Two by Two: Founder Couples as Partners

People talk about startup co-founders as like being in a marriage. Some really are – married that is. Last week I facilitated a panel on founder couples at Google headquarters in Mountain View for Carnegie Mellon Bay Area alumni. On the panel were three sets of founder couples: Eric and Susan Koger of Modcloth, Emily Olson and Rob LaFave of Foodzie, and Chaz Giles and Angela Conley of MomTrusted. I have featured all three companies and couples in previous posts (you can read those here: Modcloth, Foodzie, MomTrusted).

Founder couples panelMy interest in this topic stems from my own partnering with my husband, Tim Carryer (who now runs his own business, GreenoverGreen, where I am not a co-founder or even much involved!). I didn’t find it difficult, unusual or weird to partner in business with my life partner. In fact, I found it natural, although I admit that it was intense. We had always worked together from back in the days when we were a performance team – Circus Ridiculus (sic), then Carryer and Bailey, then Theatre Sports (Pittsburgh). In the world of theatre, performing as a couple was not unusual. But it wasn’t normal or usual for most technology startups to have founder couples. I wanted to find out if that attitude had changed.

I suspected as much from talking with many entrepreneurs over the last couple of years while preparing to launch New Venturist. The founder couples I talked with were open about their relationships and convinced that it worked both personally and professionally. The panelists last week reinforced this and shared several core insights that apply broadly to all founder teams:

  • Commitment.  A couple has previously demonstrated a commitment to each other so carrying that over into a company is logical. With all of their eggs in one basket, a couple is likely to work really hard to make the company successful.
  • Time on task.  Funders should be well pleased that founder couples are likely to spend a lot of time together and much of that time will of course be spent on the business. Just think of the pillow talk!
  • Defining roles.  Couples have to define roles within their personal relationship as well as within their company. This is important for any founding team to avoid the competing co-CEO thing. Couples do this naturally as they are usually complementary anyway. And couples tend not to cross boundaries with each other, ensuring adherence to roles.
  • Support and encouragement.  Companies with founder couples seem more likely to create a culture where everyone supports and encourages each other, creating a cohesiveness of vision that can hard to achieve.
  • Trust.  Doing a startup is hard. Really hard. Harder than anything. And to do something this difficult you need to trust your partner. Couples might have an easier time at this since trust is inherent in their relationship to start.
  • Passion.  Need I say anything more?

The panelists also debunked three myths about founder couples:

  1. Break up – the fear that if the couple fight or break up the company will suffer. No more true than among partners who are not couples.
  2. Confusion among the staff – will the rest of the company be resentful of the chief couple? Will the staff suffer from lack of clarity about who to go to for certain things? No more true than among partners who are not couples.
  3. Can’t get funding – funding will be hard to get as a couple with a couple as founders. All three of my panelist companies are funded by sophisticated angel and VCs. Funding at the early stage tends to be about the team anyway. Like any founding team, a founding couple has to convince the funders that they are the right team for the job.

My couples didn’t find it weird or unusual at all that they were both business and personal partners. In fact, they liked their coupleness coupled with entrepreneurship. They talked about how innovation was part of their daily lexicon.

I was especially impressed at the respect and awe that the men on the panel had towards their female counterparts. In all three cases, the idea for the company stemmed from the woman and the man stepped in to help start, run and grow the business. They were a shining example of business partners/life partners.

It’s not for everyone maybe, but I wouldn’t shy away from it if you are thinking about it.  Now I am on the hunt to talk to more couples. I would appreciate any referrals or suggestions!

Finding the entrepreneur
Interactive Map: The United States of Venture Capital
Krista Paul,