Startup Life/Opinion/

Investors shouldn’t be afraid to back married cofounders

Investor bias is grossly unfair to those who have chosen to be partners in both business and matrimony.

Credit: Credit: Derek Thomson on Unsplash
Diana Spehar

By Diana Spehar

Investing in early-stage businesses is more an art than a science. A key part of that art hinges on understanding the founder dynamics. And for some reason, many investors have decided that married cofounders aren’t a dynamic they want to bet on. But this bias is grossly unfair to those who have chosen to be partners in business and matrimony — and means investors miss out on some great companies.

The hesitation is in part understandable; the disintegration of family businesses may make for exciting television, but it hardly fosters investor confidence. Main concerns, as shared by early-stage investors, include the blurred demarcation of roles and responsibilities, difficulty making impartial decisions and managing conflict and the risk of messy board dynamics post-investment.

The strengths of married cofounders

In reality, married founders looking to raise capital will find themselves in great company. One should look no further than the examples of Cisco, Marvell, VMWare, Eventbrite and Slideshare — all started by married couples. According to a 2010 study by Stern Business School, family businesses were run more prudently and were overall financially healthier than non-family ones.   

Jean de Fougerolles from Ascension Ventures observes that many husband-and-wife businesses, and especially those with young parents, tend to be underpinned by a strong social mission. Be it safety tech, or deep tech with eco-friendly applications, backing married founders may increase the size of the social impact market.

Be it safety tech, or deep tech with eco-friendly applications, backing married founders may increase the size of the social impact market.

When the partnership works, it provides unique leverage. Strong mutual understanding, unrestricted emotional access and contractual commitments to each other, the business and the creditors drive strong synergies. Veteran founders often establish creative daily rituals focused on pre-empting, acknowledging and addressing their partner’s needs far better than non-married founders.

In the long haul, the devotion to the business and the accompanying sacrifice may come more easily if both founders form part of the business, says Sharon Pursey OBE, who cofounded, and has been running, the London-based start-up SafeToNet with her long-term partner and husband. The business may even insulate founders from unforeseen life circumstances, she says. 

Partner-run startups that have successfully raised investment credit their successes to the following attributes as well: 

  • A complimentary skillset, shared vision for the business and a clear demarcation of roles and responsibilities.
  • Appreciation for various risk scenarios, and a clear position on each item on the shareholder agreement.
  • Ability to attract top talent and neutrality in decision-making when engaging with the staff and broader management team. 

Allaying investor concerns

Sam Gray and Michelle Gomes of Stephenson Harwood LLP consider that investors are likely to be mindful of the associated benefits of a strong founder team, but might seek to mitigate the risks of a relationship breakdown by expanding the team or by introducing specific deal terms.

If investors still aren’t convinced, there are other ways they can mitigate concerns. They can also suggest that founders enter into service agreements that spell out their roles and responsibilities or hire external agencies to conduct psychometric tests, in order to gauge fit.

Assuming both founders have seats on the board, investors may also wish to request the right to appoint a neutral chairperson who can help provide a counterbalance in board discussions. 

Founders can also help allay concerns by having a firm grasp of risk scenarios to the business and corresponding action plans and building a larger management team. As a general rule, management teams that extend beyond the two married founders are deemed lower risk. 

It’s important that investors be more open to different kinds of cofounders and cofounder relationships, especially given that we know the tech industry needs to embrace diversity to reach its full potential. And that includes married couples. 

Diana Spehar is Programme Lead, Venture Development at Wayra.

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Robert Howe
Robert Howe

As an investor and business mentor, I am deeply sceptical of either family or close friendship involvement in a business leadership due to the potentially corrosive effects on staff moral. These can be petty, like refusing to dance with the partner of a senior person at a works function given later as a reason for being blocked for promotion; the nephew of a founder who has zero training or previous experience in their role on the executive team; the university friend who morphs into a ‘control freak’. While it may be argued that these may be isolated examples, they are… Read more »

Alessandro De Stasio
Alessandro De Stasio

Hi, very interesting article!
My wife and I recently cofounded a startup with art-tech industry.
We come from very different backgrounds and I have to say the our investors saw our relationship as an added value. Worth to say that this is at angel level (just closing our pre-seed now)
Investors are a very heterogeneous category (been investor myself too) and I totally see the reluctance on investing in married funders.
As funder I like to bring this up to the first call/meeting with a prospect investor and derisk it by explaining why is actually a strength.