A Post Startup Execs Should Forward to Your Spouse or Partner. 12 Tips for Making it Work

Posted on Jan 22, 2013 | 74 comments


I recently wrote a post about how to manage relationships when you’re at a startup or are busy executive. It was based on an excellent book I had just read by Brad Feld & Amy Batchelor (his wife).

Mark on Phone Ibiza

I had images in my brain of all of the stresses I had placed on my wife in the heyday of my startups. We once took a “vacation” in Spain with Tania’s parents, but we were in the midst of an M&A transaction so this photo is how my wife & her family remember me on that trip.

Anyway, as I winnowed my way through the comments section of my blog post on relationships I realized my own wife  has posted a response!

As she is quite accomplished in her own right so I take her opinion very seriously.

She never set out to be a guest poster on this blog, but I did get her permission to publish one previous note she had written  – advice for young employees early in their careers – and it was such a hit I thought I’d publish another piece under her byline (with some minor additions from me).

A spouse’s hints for surviving an incredibly busy start-up person
My husband is Mark Suster and before he was a VC and blogger he was a startup entrepreneur like you. He was always over-scheduled, traveled constantly, had too little admin support and fell into the traps of a young workaholic.

So I had to learn how to best interact with him to be a supportive partner yet get what I wanted / needed, too.

Here are my top tips (and I still use these with Mark!). Obviously these are written from the female head-of-household point of view with a working husband. But I’m sure many would apply if the situation were reversed. And I do work – but I take on more family responsibilities than Mark does.

1. Get electronic access to his calendar
Mark granted me read/write access to his calendaring system. I don’t call when I see he is in a board meeting or meeting important investors. I found that often the reason I need to speak to him was to figure out social plans, travel schedule or to block stuff out when he has important kid-duty stuff. I use the calendar for scheduling so I don’t have to bug him about when he is free.

We have a deal that in exchange for not bugging him about scheduling I’m free to make important plans around his calendar. This cuts down dramatically on the needless admin barrage of calls that would be made and means that when I do call it can be for more happy, positive stuff.

When you do call him at work, always ask “Is this a good time to talk” before launching into the full paragraph about the broken water heater and the lice outbreak at school.

2. Respect and develop a positive working relationship with his co-workers
office manager, finance manager and/or assistant if he has one. Often the spouse ends up getting involved in assisting with admin like whether or not expenses were filed, sending in credit card statements and the like. So having a direct connect to the finance manager is important. You can just cut out the middle man! (Mark, you’re becoming superfluous ;-)) If I have questions on Mark’s schedule I know that I can just go directly to Tasha and ask what she’s planning for him. Or if he’s avoiding going to the doctor I can make a secret pact with her that she promises she’ll make sure he doesn’t cancel.

Inevitably work stories & team frustrations find their way back home so having an appreciation for the people in the office can make you a better listener. And that’s often what your partner is looking for.

3. Don’t email him unless you have to
Most startup execs are barraged with  hundreds of emails and they spend hours trying to reach the elusive Zero Inbox nirvana. Emailing – even when well intentioned – just adds to this to-do list. I usually text message him if it is important and then I know he sees it. Short, sweet and actionable.

4. Have a “date night
Here’s one where I have to credit Mark. When we decided to have kids (4 years into startup number 1) Mark pushed me to agree that we’d have “date night” once per week to make sure we protected our couple time. We started when Jacob was about 12 weeks old if you can believe it. We booked a babysitter once a week whether we had plans or not. You need couple time. If money is tight, you can trade babysitting with friends. It’s worth the hassle. Even when you are tired and don’t feel like going out, once you are out you breathe deeply and realize it’s a good idea.

A friend of mine is recently widowed and another is recently divorced. They both approached me separately and said, “I wish I did date nights like you guys. I think it is really important and I regret not doing it”

And even if you don’t yet have kids, establishing couple time independent from work, colleagues and friends is a great habit to commit yourself to.

5. Respect his need for down time:
If he loves mountain biking or poker night – or in Mark’s case obscure foreign films about blind Iranian shepherds – then make sure your over-stressed partner gets to do something that truly relaxes him once a week. If your spouse or partner is anything like Mark, he will inevitably try to over-plan his time off. Help encourage him not to. Downtime is critical to de-stressing.

Also, pro tip. Many startup founders spend all day making tons of hard decisions both big and minute. I found that once off work one thing Mark valued was NOT making the decisions. Picking a restaurant, the movie or where to go for drinks was strangely a huge relief for Mark. I think there’s such thing as decision exhaustion. I’m going to trademark that.

