The Startup Spouse: On Risks, Trade-Offs And Never Sleeping On The Floor

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The Startup Spouse: On Risks, Trade-Offs And Never Sleeping On The Floor

 

The following is a guest post by Lisa Rosen, the startup spouse.  You can follow her on twitter @entreprenrswife.

"He who sleeps on the floor will not fall off the bed." ~Robert Gronock

"I quit my job today," announced my husband, Seth Rosen, as he casually dropped his briefcase and strolled through the front door of our apartment. As if it was no big deal. As if quitting one's job is a routine occurrence. To be fair, Seth had talked about leaving his day job to work full time with his best friend, Mike Salguero, on CustomMade.com, a website they had recently purchased. And, to be fair, Seth had asked me repeatedly how I felt about the move. I had assured him that, in no uncertain terms, he had my unequivocal support -- mostly because I didn't think he would actually do it. Yet, here I was, staring at my newly-minted entrepreneur, unsure of whether I should throw up my arms to hug him or strangle him. After all, lots of people talk about starting a company because they think they have a million dollar idea, but very few pull the proverbial trigger. There is a reason for that. Leaving a seemingly safe and reliable salary for the uncertainty and potential perils of a startup company is risky. More startups fail than succeed, especially if a business requires venture capital. A quick search on Wikipedia told me that there are around two million new businesses started in the United States every year, of which less than 800 receive venture financing or 0.04%. CustomMade was already doomed. To make matters worse, it was the summer of 2009 and the US economy was in a deep recession. Was he nuts?

sleep floor

Contrary to popular belief, Seth and Mike argued that the height of the Great Recession was an opportune time to start a company. In 2009, talented people were being laid off and investors were looking for better deals. Companies like Disney, Hewlett-Packard, and Microsoft provided ample precedent that great companies were born during hard economic times. Seth also convinced me that the timing was perfect for a young, well-educated couple with no children and decades of future earning potential to make the leap. Still, trading a plump six-figure salary (and health insurance, as my mother would rightly later point out) for an emaciated startup seemed irrational and incredibly risky to, well, everybody else.

"How could you let him jeopardize your financial security?" was the universal cry from friends, family and colleagues. Others probed deeper:

"When will Seth start to earn a salary?"

"How will you pay your rent?"

"Will you have to put off having a baby?"

"What does CustomMade do again?"

"What if you lose everything?"

"Wait, what do you mean you can't afford to come to my wedding?"

I was standing in front of a firing squad, dodging the bullets as best I could. Over time it became exhausting and my confidence in Seth and CustomMade began to erode.

One afternoon I called Seth at work and told him to be home for dinner, that I was going to cook. He agreed to leave work early only after I told him that chicken parmigiana was on the menu. This was code -- my notoriously limited culinary repertoire consists of any protein that can be breaded and pan fried, and microwave popcorn. If home-style chicken parmigiana is on the dinner menu, then something is up in the Rosen house.

The minute Seth stepped through the door my anxiety erupted. "Why are we starting a company now?" I asked. "It seems like too big of a risk."

"Well, it depends on how you define risk," Seth said without skipping a beat. He sat down at the kitchen table and poured himself a glass of wine. "How do you define risk?" His knowing look should have tipped me off that this question required more analysis than my first impression. But the answer seemed obvious. Without thinking I responded that "risk" is the chance that something bad will happen.

Seth shook his head. "Risk is not just about avoiding bad outcomes. It is the chance of an unexpected outcome good or bad."

"Risk is about evaluating trade-offs," he continued. "And evaluating trade-offs requires the consideration of opportunity costs: if I do this, then I can't do that. I could stay at my finance job, continue earning a salary, and insulate myself against the risk of CustomMade's failure. But what about the opportunity cost of my time?"

The implication was clear. If he continued as an investment banker, then he could not build CustomMade, attempt to change the way people consume retail goods, and reach for a successful exit. Every day he spent doing the "secure" job was a day he couldn't spend building a company.

"Although it seems counterintuitive at first, staying at my day job offers very limited upside financially and professionally. I think that's actually the riskier path."

I paused and slowly digested his words. He was right. From the beginning I had been viewing CustomMade through a much different lens. And so had many other people in our lives.

This is why the Robert Gronock quote above is so relevant for entrepreneurs and their families. Your interpretation reveals how you define risk. In the years before I married Seth, my life was predictable. As a child, my parents taught me to sit up straight, brush and floss my teeth twice a day, and to always color inside the lines. After high school I followed the safe path from college to law school to the conventional confines of a big Boston law firm that provided me with a reliable paycheck. In those days, after reading Gronock's quote, I would have thought, "Wicked smart!" and promptly traded my injury-prone four-poster bed for a mattress on the floor.

But a funny thing happened after I married an entrepreneur. Seth taught me to think differently about the world. The Gronock quote is not sage advice to avoid a bad outcome; it's about a trade-off. By sleeping on the floor you are eliminating a good outcome (a blissful night of sleep) in order to mitigate the chance of a bad outcome (falling off the bed and suffering an injury). Thinking about entrepreneurship in terms of trade-offs and opportunity costs is a better way to think about the associated risks.

