Marriages can survive the start-up pressures

First published in the Financial Times on 3rd December 2013.

Being married to an entrepreneur is not easy. Most are egotistical and obsessed by their company

Virtually all entrepreneurial successes are forged by a partnership. But frequently one of the partners is a background figure, who few in the business world will know. That is because they are the spouse of the entrepreneur. Yet their importance is usually enormous.

In my experience, very few winning entrepreneurs are unattached permanently. Like all of us, they benefit from the emotional support a soul mate can bring.

Being married to an entrepreneur – or even in a relationship with one – is not an easy task. Most entrepreneurs are egotistical and obsessed by their company. They are used to being in charge and working all hours, possibly to the exclusion of almost any leisure time.

So holidays are cancelled, school carol services missed and work-life balance is rarely ideal. This is the price of ambition. “Always on” technology means there is almost no escape from the demands of work.

To an extent any bride or groom of an entrepreneur weds not just the individual but their company. It is essentially a third partner in the nuptials. The arc of the marriage may well track the journey of the company. When businesses go bust, the relationship often crashes too.

I recently advised the fiancée of a self-made man that she was entering a whole new world of risk. While her husband-to-be is currently riding high, his career involves regular big gambles. If any of his corporate initiatives go belly-up, then their plush lifestyle will be severely curtailed. She needs to accept that the journey is likely to be a rollercoaster.

Entrepreneurs can make great husbands or wives and indeed fathers and mothers: their enthusiasm, energy, optimism and determination are wonderful traits. But the ups and downs of building a business can take their toll. Shouldering responsibilities towards staff, customers, banks and shareholders is a stressful undertaking. We all need to unburden to someone. Inevitably it tends to be one’s life partner who listens to the fears and complaints.

From time to time entrepreneurs get carried away with their achievements, and hubris can take hold. A spouse is the perfect foil to stop them becoming unbearable. He or she will be best placed to remind them that they are neither infallible nor above fair criticism. Several hugely important entrepreneurs I know have very down-to-earth partners at home. They are expert at reining in the arrogance and excess that can accompany money and influence.

I’m always astonished that power couples survive. Sometimes they compete for glory and egg each other on in the extravagance stakes. In theory entrepreneurs want to marry their equal in intellectual and status terms – but they also want someone to take charge of domestic duties, care for the children and take second place in the limelight.

Brad Feld, co-founder of TechStars and several venture firms, has written a book called Startup Life with his wife Amy Batchelor, also a high performer, about how to build a happy existence as the partner of an entrepreneur. It covers some of the same territory as For Better or for Work , by Meg Cadoux Hirshberg, wife of a yoghurt tycoon.

Many spouses are in effect silent partners in the business, providing crucial input behind the scenes but allowing the frontman or woman to receive the attention.

Tony Laithwaite of Laithwaite’s Wine describes in Charles Vallance and David Hopper’s book The Branded Gentry how his wife saved the business in the early days: “She sorted me out. She discovered that I hadn’t kept any accounts for two years. I didn’t know what accounts were. I didn’t know you had to do such things. I just threw the lot at her.”

Again, the designer Paul Smith credits his wife Pauline with much: “’She originally gave me the confidence to go for it, to branch out on my own. She realised that I had all this energy and enthusiasm. She fostered that, channelled it.”

Spouses need to nurture their own identities, so they are not simply seen as the passive partner of an extrovert entrepreneur, whose personality can appear to dominate. Wise partners carve out a worthwhile career in a completely different field, for their own self-respect and to bring balance to their relationship.