6. Don’t be a Martyr
Plan some fun with your girlfriends regularly, no one is going to do it for you. This is true whether you’re young and dating or have a family and kids. But it is especially true in the latter case. Often men go out on work dinners and while still technically work they get the chance to chat about life, politics, sports and such.

For women who aren’t full time in the workforce or who may be full time. but have young kids and therefore more parent duty, we can lose sight of the importance of this down time. I started a book, er, wine club with some girlfriends all of whom are professional and have families. Other than 50 Shades of Grey we rarely carry on for too long about the books themselves. It’s us time. And we deserve it. And need it. So get some. He’s not going to do it for you.

7. Pick your battle times
Say “we don’t need to discuss this now, but we need to schedule time to discuss X as its really important.” That way you aren’t hitting him up on an important topic when he might be stressed out about company layoffs, fund raising or some other major stress at work. He can then find a calm time for a heavy conversation that is planned in advance.

8. Work Travel isn’t fun
I used to be a management consultant who traveled every week flying out on Sunday and back on Thurs or Friday. If you are a full time mom or have a career that never involved work travel you may imagine staying in nice hotels and going to nice restaurants is great. After the first month believe me it isn’t!

It is impossible to eat healthy, exercise, or get enough sleep when you have jet lag, breakfast meetings through to obligatory dinner meetings. Even at a fancy restaurant you are thinking, “I’m behind on email, exhausted, and really would rather not be eating this or drinking that.”

So while I admit that when you aren’t traveling as much the thought of getting on a flight to go somewhere fun and have real downtime with a magazine sounds or a movie sounds so tempting. Just remember for a constantly traveling spouse, it is grueling. Don’t bust his balls for travel.

As Mark is (too) fond of saying, “International travel is fun. For those who don’t do it.” Or his other favorite, “Car. Airport. Plane. Taxi. Hotel. Meeting room. Taxi. Airport. Plane. Car. Home. What in that is glamorous?”

9. Remember that he is working to make our life better.
When does take that call during dinner or the weekend, he is working for the success of the family, he is doing it for us. It isn’t fun for him. That only makes it 15% less annoying, but it helps a bit. And it also helps if he’s apologetic and grovels a bit ;-) But seriously it does help to have an appreciation of his stresses and the need to be a provider. But don’t let him get away with needless calls.

10. Take vacations!
It is mandatory. I used to love our unplugged week each year in Sequoia Nat’l park with no WiFi and no cell coverage. Sadly after 5 years they started getting just enough wifi coverage for him to check in, bummer! He even hooked up his TextPlus account with the camp wifi to make calls last year. Aargh. Americans are so programmed to brag about how much vacation time they skipped. I feel sad for people that do that. Nobody ever remembers the extra 2 weeks they spent in the office when they’re older. And nobody will care later in life that you bragged about skipping vacation for 10 years when you were at a startup. You’ll cherish your memories of trips forever.

11. I love the idea of a Digital Sabbath
some time each week where the whole family unplugs. Haven’t gotten this family to sign up but I would like to try.

At a minimum I know that Mark will occasionally leave his phone at home or in the car when we go out to dinner. If he brings it he can’t resist the Pavlovian temptations to “just quickly check” the text message or email alert. Funnily enough, when the phone isn’t there and checking isn’t an option it is strangely relaxing and satisfying. Try it!

12. Take some weekends without the kids each year
whether you have kids now or plan to one day – it is really important to reconnect with your spouse. It is worth the hassle of organizing and the expense. The kids are going to grow up and abandon us. We need to nourish our couplehood. It won’t happen on its own. The first time you do it, it’s very hard. But luckily Mark is a stickler about our private time and we’ve never regretted a trip.

That said, one thing I love most about Mark is that on weekends he’s such a family man. He usually says no to weekend conferences and events. He tries to fly out on Sunday nights late or early on Mondays. He lives for watching the kids play sports, taking them cycling or to the movies, going to the beach – whatever. And, yeah, he feels compelled to Instagram, Tweet or Facebook it. But having space for the family that is OUR time given how crazy the weekdays can be is really a joy.

Hope that helps. And though gender specific I hope you at least found some gems in there for your partner, spouse or family.

