit credit for that?

      • Because money is something you earn for work you do.

        Emotional support is something you get because you give it.

        Your boss doesn’t give you emotional support on a bi-weekly basis, and you don’t give your wife an annual cash bonus for being loving or patient. Nor should you give a woman shares of stock in a company you built because she was nice to you for the five years you were married.

        Alimony? Sure, within reason. Child support? Absolutely! But your company? Not unless she did something substantial and material to help you build it.

        Just my two cents.

        Also, regarding feminism… I’ve been waging that war since I was first able to call myself a woman with a straight face. That word means many things to many people; feminists aren’t a monolith any more than other groups are. And feminist ideology is a huge spectrum of often contradictory statements, too.

  5. I’m going to add: Don’t have children. And I’m also going to call BS on the prenup; being at a startup no more warrants a prenup than anything does.

    • A startup is a huge risk though, and so is marriage. Divorces are actually often caused by financial difficulties too. So I’d argue there’s a much higher chance she’ll leave you if your business fails. If that happens you lose twice (down one wife and one business). If she stays with you, you win twice. If you succeed and she leaves you, why should you lose 1 + 0.5 = 1.5? (your whole marriage and half your company) She won’t cut you a check if your business fails and she leaves you.

  6. I loved your article Jolie. Clear, to the point and very good advise. I can see how that can translate into a lot of homes today, with them tending to be completely “wired” families!

    No matter what the family makeup is, the downtime is important. I am the computer nut here in this house, my oldest daughter is right behind me and my youngest is coming up in the rear.🙂 My grandson is very adept at using a DSI, even though only 2 years of age.

    The little ones, they do not like your attention on a computer or digital device, not even when the telephone rings. If they are neglected enough, they turn to this way of life also. Honestly, I do make time for them, but still, they copy what they see. Thus, it is highly important to make days free of digital input, to ensure they have well rounded lives.

    I heartily agree to the “no whining” policy, no matter the age or sex or partnership arrangement. But when it comes to the the whole family, future generations, we need to make full days free of digital world input; to ensure they are balanced and non threatened by the appearance of neglect. That is my observations from life.

  7. Excellent Post! Both my husband and I are in the tech space (me in web/design/development and he is in the semiconductor space) so we both have to put up with each others idiosyncrasies, technical chatter (in which half the time neither one of us know what each other is talking about), long trips away from home, and very odd hours. I agree, we all need some balance in our lives, so I totally feel ya on this one.

    However I too question #9… we are a team in this play that we live in. Everything we do is an even trade of sorts. Regardless if he is in a startup or not, or maybe its the other way around. We started this crazy lifestyle together. Supported each other when the other couldn’t and visa-versa. Became each others cheer leaders when the other was down. We are each others personal advisers. I have known my husband for more than 16 years and have been married to him for 10. We started our careers together. Hence, for me, its a 50-50 split.

    For some #9 could go either way… I guess it all depends on what phase you have met each other in life.

    But great post and I will be sharing this with my hubby! =)

    • True, I think timing (and kids) have a lot to do with it…. But a lot of women in particular seem to forget 1) what’s fair and 2) what they’ve actually earned/deserve because of their contributions to the marriage. Every case is different.

  8. Loves it Jolie! Great job on all points. I’d add a #10, “Be happy he doesn’t nag about a crappy job!” So many people drudge through life working to live, and when you create in a startup you LIVE to WORK!

  9. Jolie – as much as I hate to admit it, I am of what is perhaps the “previous” generation of tech startups… My hubby founded a tech company back in the late 90s at about the same time I started my firm. We wrote business plans in tiny bedrooms of Boston’s Beacon Hill. We spent way too many nights geeking out talking about tech and we eventually got married. Lucky me, we’re still married although we never signed a prenup… When he sold his company to a public company I told him to take his $$ and buy himself something sweet.

    Several years later I still own my company and he’s moved on in his career. Sooooo I gotta agree with Tim and Hab…. Which happily surprised me. No need for a prenup in my mind. I damn well supported my hubby and even if I hadn’t been busy with my own company I wouldn’t have asked him for anything. But …. I didn’t have to.

    My advice echoes the beginning of your post… Be successful in your own right and you’ll be too damn busy to worry about catering only to his (or her) needs. You’ll both be grateful for any time you get together…. And be so happy to remind the other to put that damn glowing thing away for once (or at least for a good dinner).

