Romantically linked cofounders?

Travis Wentworth

October 9th, 2015

So... this takes "founder dating" to a new level...

My cofounder is also my fiancee. We developed the business idea together, I quit my job to focus on the startup full time, and our plan was for her to continue in her full-time, stable, moderately lucrative corporate career while working with the startup in an advisory capacity as and when she could, while I'd be CEO. If and when the startup got off the ground, she'd then reevaluate and perhaps join the startup full time.

However, we've gotten pretty far along with some investors, and they seem prepared to make us an excellent offer - on the condition that we both contractually commit to working for the startup full-time for a number of years. Working together is something we thought might happen sometime down the line, but not quite this quickly. For one thing, it's financially risky for us - her income was going to be our safety net. (Then again, I think she could get a new job fairly easily if it came to that.)

More importantly, we both understand the relationship is more important than any business or career, and we don't want to jeopardise that. That said, it seems like a kneejerk reaction to say that going into business together puts a romantic relationship at risk - I'm not sure it does. Does anyone have any first or secondhand experience of romantically involved cofounders?

Any advice/stories would be much appreciated!


Jonathan Horowitz, Ph.D.

October 9th, 2015

Hi Travis, I'm a psychologist in San Francisco, and I've worked with many couples and small companies on improving their partnerships. I've seen couples become cofounders, and cofounders become couples, and I've also seen companies and couples call it quits. 

Can a couple make it work as cofounders? Sure. Yes. I've seen it. 

Is it advisable? It really depends. 

Here are some things to think about: 
-Do you have financial contingencies in place? (it sounds like you do) 
-How strong is your communication with each other? Do you address problems in a timely manner? Are there any issues or topics around which you have difficulty being forthright? Do you tend to take things personally? -How do you handle decision making? How do you "break a tie"? How do you know when to give in? 
-Do you have strong and readily available sources of mentorship and counsel outside of the relationship? Do you have outside friendships and hobbies? (you'll need them!) 
-Have you spent long, intense, stressful, periods of time together? (for example, prolonged international travel) How did you handle it? How did it affect your romantic connection? 

 And, most importantly: 
-How explicit and comprehensive is your partnership agreement? This is crucial (and often difficult) for any set of cofounders, but it's especially important for you two. How much time and effort will you expect each other to invest? What happens if one of you is seen to be underperforming? What if one of you chooses to leave? These are not fun conversations to have, especially at the optimistic outset of a venture. But before you start building a bridge, you really should walk to the edge and look down. I hope that's not overwhelming. 

To sum up: Yes, it can work. But think it through! 

 Good luck!

Michael Barnathan Adaptable, efficient, and motivated

October 9th, 2015

As income goes, you're about to get funded conditional on both of you going full time, right? Write a salary for each of you into the contract, based on what you need. The bigger issue is: how stable is your relationship? When you start mixing business in, you're creating risk of your personal lives spilling over into your business (and vice versa). The investors are kind of myopic for not seeing this - other investors will probably wonder what they were thinking by setting those terms. It could work, but proceed with caution.


October 9th, 2015

Check out this blog, it can help answer your questions. Hope that helps! 

Dimitry Rotstein Founder at Miranor

October 9th, 2015

I currently dabble in a startup founded by a married couple. As far as I can tell, working together hasn't affected their relationship. There are known cases of married couples creating successful companies, most notably Cisco Systems.
In fact, it can actually be the other way around. There was this startup founded by two guys and a girl, and the wife of one of the guys became suspicious because he was always working late (natural for a startup) and she became jealous and made him quit. I don't know what happened next, but personally if I was forced to make a choice like this, my relationship wouldn't survive it whatever my choice would have been.

That being said, there are several caveats to working together on a venture with a romantic partner, including, but not limited to the following:

1. Both sides have to be truly essential to the startup. If one became a co-founder only/mostly due to the romantic relationship and not on pure merit, it will probably end badly on both fronts (though it's probably not the case here, if the investors want you both on board).

2. Both sides should REALLY have a solid co-founders agreement before starting the venture. The agreement must specifically define a mechanism for resolving conflicts and terminating the joint venture for one or both sides. Not having such a mechanism would very likely result in a bad breakup that will almost certainly kill the relationship as well.

3. Both sides have to be emotionally prepared for the startup-related conflicts. If there is one predictable thing about startups is that the founders will always have conflicts sooner or later. Then again this is true for romantic relationships as well :-)

Joe Emison Chief Information Officer at Xceligent

October 11th, 2015

Another question you should be thinking about, but haven't brought up, is what impact this is going to have on talent acquisition, particular senior-level executives.

I would not want to work with or for a married or dating couple, and would not want to co-found a company with a married or dating couple. It has a bunch of issues:

  • The "Co-CEO" problem: who's really in charge? Does everything actually need two approvals?
  • The "Cronyism" problem: who's in this business because s/he is good, and who's getting carried?
  • The "need to complain" problem: Sometimes, you need to complain about co-workers, or at least ask questions like, "X is pissing me off; am I being unreasonable?"
  • The "equal treatment" problem: If I'm working for equity, what guarantee do I have that my equity is equal (not in terms of percentage, but in terms of how it ends up being valued)? If a couple holds way more equity than me, but I'm still senior and should have significant equity compensation, I'm worried about them using that equity power to limit the value of my equity.

These concerns don't matter outside of senior executives, but those are often critical for success.

Alison Lewis CEO/Creative Director

October 9th, 2015

I am a co-founder with my significant other. We have grumps and work does spill over, but overall I feel more committed and like I have someone that can truly share the experience with me. He's been an amazing asset and feel lucky to be working with him. I won't say it's always easy, but I will say that it depends on the relationship and what you are doing. He makes the company better, he's fully engaged, and is motivated even when I'm not around. That kind of care speaks volumes. We have very defined roles, and that helps as well. 

Travis Wentworth

October 9th, 2015

Thanks everyone for your stories/suggestions! All very helpful. Sounds like we'll need to do a lot of worst-case-scenario thinking/planning. 

Dimitry, you're right, we don't even have a term sheet yet, so I'm not counting any chickens. I fortunately came across some of the Paul Graham material early on and have had the quote about 'nothing being official until the money's in the bank' going through my head constantly. We're just trying to solve these issues as they're presented to us. 

Marissa Culture Growth Strategist | Organizational Culture Expert | Professional Facilitator | Advisory Board Expert | Keynote Speaker

July 4th, 2016

I worked with my husband for 10+ years.  This is very tricky. I write for Inc. Magazine and did a story on how to successfully work with your spouse. Here is the link.

Travis Wentworth

July 10th, 2016

Thanks for all the replies! Just an update from the OP... we're a few months into running the business together and it's going very well so far. We've been able to separate our duties pretty well (basically she takes care of the product, I do most everything else). We've been able to secure some investment and the fact that we're a couple hasn't been an issue. 

Vijay MD Founder Chefalytics, Co-owner Bite Catering Couture, Independent consultant (ex-McKinsey)

October 9th, 2015

Have a business with my wife.

Just make sure culturally you're a fit and that mission-wise you're on the same page. It's a lot of hours where you can't run and hide from each other after work. And if one doesn't deliver, the other has to which can be tough from an accountability standpoint. Someone has to be the boss and they can't hold work stuff against you personally in the relationship.

But if you can make it work, very cool to build something together.

We don't have any investors other than ourselves, so have had the plusses and minusses of letting our net worth ride on a business bet...(I've got a consulting background so we did have a hedge with my projects).