How much time do we spend preparing our spouses for our startup journey?
Do we assume they somehow magically understand the path we've chosen to follow? Do we know for sure that our sacrifices align with their goals? When is the last time we sat down and made ourselves 100% sure that we're still on the same page?
In a business where we spend so much time recruiting talent, pitching investors and selling customers, we often overlook the most important person we should be convincing to join our cause — our spouses.
Often the single most important person in our life hasn't been afforded the same time and attention as everyone else to understand exactly why we're going down this crazy path. Or perhaps they do, but they haven't been reminded in some time why we're still doing it.
No matter where we are in the startup process, getting our spouses are 100% on board with our path and constantly updating our progress may be the single most important communication we can have.
So let's walk through some of the most fundamental issues that we need to discuss with our spouses to truly be sure we're on the same page now — and in the future.
Everyone understands how a job works.
We go to our job, we work, we get paid. Sure, our boss may call us at some odd hours or make us work on a weekend, but at least we know what we're up against. There are certainties like work hours, fixed responsibilities and a guaranteed paycheck.
But startups typically don't have those "luxuries."
A startup isn't like caring for an adult that can survive without us. It's like caring for a child that will die if we don't constantly feed it at all hours of the night and give every waking hour to.
If we don't put everything we have into a startup, it very well may not be there for us tomorrow. Most people don't understand that concept whatsoever, including our loved ones, so it's imperative that we explain to them how this "job" is vastly different than any job we may have had before. Every bit of our attention determines whether there will be a job to come back to.
If we don't make it clear how this commitment is vastly different than a typical job, then all of the additional efforts we're about to make will get easily lost. We can't afford that.
Being the Founder of a business isn't just about hard work — it's about sacrifice.
We not only sacrifice getting a paycheck, we often have to spend our savings and leverage our personal assets to even have a job to show up to. And that's just the financial part.
We also have to sacrifice countless hours of our time, which takes directly away from our loved ones. Where we get into trouble is when we don't put the "skunk on the table" with our spouses and simply say "I'm going to sacrifice a ton of time. There will be many times where I won't be there. Our daughters' recital that I missed? Yeah, that's probably not the last one."
Some folks aren't willing to make those sacrifices, and ideally, don't have to.
A startup shouldn't be used as justification for sacrifice — just the cause of it. More importantly, if we're going to undertake the sacrifice of our time and capital, we need to make sure our spouses are complicit in that sacrifice. Otherwise, we've put ourselves at odds with the very people we need so desperately for support.
We all want to believe that our startup will have some big payday, but statistically, it just won't. Most startups fail, just like 99.99% of lottery tickets are losers, but we all joined the game with the hope that ours is the winning ticket.
The problem with pinning the discussion on the startup "making us rich" is that it may be the single greatest lie we tell our spouse — and ourselves. It would be great if this startup went on to make us fabulously wealthy, and obviously, that's a valuable goal, but if that's all we're doing this for, we're going to get one constant question: "Where's the money?"
And frankly, if all we communicate is that this is about money, then the "Show me the money" question is exactly the right question. Where we go wrong is if we pin 100% of our goals on just the financial outcome. That outcome is far away, and has way too many question marks to let us definitely say "there's a financial upside here."
The better approach would simply be to say "I really think there could be a big upside here, but I'm realistic in understanding that it's a big risk. I'm willing to keep taking that risk if you're willing to support it, recognizing that there's no guarantee here." The critical element is making sure our spouse believes in the same bet we do — and cares about it.
If all we cared about was the financial upside of a career, we probably wouldn't have chosen the startup route. There are plenty of other ways to amass wealth that don't involve risking going without a paycheck for years on end!
The truth is it's more than that for us.
It's about pursuing something we really care about. It's about being our own boss but more so, controlling our own destiny. It's about creating something beautiful that ranges from our ideas to our culture to our customers. Something we're infinitely proud of.
Those deep and personal reasons are critical to communicate to our spouses — over, and over, and over again. It's not good enough for us to think "Well, I told them why I wanted to do this last year, I don't know why I'd have to explain it again!" We have to constantly remind them of why we want to work for ourselves so badly. Of why we're so passionate about this product. Of why we think the culture and company we're building is going to be the nirvana of jobs.
If we don't keep bringing the focus and the conversation back to the "why" it gets buried in the daily grind.
Which brings us to our next challenge: explaining why today mattered.
Startups typically don't enjoy big wins like a funding round or a massive client win. We celebrate tiny wins, like the fact that our new landing page converted 0.03% better than last week, or that we got a small mention in some obscure blog. They matter to us because we understand the context of them. Our spouses rarely do.
It's our job to come home and not only explain what happened but why it really matters.
When I come home and tell my wife (who has worked at startups herself) why our new landing page converted so much better, she gets it. Honestly, I'm not sure if she gives a shit in the grand scheme of things (that's OK honey), but I know that she knows it's progress.
And in a business where we can't show the obvious signs of progress (like paychecks, more vacation, and promotions) we have to be able to showcase and celebrate these victories. Otherwise, it feels like we're just floating.
A startup founder's greatest asset is their spouse. The person in their corner at times when literally no one else is. The person that reminds them that they are "the woman/man" when we feel like total frauds.
That same superpower turns into absolute Kryptonite though if our spouse isn't on the same page with our plan.
If instead, our spouse is constantly at odds about our startup, all of those valuable cycles of creativity, inspiration, and ambition are eaten up in countless fights at home. A founder can't win a war on both fronts. If we can't make our spouse an ally, we're in a for an even tougher road ahead of us.
That's why it's so imperative to have a very open and honest discussion about what it means to be the spouse of a startup founder and why, as a couple, it only works if we're 100% on the same page.
And as it happens, there's no more important to recruit to our startup team than our spouse.
Wil Schroter is the Founder + CEO @ Startups.com, a startup platform that includes Bizplan, Clarity, Fundable, Launchrock, and Zirtual. He started his first company at age 19 which grew to over $700 million in billings within 5 years (despite his involvement). After that he launched 8 more companies, the last 3 venture backed, to refine his learning of what not to do. He's a seasoned expert at starting companies and a total amateur at everything else.
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