If creating and running a successful business isn’t challenging enough for many entrepreneurs, it can be mind-boggling to think about what it takes to do that and maintain a healthy personal relationship.
In the wake of news that Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos and his wife of 25 years, MacKenzie Bezos, are planning to divorce, GeekWire contacted marriage experts and startup founders to better understand whether entrepreneurs and their spouses or partners have it tougher than average people do when it comes to staying together.
While the popular consensus in various reports seems to be that entrepreneurs are prone to a higher divorce rate than the roughly 40 to 50 percent of Americans who end up in that situation, there is no known research or hard data to back that up.
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Dr. Pepper Schwartz, a professor of sociology at the University of Washington, said such a study would be a “methodologically challenging thing to do” because it’s difficult to qualify who is a startup founder and where that distinction ends. If someone starts a company at 25 and divorces at 45, are they a divorced startup founder?
Schwartz, who has been at the UW for 47 years, is the author of 25 academic and popular books, including her latest, “Snap Strategies for Couples: 40 Fast Fixes for Everyday Relationship Pitfalls.” She’s also spent eight seasons on the Lifetime television docuseries “Married at First Sight.”
Neither Schwartz, nor anyone else we spoke to, knows Jeff or MacKenzie Bezos personally nor did they have any direct knowledge of any challenges the couple faced together.
“First of all, Bezos stayed married 25 years. In Hollywood, that’s three lifetimes,” Schwartz said. “Give ’em credit that these two worked hard at a relationship and kept it together for what is in anybody’s books a very long time and certainly far longer than his initial startup fervor, which is often the time when everything else gets neglected but the business.”
Schwartz said there are pressure points at very different and continuing parts of a life, such as the point where you don’t know if your effort to start a business is going to pay off, or the other person is earning a living and you’re “up and down and you don’t know if you’re going to be down and out.”
The euphoria of success could also change things, especially for someone who has achieved as much as the world’s richest person.
It takes a certain type of personality to be able to do and build all that Bezos has, Schwartz said. And that personality, and the circumstances of his wealth and lifestyle, may also be what allows him to move on in a much different way than the average person.
“Not all entrepreneur’s marriages break up. Some of them come close and come back together because they realize how much they do have that they can’t build overnight with anyone else,” Schwartz said. “The difference between an entrepreneur that’s been that successful is they have endless options. People should consider what they would do with endless options where their economics wouldn’t change, their age wouldn’t make them less attractive, they would always have people who want to be with them, they’re living an extraordinary life that they could offer someone else. All of that comes into play.”
Living in separate worlds
Dr. John Gottman and his wife Dr. Julie Schwartz Gottman, co-founders of the Seattle-based Gottman Institute, have conducted decades of research into marital stability and divorce prediction. A professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington, John Gottman founded the onetime “Love Lab” at the school where he conducted much of his study on couples’ interactions.
The Gottmans said they have treated many people who are very successful entrepreneurs. They often see a very clear role delineation within families connected to successful companies like Amazon.
“What happens typically if the man is more the predominant entrepreneur is that he devotes himself completely to the business, working as much as 18 to 20 hours a day, seven days a week, and the partner or wife is often the one who is raising the children and later on taking on perhaps some responsibilities for charity work or foundational work,” Julie Gottman said. “What ends up happening is they end up diverging in terms of their world. They’re really living in two separate worlds.”
Communication, or maintaining some form of it, is vital. Julie Gottman said “rituals of connection” are a necessity to make sure partners stay in tune with each other. If that effort is not made it becomes easier to grow more and more distant and separate and take each other for granted.
“Eventually they almost become strangers to one another,” Julie Gottman said. “And that can be very painful and very lonely in a marriage.”
If a couple walked into the Gottman Institute tomorrow and one was driven to be a successful startup founder and the other had reservations about risk and finances and so on, they would first be subjected to a careful assessment by the doctors.
“It doesn’t have to do so much with a one being driven or their own personality and goals or ambition versus the other one’s fears,” Julie Gottman said. “It’s more about, how do they talk to one another? How do they share their concerns? How do they share their excitement, their ambitions, their hopes? How do they manage conflict together and how do they maintain their intimacy and their friendship?”
Family has to be all in
Marc Barros started his first company, Contour, in 2003 at the University of Washington and got fired from the action video camera maker the same year he got married, in 2012. He and his wife, Gina, took a year off together before Barros started Moment, creators of smartphone cases and camera lenses, in 2013.
Six years and three kids — ages 1, 3, and 5 — later, Barros reflected on his entrepreneurial journey and how he makes family a big part of it.
“Going through the end of a company helped us a lot in knowing what we wanted out of the next company I started,” Barros said. “I say ‘we’ because I consider her a founder in the company. Your family (kids included) are co-founders and they have to be all in before you start or it ends up in a very bad place.”
Before getting started, the couple listed what they both wanted out of Moment, what was important to Gina and what Marc thought success would look like. He shared the list with his co-founders so everyone knew what mattered to him and his family before starting.
“The early years of a startup are the easiest on a marriage. Everything is new and fresh and exciting,” Barros said. “The harder years are trying to scale a company and have a family. Both take time, and the time you spend working on or thinking about what you’re building is direct time you take away from your family.”
