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Entrepreneurship: Is Marrying An Entrepreneur a Mistake?

This morning I had the pleasure of disagreeing vehemently with an online column entitled “Pitfalls of Marrying an Entrepreneur.” The column’s thesis seems to be that spouses of entrepreneurs should be prepared to take a back seat to their mate’s business. Here’s how they put it [n.b., emphasis is mine]:

This morning I had the pleasure of disagreeing vehemently with an online column entitled “Pitfalls of Marrying an Entrepreneur.” The column’s thesis seems to be that spouses of entrepreneurs should be prepared to take a back seat to their mate’s business. Here’s how they put it [n.b., emphasis is mine]:

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[Entrepreneurs] feel they have a mission to create. And something in life normally has to give. That means a partner must be accommodating: willing to sacrifice almost everything for the business and willing to put up with the ego of their ambitious other half.

At one point in the piece, the author refers to entrepreneurs as “empire builders” who are “never satisfied.” Empire builders? Are there not plenty of business-owners who a) start a business to sell it quickly or b) establish a successful business and just ride the wave?

When one starts a business, there are two options: success and failure. But “success” has some sub-options that can actually be quite beneficial to a marriage — or friendship, or any kind of relationship.

Yes, surely there is the example of the entrepreneur who starts one [insert your business here] and then gradually expands with entities in every county in the state. But that is damn hard to do. Most people, whatever their ambition, don’t have the mental resources to oversee, say, 10 dry cleaning stores; those “empire-builders” are the very small minority. Do I feel sorry for their spouses? Maybe. But my guess is that this 1% of entrepreneurs is not married in the first place. And if they were, they aren’t anymore.

What about the other 99% of entrepreneurs, the ones who present so many “pitfalls” to their potential mates? They take those sub-options of success, presuming their business succeeds at all. They can sell the venture, make a nice sum, and either return to their sinecure stress-free, or retire completely. Or, they can take their business to the logical equilibrium between success and self-sacrifice, and just be happy with it.

Take, for example, the owner of Skimshop.com, a boardsports company based out of Connecticut. It’s owned by an acquaintance of mine, and he runs it out of his home. He’s in his early 20’s. His parents are his only two employees. Has the business scaled up? Absolutely; they do sales volume that increases almost exponentially every year. But, as with many Web businesses (and an increasing number of entrepreneurs are Web-based), that doesn’t mean that he buys a massive warehouse and hires 1,000 people. He and his parents do all the Web design, shipping, and accounting, because that’s what’s most manageable; if he expands beyond that, he’s out of his comfort zone, and he’s risking his business.

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The phenomenon of the entrepreneur with the MBA is a relatively recent one; entrepreneurship programs are sprouting up at universities all over the country, but most of the folks that start businesses don’t have the knowledge or inclination to be “empire builders.” What they do have, however, is creativity, drive, self-confidence and dynamism.

Of course, I shouldn’t presume they succeed; in fact, a huge percentage of aspiring entrepreneurs simply fail. So if you’re thinking about marrying someone who’s successfully birthed a business, rejoice: they’re capable, smart, and able to plan long-term. I’d be more wary of the folks who attempt to start a business, fail, and give up, than the ones who aspire for empire. Those are the people that might lack the persistence and passion to shoulder a marriage.

So go ahead, marry your potential dry cleaning magnate. Chances are, he or she will be more interesting than that accountant you dated a few years back.

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About the author

I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs

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