  • Atul

    Very good article… btw decision fatigue is an established effect.. the mind has only so much ability to make N decisions in a day and doesn’t want to do more at end of day!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Decision_fatigue

  • http://blog.mindfulmeal.com/ Giri Addanki

    Agreed. It does keep a good balance. The team has a better appreciation of the the challenges all of us face. However, as a CEO, I have to worry about 2 other families, besides my family. So there is 3x pressure.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    unfortunately not.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    and what Tania didn’t mention is that she is ex Google. She had a very busy life AND had a lot of home responsibilities. I think much of her advice came from the fact that as a ceo or vc you are constantly in meetings and getting tons of emails. so in my opinion it ought to apply either way. even when she was at google she was never in meeting or email hell.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    congrats on the babies. wow, that seems like it’s going to be pretty time consuming! Good luck

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    thanks for feedback. interestingly, my best introspection is when I write because it forces me to think about what I really think!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    7 for sure. we used to be bad at this since bedtime is often when you have time together. we got much better about not doing it. mostly based on poor results.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    ha. we actually did see a persian film about shepherds. i love foreign films and always used to drap tania to them. now I mostly see by myself. Including A Separation, which I loved

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    that’s a great point! luckily tania traveled for years so she knows the routine.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    thank you

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    thanks for the link!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    they already do!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    re: loneliness and tough times. I write about this often – don’t know if you read my old stuff. but i found that forming ceo roundtables with a strict no-disclosure policy is invaluable. or joining YPO

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    yup. true

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    sj – we had some friends go through divorce after losing their “couplehood” so we have doubled-down on evangelizing the need for “date night” and vacations.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    great points. all

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    That made me laugh, Lindel. I suspect that picture resonated with a lot of husbands. And glad you have more babysitter time!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    hope that was a GOOD yup.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    thanks for link, atul.

  • Allison Wood

    This is great. My hubby and I are partners in our own SW startup (he is a programmer) and THAT kind of work is never done. I frequently (like 50x/day) wonder how much MORE stress we would be under if I wasn’t partnered with him on both levels.

    Being co-founders makes it much easier for me to alleviate and share work burdens; after 20+ years of marriage (and 2 years of biz together) we know all the personality and process shortcuts we need to take to keep things humming. But it makes it harder for me to stand up as the paragon of family/personal time because in my heart I’m also thinking, “Work items 1, 2 and 57 still need to get done!” And in all honesty, sometimes I’d rather do those.

    We have three kids who are now old enough (middle school and late grade school) to be able to handle themselves for the most part, so that helps too. But – again – the overlap of personal and professional is a challenge when both parents are buried on their computers at 9 at night and the kids SHOULD be able to get themselves to bed… and I’ve had many, many frustrated and resentful moments that I’m not proud of, having to be pulled away from work to deal with parent duties.

    I believe that’s a factor of me being out of the workforce for so long – I have been soaking up the terp experience like a sponge, and sometimes I just don’t feel like parenting. Some of that balance is starting to come back now… kind of like that exotic ideal of travel, the exotic image of working around the clock wears thin pretty quickly and you realize that you have an equally important job of scrambling eggs and helping with the 4th grade lighthouse project. I’m happy to find myself eagerly choosing those jobs these days…. even when I know there’s work left to be done on the biz side. It shows me that my own ideal of balance is coming back into primacy.

    Thanks to you both for sharing your experiences. Someday I hope to write a book about this whole experience of being married co-founders. After the eggs are done.

  • http://www.MikeDorsey.info Mike Dorsey

    Great article

  • Roman Giverts

    I was going to leave a comment a few days late, but this one perfectly summarized what I would say.

    I find there are often only two types of VCs and already successful entrepreneurs–the kind always perpetuating the tough guy image such that you are surprised when you find out they have a family. And the kind always talking about their great family such that it comes off disingenuous. Like the comment says, this blog is “practical and genuine,” which is rare.

  • nannasin smith

    You left out a very important point.
    LM7805

  • http://twitter.com/martina_skelly Martina Skelly

    Reminds me of the saying that your first pitch should be to your spouse!. My hubby is playing the supporting role while I put my energy into my startup. With 3 kids it is manic. The most important thing I’ve learned is that it is ‘experiences’ that count – taking holidays, meals out, roller skating, getting out locally with the family at the weekend with a picnic for a hike – so yes, mammy is often busy and certainly looks at her phone too often – but as a family we are building a bank of happy memories as we go. I do not think that they will look back and remember mammy having an old car or that the house was often messy. I like to think that they will remember me rolling around on the floor laughing with them, playing games with them, showing them the world both at a local sense and in an exotic way.

    Material compensation does not have a lasting value (in fact potentially the opposite) even though it feels good at the time. And as you have done, putting a loose framework around the arrangement works better for everyone.