Couple co-founders: Does mixing love and business work?

Eventbrite
Eventbrite

It’s no secret that entrepreneurs experience a rollercoaster of highs and a chalkboard of nail-scratching lows. But what happens when love, marriage and even kids are part of the co-founding equation?

No doubt, a startup’s odds of failure are upped and the thought of working with your loved one may evoke more cringe-worthiness than desirability. While history throws up cautionary tales of marital mergers, there are couple-run startups that are making it work. And rather successfully at that.

Three thriving “copreneurs” – the founders of Eventbrite, HouseTrip and Knok – share their stories of successful all-round partnership. Read on as they reveal the highs, lows and rules of mixing business with pleasure…

Eventbrite’s Kevin and Julia Hartz – “We were starting a company and planning our wedding at the same time…”

Eventbrite

When it comes to ticketing platforms, Eventbrite‘s fast becoming a household name. In March this year, the company, led by Kevin and Julia Hartz, reached a gross ticket-sales milestone of $1.5 billion from over 100 million tickets sold since founding the company in 2006. It currently employs around 250 people from its HQ in San Francisco.

And it moved quickly from day dot – the couple got hitched a mere six months after launching: “We were starting a company and planning our wedding at the same time. It was an intense period,” says Julia.

“We had a lot of concerns early on, we wanted to make sure that we weren’t going to damage our personal relationship in pursuit of the startup,” says Kevin. “We were a bit paranoid and very delicate about how we went about our business. What became a big fundamental rule was the notion of dividing and conquering our tasks which has worked extremely effectively to this day.”

Along with a finding a balance between talking IPOs and household chores, the couple are also parents to two young children – a five year-old and a one year-old.

Finding a marriage-business-kids balance

“We don’t worry so much about separating personal and professional life because everything’s so intrinsically tied together,” says Julia.

“Our daughters are very much involved in everything we do. We try not to put barriers between them and the business because we want to them to know what we’re doing and where we’re going… We want them to feel like they’re a part of that. Having children definitely creates a natural balance in your life because when we get home we can be present to them, and really communicate with them.”

Keeping an intimate link between family and business is key for the Hartz’: “It’s been wonderful, our daughter has a little Ikea desk here in our office and she’ll just come in and draw in her workbooks or colour-in,” says Kevin.

The pros

“We’re well and truly partners, both at work and at home, so if you can achieve that – it’s pretty exceptional,” says Julia.

“I don’t know if the advantage comes from a professional sense but on a personal side – absolutely. I think we’re very fortunate to be building something together where we have the same goals, passions and dreams and that we’re able to communicate on a daily basis. I think there’s something unique and rare in building a relationship when you understand where the person is coming from almost 100 per cent of the time.”

The cons

“I just think the risk is the con. If things don’t work out you’re risking the careers of two people at once, not to mention if you’re also parents” says Julia.

“For two years we took no salaries while we were bootstrapping Eventbrite, so when you’re getting things going there’s also the financial strain as well,” Kevin adds.

HouseTrip’s Arnaud Bertrand and Junjun Chen – and their investors’ reactions

HouseTrip

HouseTripAs one of Europe’s biggest holiday rental sites, HouseTrip has so far raised a total of $60 million from big-name VCs as it continues to step up its presence – rivalling the likes of HomeAway and Airbnb. At its helm: business and life partners Arnaud Bertrand and Junjun Chen. The duo have been together since their uni days in Lausanne, Switzerland, since 2006, and got married in September 2009. A mere four months after the wedding, HouseTrip went live from its HQ in London, and has since seen more than three million nights booked on the site.

“At the start it was quite a challenge to work together,” says Junjun. “We’d wake up and be directly involved in work so there was no clear line between private and personal life. It was challenging, but we really got to get to know each other and how to handle those issues.”

Arnaud admits that investors didn’t exactly couch-jump Tom Cruise style upon learning of their marriage-business relationship: “It’s nervous for them, because if there’s a problem with a couple then the whole business is at stake. Especially for the first investment, we had to be reassuring with the fact that we work well together. But, after our first investment it became less and less of an issue as they could simply see it’s working. The proof’s in the pudding,” says Arnaud.