The couple focuses on identifying important experiences and making sure Barros doesn’t miss those, and when he’s present and available it makes everyone happier.
His tips for startup and relationship success include:
- We talk about what we want out of the year and set a few annual goals.
- We talk about the company and how I’m feeling about it. Often the emotional discussion is more important than talking about the news around it.
- I lost all my travel statuses and it’s made a big difference. Being there for breakfast and bedtime matters.
- Moment has a remote work culture so I can be at home a few days a week. Having meals or a few minutes during the day helps us stay connected.
‘This is who I am’
Kristen Hamilton has been in the startup business for 20 years. Among other things, she co-founded the Seattle startup Onvia that went public in 2000; was an entrepreneur-in-residence at Maveron in 2013; is the former COO of World Learning; and in December she sold Koru, the 5 1/2-year-old startup that makes predictive hiring software.
Hamilton got married the same year her first company went public. She had two kids before her marriage ended about eight years later. She left Onvia and started Koru and was CEO as a single mom.
“It has become clear to me that being being a startup founder requires us to do things that are near impossible in terms of any human’s capacity,” Hamilton said about the process of creating something that’s never been done while also having a personal life.
Shifting between problems that pop up throughout a day at work and at home is like a “Whack-a-Mole” game, Hamilton said. As a startup founder there was an incredible amount of pressure that felt like all the weight of the world on her shoulders. She called it anxiety inducing at times, and she firmly believes it causes mental health challenges — a claim called out in this recent report.
It’s a lot to expect a partner to stick around through, especially if that person is not wired in the same way.
“It’s a huge piece of your life that you have to give a ton of attention to, and your partner doesn’t quite understand, even if you have great communication,” Hamilton said.
She remembers a conversation with her then husband that happened about a year after Onvia’s IPO, and after the economy had crashed.
“I said, ‘How are we doing? I know it’s been really crazy. It’s been really busy and it’s been tense.’ And he said something like, ‘How much longer?'” Hamilton said. “And I remember thinking, ‘Well, it’ll get better, but what do you mean how much longer? This is who I am.’
“It was a daunting moment for me,” she added. “Because I realized I might not be able to have both of these things.”
Starting a new company after divorce, Hamilton almost found it easier to not have to compromise and negotiate with a partner in the house. But as a woman and a mom, she realized that she would always have two jobs — her professional career and her “big other job” of raising two kids.
“I joke about wanting a wife,” she said. “I mean, I hate how sexist that sounds across the board, but it also makes a really important point, which is that most men have a wife who helps and supports them, and even if that wife is working they’re doing that two-job thing. So it’s really complicated — the fact that I’m saying it was easier for me to do it solo than to do it with a partner is kinda twisted, right?”
She’s started companies and she’s started relationships, and both are full of love and learning and hard work and compromise and pain.
“It sounds romantic to be starting a company but it’s actually a lot of other things,” Hamilton said, before laughing and reflecting on her recent “freedom” from startup life. “Exiting a business is more romantic than exiting a relationship.”
Sacrifices and better communication
Former Moz co-founder Rand Fishkin and author Geraldine DeRuiter have been together for 17 years and married for 10. Nine months into his latest venture, SparkToro — “a search engine for audience intelligence” — the couple spoke together to GeekWire by phone and offered a frank assessment of what has worked and what hasn’t in their relationship over the years.
“I think that there’s definitely aspects of entrepreneurship that make sustaining a relationship — and committing and contributing in the ways that partners should — very challenging,” Fishkin said. “I think there were a lot of years, especially in some of the best days of Moz and also some of the hardest days of Moz, when I think Geraldine questioned where my commitments lay.”
“I think there were times when your time commitments were just ridiculous,” DeRuiter said to her husband, about a period when she was establishing her own career as a writer.
The worry, which DeRuiter thinks many in the startup world suffer through, was in not knowing the potential outcome. There were too many unknown variables.
“You don’t know if your spouse is going to be working these crazy hours for months or a few days or a few years or if this is just what your life looks like now,” DeRuiter said. “I would tell myself, well, it can’t go on like this forever, but then I realized actually I don’t know how long it can go on for. And I think that was pretty scary.”
The couple credited a decision to not have kids with their being able to maintain a stronger connection to one another.
“I think we sacrificed that in exchange for what we hoped that entrepreneurial journey would bring,” Fishkin said.
“That was a harsh reality,” his wife replied. “That was a harsh reality to accept.”
DeRuiter has been with Fishkin since she was 21 and she has a hard time separating who he is from his entrepreneurial side. It’s much of who he is and at the same time it’s not all of who he is.
“I don’t think there’s anything inherent about being an entrepreneur that I love, but I do think that there are a lot of entrepreneurial qualities that are great and a lot of them that suck,” DeRuiter said. “A lot of entrepreneurs are insecure and blame themselves for everything and are a little bit narcissistic and they’re perfectionists and they’re workaholics and all that is really insufferable.
“But they’re also driven and really passionate and they see a problem that they want to fix and a lot of them want to create something that makes the world world ostensibly a better place,” she added. “And I think that that’s an amazing thing.”
For his part, Fishkin said becoming more mature and more thoughtful people over the years, and working on communication and reading about relationships and going to therapy has all helped.
“And dumb luck,” DeRuiter concluded.