Three years ago, Rob Smith, a Canadian entrepreneur of Lebanese origin, was at a Beirut nightclub for a friend’s birthday. Across the room, he saw a beautiful woman. She looked several years younger than Smith’s 24 years, so when he crossed the room to her, he cracked a joke about whether she was legal. She laughed, and said she was 21. “Then she tried to get rid of me,” he recalls.
Smith asked for the woman’s number, and she laughed again. “Okay, you can have my number,” she said, “but only if you guess my name.” She offered only one clue: “It has three A’s.” Smith racked his brain, but came up short. Finally he slunk off, defeated, and sat next to his friend. Soon, his friend’s girlfriend–dancing nearby–asked Smith what was wrong. “That girl just turned me down. She wants me to guess her name.” He told her the one measly clue.
“My name has three A’s,” said his friend’s girlfriend. Her name–rare in Lebanon–was Tamara.
“It was an entrepreneurial, light bulb moment,” recalls Smith. He ran back across the club and found the woman dancing with her back turned to him. He tapped on her shoulder, and she turned.
“Tamara!” he said.
He could see the surprise in her face. Tamara wrote down her name and number.
Smith friended Tamara–Tamara Farhat, that is–on Facebook, and invited her to coffee, but she rebuffed him again, saying she barely knew him. So Smith began a correspondence. Over weeks, then months, they discovered a shared passion for business, for photography, for filmmaking. After three months, Farhat consented to a date.
But on the eve of their date, Smith’s father passed away. Soon after, he had an operation on his knee and forgot about Farhat. But then, a month or two later, he saw her picture on Facebook again, and asked her out once more.
Smith showed up at the date with a cane, still recovering from his surgery. But he got so swept up in the date, he forgot about the pain. Though Farhat was shy, Smith told her jokes, and soon they had a strong rapport going. “It felt like we had been friends for decades,” he says. “We just clicked.”
But there was one problem: Smith had met Farhat at the exact moment he wanted to move to the Bay Area to launch an idea he had for a digital advertising startup, Pecabu. He delayed the move continually, just so he could spend more time in Lebanon with Farhat. But following a scouting trip to the Bay Area in the summer of 2013, he knew he had to leave Lebanon. The two had discussed it: They didn’t believe in long-distance relationships. Smith could live in the U.S. easily on his Canadian passport, but for Farhat–even if she wanted, at such a young age, to uproot herself–it wouldn’t be so easy.
The two took a trip to Thailand that was supposed serve as a farewell to their relationship. But at the end of the week, Smith booked a surprise additional three days on the island of Ko Samui. There, at the foot of a giant Buddha statue overlooking the sea, he proposed.
“She cried for half an hour,” he recalls.
“At the end of it, I said, ‘I literally need an answer.’” She said yes.
That’s where the difficulties began.
Smith and Farhat got a quick civil marriage in Cyprus, whose lenient wedding laws make it something of the Las Vegas of the Mediterranean. Even married, the two expected to have to wait a year before Farhat would get her visa approved to the U.S. “By some miracle,” says Smith, it only took a few months. Farhat moved to the Bay Area in January of this year.
Work-life balance is difficult for any entrepreneur, let alone one who has just married and invited his wife to join him in a new country. Smith worked hard and long hours during the week, then took Farhat to meet family in Canada or see other corners of North America.
After a while though, the “unjustifiably long hours” that Smith had to put into his business began to take their toll. As the months wore on, Smith increasingly found himself missing dinner. He had to cancel a few vacations at the last minute. Often, Farhat, who had uprooted herself from her home of some 25 years, was left to dine or travel alone.
Things began to come to a head as the two planned their second wedding–a religious wedding Farhat wanted to have for her family back in Lebanon.
Smith admits that he was being less than helpful in planning the wedding. “I was doing 20% of what I should have done,” he says, but he was sometimes working 20 hours a day on Pecabu. The low point came about two weeks before the wedding. Smith was in Boston on a last-minute business trip, about to board a flight back to San Francisco, and then to Beirut. He and Farhat were having an argument about the wedding cake.
Finally he snapped, and said, “You handle the wedding, and I’ll attend it.”
Farhat went quiet. “It was not a good line to give to a bride under a lot of pressure,” Smith realizes now.
The wedding, on August 6th, was tense. They treated it mainly as something to get over with. And though they’d planned a honeymoon of a few days in London, Farhat’s visa got delayed, so they had to scrap it. Smith flew back to the States alone, and right when Farhat returned, Smith fell sick from exhaustion.
In the middle of his illness, they had a long talk.
They were trying to do too much, they realized. Time needed to be carved out for the relationship. Smith needed to get enough sleep. And while the business was important, it couldn’t occupy more than 12 hours of his day.
Now, Smith gets home every day by 7:00 p.m. at the latest. He won’t check email past that time. He also hired someone to help in the office, to take work off his plate. (An initial product, Peca, which pays users for their data, launches next month.)
On October 11th, through just two months after the Lebanon wedding, the pair celebrated their first anniversary–of their civil marriage, in Cyprus. “We went up to Napa, had dinner, went to the shooting range, and had lots of fun,” says Smith. “It was beautiful. It was a microcosm of how we hope to live the rest of our lives.”