First rule of HouseTrip: Do not talk about HouseTrip

Unlike the Hartz’, Junjun and Arnaud aim to keep their personal and business life separate: “It’s not always possible, but we have a rule to not speak about HouseTrip when we get back home in the evening, otherwise it simply would not work,” says Arnaud. “Another rule is to never disagree with each other in public because that has proved to be not very successful in the past. So whenever we have an issue, we speak about it privately.”

“And then there’s just general principles where we always have to respect each other,” adds Junjun.

So what’s the biggest advantage of being married to your co-founder? “Trust,” says Arnaud, “trust is incredibly important in a business relationship and to know that whatever you say or expect – you can trust your partner blindly. Also, there’s the ability to just be honest with each other. When you’re in business together, you need the ability to just say what you think.”

Knok: Juanjo Rodriguez and Laura Martinez – “You don’t have to pretend to be anything”

Knok

House swapping platform Knok entered the scene in May 2011 and has since seen more than 20,000 people sign-up from nearly 160 countries worldwide. At the reins, Spanish couple Juanjo Rodriguez and Laura Martinez – based in Barcelona. Married since 2004, the two began working together a couple of years later after their combined skill-set proved a complimentary mix: “Laura had the exact experience we were looking for,” says Juanjo.

Like HouseTrip and Eventbrite’s wedded co-founders, the duo agree that mutual respect, trust, and honesty are key to any co-founder partnership, but that those elements are strengthened between couple co-founders.

“You don’t have to pretend to be anything. Not pretending to be someone to your cofounder makes everything easier. You can just get stuff done… I’ve done a startup with friends before and the kind of discussions you have are much longer in reaching agreements, whereas with our relationship many of those agreements are reached in advance,” says Juanjo.

Mixing business with pleasure

“What we try to do is not necessarily separate the two but take advantage of the fact that both of them are the same thing,” says Laura. “We combine vacation trips with business trips. And then we have flexibility in how we organise our day. We seem to have a better personal life by giving ourselves the flexibility of organising our professional lives.

The pair don’t count time spent together in the office as “couple time” – and have separate office rooms. “So we’re not always 100 per cent together.”

Don’t try this at home? Advice to other would-be couple co-founders

Advice for other would-be couple co-founders

First: test your business compatibility

“My observation is, the majority of them don’t work… I often think of my own parents who’ve been happily married for almost 50 years and I don’t think they’d last a day working together,” says Eventbrite’s Kevin Hartz. “Try it out, work on it as a side business and see how the chemistry works and the challenges and rewards before going all-in.”

Have a backup plan

“When we dove into it we had a plan B…. We had a plan for if things become too tense or if the chemistry on the professional side wasn’t right, then one of us would go in a different direction. But we just took it day by day and it worked really well,” he adds.

And should things fail, he says, couple-run co-founders shouldn’t treat legally binding contracts any different to other startups.

Divide and conquer

Knok’s Juanjo Rodriguez says that couple-run startups work best when each spouse has different but complimentary skills: “Determine your roles and have a clear view of what each of your responsibilities are and then you can rely on the other person because you know the other is working away,” he says. “If you both try to do everything together it gets tiresome.”

Kevin agrees: “Dividing and conquering is critically important to accomplish so much more and really complement each other… It’s one of the most critical lessons I’ve taken from this experience.”

“Arnaud is more the face of the company – marketing, branding, etc. But for me – I’m more working on finance and administration. I watch his back and help make sure everything’s in order,” says HouseTrip’s Junjun Chen.

Agree on the rules

One couple’s set of winning rules for business and play won’t necessarily work for another. It may take a bit of trial and error until a partnership finds its “sweet spot”, but setting out guidelines whilst remaining flexible is vital.

“Working together as a couple can be difficult to start with, but as soon as you’re over the biggest issues, it gets much smoother. Couples really need to set out the rules and stick to them,” says Junjun.

Patience, honesty, compromise, and passion

“I think it helps a lot if you’re both passionate about what you’re doing,” says Knok’s  Laura Martinez. “When I meet with people who say ‘I would never do it’ and some think it’s impossible to do, but of course you have to be flexible and honest and that’s how you learn to work with each other.”

“Be ready to compromise,” adds HouseTrip’s Arnaud Bertrand. “It can take time, but you need to adjust to the other, like in any business relationship. You need to be able to listen, adapt, and compromise.”

Image credit: flickr user eyermonkey

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