You’ve got a choice.
Option 1: Selling your startup for enough money that you’ll be financially independent for the rest of your life and you’ll have the status that comes with being a successful entrepreneur.
Or option 2: A happy marriage.
Which would you choose? Does it even feel possible to have both?
This is the kind of quandary that I hear many successful entrepreneurs — quite often divorced men — talk about in the media. In their view, work-life balance is not an option if you’d like to build a unicorn. You have to put everything on the back burner, including family and friends, and commit one hundred percent to your company journey. It’s like the common recipe out there for succeeding means sacrificing ties and time with the ones you love.
Something just doesn’t sit quite right with me when I hear that. Why should we have to choose one or the other?
I believe you can build maybe an even more successful company while nurturing your relationship at the same time. It all comes down to conscious decisions, priorities and having a plan.
Why it’s so hard to balance company building and personal relationships
The truth is our relationships fundamentally affect our overall wellbeing and happiness and are the most important factor for our long-term health and happiness. That’s a truth that many of us are not aware of — and one that cultural narratives of achievement and perfection push us further away from. We’ve lost sight of what really matters.
More founders need to actively think about how to nurture their relationships while building a company. After all, status and stacks of money in the bank are not what will ultimately make you happy.
The global divorce rate is around 50%, and while there isn’t any reliable data on whether entrepreneurs are over-represented or not, I wouldn’t be surprised if they are. At least the divorce lawyers seem to back me up in this, estimating that entrepreneurs divorce at 5-10% higher rates than the rest of the population.
It’s even more complicated for founders when we consider the impact that startup life has on founder and employee mental health. A recent Sifted survey found that 87% of respondents' mental health had been affected by working in a startup. It can be harder to nurture our relationships when we’re not doing well ourselves. In addition, most founders need to navigate challenging financial situations both on a personal and company level — since financial disagreements and hardships are a leading cause of divorce.
How (and how not) to run a startup.
So how do you avoid a divorce or a breakup while building your startup?
Let’s look at the four most common reasons why couples split up and how you can avoid them.
- Not being prepared. Having the tools to work on your marriage is important for your relationship’s health. Many people who get divorced say that they got married too young, and/or didn’t know how to deal with challenges in their marriage. Plan your relationship like you would create a roadmap for your company. Consider: what tools do we have, when do we think we’ll encounter difficulties (first baby, poor financial situations, for example), and what will our plan be? From day one, be open about it, and manage your relationship a bit like your startup.
- Communication challenges. Couples need to be able to talk about what bothers them, work together to find solutions and express appreciation regularly. Divorce is more likely when a couple struggles to communicate. For entrepreneurs, a lack of time and energy means tapping into a deeper level of communication is often a challenge. But here’s the good thing: it doesn't need to be that complicated. Setting aside just five to ten minutes per day to talk about things other than everyday logistics, your job (I know this can be challenging) or the kids. So what do you talk about? Things like your dreams for the future, where you want to go on vacation next or a shared memory from the past.
- Lack of commitment. Investing in your relationship, and staying true to the commitments you make to each other, are vital for maintaining respect and trust. Couples who don’t make an effort or who break agreements (e.g. with infidelity) are more likely to divorce. For a partner of an entrepreneur, who is devoting tonnes of energy and time into their company, it can feel like you’re sharing the relationship with someone else. What can you do? Make certain things non-negotiable, like going to your kid’s football practice once a week, or never missing an important event like a graduation, or having one date night per month scheduled outside the house. It doesn't need to be a fancy restaurant; playing tennis or going to an art event can be even better.
- Financial challenges. It’s important for couples to be able to talk about finances, be honest with each other and feel comfortable with each other’s spending habits and financial goals. Financial disagreements and hardships are a leading cause of divorce. So, last but not least: find a way that works for your relationship to openly discuss your own finances and your company’s finances. For an entrepreneur, these two are so aligned that they are hard to separate. Make sure that you both buy into whatever sacrifice you’re making for the sake of the company. Talk about alternative scenarios and dare to dream big.
Role models do exist
The good news is that there are already great role models out there. I found it so refreshing when Jeppe Rindbom, cofounder of the Danish unicorn Pleo, had a super solid answer to my question on how he takes care of his relationships while building the company.
He focuses on his family and close friends and has very strict rules on how he prioritises his kids, so he’s not putting his family on the back burner while taking Pleo to where it is today.
CEO of the Swedish unicorn Mentimeter, Johnny Warström, also recently did an interview about taking time off for paternity leave, challenging his male counterparts who say it’s work or family. While he’s off between August 2022 and January 2023, the CEO reins have been passed to chief people and culture officer Anna Gullstrand.
Shifting your mindset
I believe what needs to happen is a mindset shift, so entrepreneurs can truly focus on giving their relationship intentional attention.
I’m not telling you finding the balance will be easy, but it will be worth the effort. And there are at least three winners in this equation: you, your partner and your company.
By applying the tips above, I’m 100% sure you’ll be better prepared to tackle all the entrepreneurial challenges you encounter, and the days you celebrate your wins will be even more fun.