    Also – a lot of your advice could apply to just being married in general. Good post!

    Christine Perkett
    @missusP

  10. I also left this on FB:

    While I love the rest of the post, I actually completely and utterly disagree on the last point (the prenup bit). Why? Because the supportive spouse may have not written a line of code or sweated it out at board meetings, but that spouse is actually necessary to the success of the startup. 100%.

    There is the financial cushion (unless the supportive spouse sits around eating bon-bons all day, he/she is probably making the $$ to pay the rent pre-funding…which can be a long time).

    Then the rest of your list that, if done with a smile, is the emotional cushion. As a single mom doing a startup on my own, I know that I fall apart on a regular basis and if I was actually lucky enough to have someone in my life that loved me through that (taking a moment to sob a little here), I would think their emotional rock-ness would be WAY more valuable than any code or money.

    It’s like saying that the wife who took care of the house and the kids while the man built his career ‘didn’t work’…what do you think allowed the man to have built his career while he had a house and family? That shit don’t take care of itself.😉

    So a prenup? It’s actually meant for protecting assets one owned/accumulated pre-marriage. To make someone sign a pre-nup for assets owned/accumulated during a marriage is a douchebag move. While I’d hope anyone would pick a spouse who wouldn’t take them to the cleaners upon divorce, that spouse is a contributor to the success of a startup if he/she does the 1-8 part of your list. That’s sacrifice, too. And it is valuable.

    My 0.02

    (I also see that I’m not the only one who disagrees…but once again…pre-kids, being a wife myself and being on the startup side of things, I now see the value in the support. Money is a modern construct. Love is friggin real. Try living without both and see which one you miss more.)

  11. I share some of the reservations others has voiced about the pre-nup. Clearly the other commentators know more about the legal considerations here, for instance, about whether a pre-nup is generally used or intended to be used to protect assets accumulated before the marriage rather than during it.

    One question I have about the pre-nup reverses things. If the start-up goes belly up and now the starter-up, anyhow, the person trying to start up the company is now in debt $MoreThanItSeemedPossible. Is there any way of protecting the start up spouse from having his/her credit ruined, car seized, etc.?

    The issue of feminism has been raised above. In the 1970’s and ’80’s, I think, many marriages ended, and the woman found herself with nothing. They were married in the 60’s when many colleges were just starting to go co-ed. See, for instance, http://www.capitalcentury.com/1969.html, which is about Princeton’s first co-ed class, in 1969. So the legal protection of marriage prevented the husbands from leaving their ex-wives with nothing. If the idea is that marriage is a legal act in which a man takes a woman as his property—and this, in many ways, is still what it is—then there has to be protection for the woman if the man decides he no longer wants that particular piece of property. Many married women don’t need this kind of protection any more because they can do just fine on their own, thank you. In any case, I think that the legal protection of marriage was something that was very important to feminists of the 70’s and ’80’s. For more perspective, consider that women didn’t have recourse to criminal courts in cases of domestic violence until 1977. (!!!!!!!!!) See http://www.womensenews.org/print/6699 for more on this.

    Well, I don’t know what this means for today’s marriages but I think it’s worth thinking about and perhaps interesting in its own right.

    Also there are many cases in which the spouse puts off career plans of his or her own in order to support the start-upper. Graduate school, medical school, culinary institute, private practice therapist, etc., etc., put on hold in order to keep an otherwise unpleasant job so that both people can have health insurance, stable income, etc., etc. If the start-up is wildly successful then it seems that the spouse really ought to be compensated for lost income and opportunity.

    Finally: if there’s going to be a pre-nup, the spouse should require an all-caps, bold faced provision, like what you see in those software licenses, that says: if the start-upper cheats, the pre-nup is off. I think I might be biased about this due to personal experience, not mine, thank you very much, but we won’t get into that just now…

  12. As the scamp, I agree with all of these points. And for those who think these rules only apply one way from her to me — we all unplugged for the evening to reconvene at 1pm, but she’s working the Mashable newsroom shift until midnight. Because of that, I’m sitting around commenting on her blog and working on some personal code projects I rarely have time to touch these days.

