Recent history is littered with couples who’ve built companies together–Michael and Xochi Birch (Bebo), Julia and Kevin Hartz (EventBrite)–but going into business with your partner isn’t easy, and sometimes the companies outlast those relationships (Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield’s Flickr).
My partner Natalia and I started dating about three years ago. Since then, we’ve built a few products, lived together, and got engaged. Working with each other has been one of the most rewarding professional experiences either of us have had. But it hasn’t been perfect, and we’ve learned a thing or two along the way about how to be business partners as well as a couple–as well as how not to.
The first and most important decision we made was whether this was something we actually wanted. But we didn’t decide that immediately. We started by working together on some small projects. Over time, we increased our shared workload and did some consulting together. After a few months of things going smoothly, we dove in all the way.
If working together doesn’t come naturally, it isn’t going to work. It’s smart to find that out incrementally. If it turns out you do make good business partners, the next question you’ll have to answer is, What comes first, your relationship or your business?
By no means is that an easy thing to choose. Your answer will allow the two of you to mutually agree on what can come home with you and what stays at the office. The rules you set up could become the basis of many arguments, so you have to make sure they’re very clearly articulated. There have been times when we’ve mixed home and work life when we shouldn’t have, and have paid for it. Fortunately, we’ve gotten a lot better at it over time by being very vocal with one another.
Natalia had an art school background before she became a software developer. I studied computer science and worked at startups like Betaworks, Bondsy, and Viggle, which helped give me a grasp of the creative and product sides of development. When people ask us what it’s like to work together, we always tell them that it’s great, because we have such complementary skill sets.
When we started to work on Picks, though, we had some fundamental choices to make about our own roles: When an important business question arises, who gets the final say?
We decided that since I’m the iOS developer, I get to make the calls on the iPhone app. Since Natalia has the expertise and works on the server 95% of the time, she gets the final judgement over that. We collaborate on design, but Natalia often handles the big picture while I do the details. We also make sure that if there’s something neither of us are great at, we both take time to learn about it and solve those issues together.
We aren’t afraid to give feedback to each other and even thrive on constructive criticism. But we’re both clear on our domains. You can double up this advice for your home life, too. One person cooks, the other cleans. One person takes care of the bills, the other does chores. Delegating our responsibilities has helped us stay focused while supporting each other in all parts of our lives, including our business.
Starting a business with a romantic partner means you’re going to be spending a lot of time together, so when you have a free moment, don’t hesitate to take it for yourself. Needing time alone is completely natural.
And much the way your company isn’t the only facet of your relationship, your relationship isn’t the only facet of your life. Maintain your interests. If you love making art, practice it. If you love playing sports, run around. If you have something you’ve been wanting to study, read up on it. Your business relationship will actually thrive if you dedicate time just for yourself and protect it.
There are two important perspectives–yours and your partner’s. It’s very important that you keep both clearly in view whenever you’re faced with any kind of decision. The only way to do that is to talk–a lot. We always get each other’s feedback before making any big decisions, and we assess and reassess very often. Seldom a week goes by without a big-picture conversation, which helps us make sure we’re still on the same page and staying upfront with one another.
It might seem like a lot of work–and it is–but the key is tackling problems head-on and right away, rather than letting them bubble up later. Don’t forget why you and your significant other went into business together or what made you want to be together in the first place. Keeping both of those in balance can be difficult, but when you’re communicating well and often, the little things become a lot easier to see.
It sounds trite, but trust and honesty are the foundations of your relationship with your partner. That holds true in businesses the same way it does in life. Which means that dishonesty is magnified if your business parter and romantic partner happen to be the same person. There’s no running away from your home problems at work, or escaping your work problems at home.
Working with your significant other is not for everyone. For some couples, it might not be the right time or perhaps their skill sets and working styles just aren’t that compatible with one another. Needless to say, deciding not to go into business together doesn’t mean you’ve failed in your relationship.
After all, we hardly have our own collaboration down to a science. We make mistakes, and we apologize to each other a lot. We keep in mind that we’re both human, even when we’re angry or frustrated. But we always try to do better, and that gets us through 90% of the most difficult times.
Every so often, when we’re considering Picks, our future, and our life, we ask each other, “Would you work with me again?” Every time the answer has been yes.
Joe Fabisevich and Natalia Aranguren are the founders of Picks, a smart to-do list for tracking and discovering fun things to do.