    To commenter bklynchic I can understand your point of the startup spouse being an “emotional vampire” if the other is in a 9-to-5 situation, something which I brought up at dinner. Because of that, I have an addendum to this post that I think has made our lives (and our relationship) a lot stronger:

    10. It helps a lot if you’re both doing it.
    One of the biggest points of failure in relationships is disparity in emotional expectations. When both parties have to adhere to the rules above — because both are working similar jobs — there’s some solace in knowing that the other has some actual understanding of what you’re going through.

    There’s a sense of solidarity in both halves of the relationship having to live instant-on, ultrawired lives. In my case, I have to do it because I’m trying to wear all sorts of hats, from keeping an engineering team together to QA to product design to actually coding myself. On the working-at-a-funded-startup side of things, I have to respond to situations in real-time not just because the team is small and there is no lackey to delegate to, but because if I don’t respond in real-time someone else who can will come along and eat our lunch. It’s funny — that same situation sounds a lot like the way a real newsroom works, and Jolie has to deal with many of these realtime issues every day as well.

    I’m thankful we’re both passionate about what we do professionally, and that passion often gets channeled back into our personal lives.

    I also can’t really stress how useful the getting out of town bit is. Weekend trips, especially in the Bay Area, feel like you’ve been whisked a world away in a couple of hours. Monterey, Napa, and Tahoe are within a car ride’s reach and all feel remarkably different. Even staying in the city feels drastically different when you’re in a hotel, and with awesome online travel tools, the deals you find are definitely within reach to do every month or so. I recharge on my weekend vacations. In fact, I’d say we’re due for one.

  13. #6 was a always a big one for me. I’ll be back when I’m back, ok? Don’t put additional pressure of a just-because time commitment to you into all the other shit I have to do. Testing me to see if I’ll leave an important bit of work just to be home when I told you I would is teen-age girl stuff.

  14. This may be one of the best blog postings I have read in years! I really identify with “Tend to the mortal envelope.” i have been rolling back to back 30 hour work sessions the last few weeks with a couple hour nap between. It seems impossible to let go of those ideas of how to fix/redev things. When you cant take a poo without a white board, go to the store without a notepad and when 5 hours go buy before you figure out you have been listening to the same song over and over, I think you might be an addict to problem solving! Jo your the best! 🙂

  15. You hit the nail on the head with this one Jolie! Nicely done!

    #6 was just what I needed also. I have been having a hard time telling my wife that I just don’t know what time I will be home and you said it better than I could have. ; )

    I have to say that I feel especially blessed that #8 doesn’t apply in my current situation but I understand that it usually does. Thanks again for a killer post.

  16. Couples who take baths together blaze paths together
    Take care to always spoon twenty nights every full moon
    Warm with a joke
    Be the white to the yolk
    With some weeding and clean up
    You won’t need to use the prenup

  17. So true! I’d consider #4 “Listen” being the hardest – had a laugh with the wife while reading this. Didn’t do a “prenup” but that’s alright I suppose as “divorce” would never be on the cards.

  18. Snappy and well written and obviously a conversation starter. This article is going to become part of the required reading for my workshop for entrepreneurial couples. I expect an entire session on #9.😉

  19. Prenups can also be about more then just the guy/girl it can be about protecting business partners or employees of the company from tr fallout of divorce.

    Don’t be selfish it’s not always about you and your contribution but about being fair and protecting all stakeholders.

  20. I think your pointers are all very insightful, and certainly seem like a recipe for success (including Eston’s point about you both working in those environments), IF you are both mature enough to carry on a relationship like that.

    There are many adults (even up into their 40s) who just aren’t mature and unselfish enough to give that much of themselves to the other person. The actions you suggest are really just manifestations of qualities: thoughtfulness, level-headedness, patience, endurance, prudence. Someone who lacks these qualities isn’t going to be able to make it work in those kinds of extenuating circumstances, no matter what.

    The picture you paint is beautiful. And it comes from the fact that you love each other, and you actually know what it means to put aside your own wants and needs for those of your S.O. You BOTH do this. It doesn’t work if one person is always taking and the other giving. So bravo! for love.

    I do have to add a tiny comment to the pre-nup. I understand your point that a spouse shouldn’t feel entitled to whatever their partner makes from a startup and that love and support are what a relationship is supposed to be anyway, but I do have to agree with Hab when he says that pre-nups are a recipe for divorce. They leave the door open, when it shouldn’t be. And with Miss Rogue, when she says that your partner puts in a lot of work to support your efforts, moneywise or otherwise, and that effort should be recognized for the things you built together.

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