Based on my discussions with Seth, this analytical framework is the same whether the decision is to start the company or a day-to-day operational matter. In either case, you need to consider your priorities, which are shaped, at least in part, by the opinions of your inner circle. Of course, multiple third-party opinions often complicate matters. This is especially true if you have a spouse like me that Monday morning quarterbacks your decisions. Let me give you an example.

Seth's company, CustomMade.com, runs an online marketplace for custom goods and services. They connect their network of makers with consumers who are looking for a durable good (like furniture, jewelry or clothing) to be made custom. In the beginning, I was adamant that the company should do capacity building like how-to-run-a-business workshops and other educational programs for their makers, who range from solo practitioners to large, multi-employee businesses. My thought was that adding extra programs would knit the CustomMade community together. It felt good to make the suggestion, like I was adding value to our company.

"Sure," Seth said. "It's a fine idea." I was thrilled.

But he never acted on it. Not even after I nagged him for the fifth time.

"Listen, it's a good idea. But I have a small team here, and everyone needs to be focused on building the product to make our engines run. If I focus my people on maker workshops, then that takes them away from our core priorities and I risk slowing down product development. See the trade-off?"

Oh, right. He was referring to the opportunity costs of his employees' time. I immediately shut up about capacity building, and since then I've tried to keep my backseat driver tendencies to a minimum. When I do provide feedback (solicited and otherwise), I try to frame it in terms of trade-offs. I've even applied the framework to our relationship, but with mixed results. Admittedly, it's hard to stop and consider trade-offs and opportunity costs when you are inherently impulsive, as I am. Unlike me, however, Seth always takes his time to carefully weigh all options before making a decision.

But perhaps I should take comfort from that fact. At least I know we'll never be sleeping on the floor.

Posted by Dharmesh Shah on Mon, Jul 09, 2012

COMMENTS

Great article, love it!

posted on Monday, July 09, 2012 at 10:03 AM by GB


Seth is lucky to have such a supportive spouse. Hope his venture makes all of your families dreams come true.

posted on Monday, July 09, 2012 at 4:16 PM by Noel


Thanks Lisa for this post (and Dharmesh too!) This is my life as well - my partner is a serial entrepreneur, and she's done everything you mentioned: she's helped me see her huge vision, given me massive anxiety, led me to reframe words like 'security', shown me my own journey down the expected path (and the expected reward), and also inspired me. I've actually followed her lead and am working to help build her company (link here</>, and also started my own (other link here). It's really about examining the opportunity costs/trade-offs you mentioned, and living a life of meaning. Thanks!

posted on Monday, July 09, 2012 at 5:33 PM by Leah Neaderthal


Love the article. Truly inspirational.

posted on Monday, July 09, 2012 at 7:04 PM by Ankit Jhalaria


There is no security of any kind in earning when the value relationship is controlled by an employer or other third party. There may be security in owning if there is a value proposition to be owned. The former is obvious; the latter is often known only after the fact.  
 
The true risk is not in trying; rather the true risk is in self-delusion. So, my advice to the entrepreneur in each of us is to be painfully honest -- with yourself, your partners (marital and business) and investors. If you are, the pay-offs will come in time.

posted on Monday, July 09, 2012 at 9:01 PM by Andrew Ellis


One of the riskiest things to do is just putting nose to grindstone working for a law firm -- I'm a lawyer, so this is the field I know best. By classmates who seem to have the safest securest best positions, ended up in much greater percentages than you'd think in the worst way. If you dont invest in yourself, or have a boss investing in you, you are taking the least risky path to oblivion. It's guaranteed to happen. So sad. 
 
I really like this post.

posted on Tuesday, July 10, 2012 at 12:56 AM by Ken


Great article! Achieving success is so much easier with a supportive significant other. How should success be defined? Is it financial rewards? Is it more time with the family? Or is it just the satisfaction of knowing you created something?

posted on Tuesday, July 10, 2012 at 9:25 AM by Keith


This article really hits home. When I told my wife I wanted to start my business providing SEO Services to small and medium size businesses she almost died. 
 
Six months later I can truly say that it was the best decision I have ever made hands down. A supportive spouse is crucial for your long term success. 
 
There will be some bumps in the road and nothing will ever be perfect. Just make sure you have a plan and you both are signed on for the ride. 
 

posted on Tuesday, July 10, 2012 at 10:52 AM by Fighters Marketing


This is a great article. A supportive spouse is the best asset an entrepreneur can have. My wife may not know my business but she knows how I work my business. This is her security. Still every now and then I come up with an idea which will make her very anxious. At these times we talk everything over until she can appreciate the risk, which is the opportunity passing us by. Communication is very important.

posted on Tuesday, July 10, 2012 at 5:31 PM by Jeff Weeks


I've got to take issue with the implication that raising vc funding is the only way to go - can we kill that myth already? 
 
Maybe the majority of those 2 million starts planned to grow organically?

posted on Wednesday, July 11, 2012 at 5:09 PM by Ryan


This is a great article. The risk of unknown plays a big role in every entrepreneur's life. We have seen so many instances of families and loved ones unable to cope up with uncertainty of losing everything on a crazy idea, but its the risk appetite and drive of entrepreneur that make those crazy ideas into amazing products. 
 
I believe in… Fail fast, move on and learn from your mistakes. 
The last thing you want is for history to repeat itself…. 
Therefore look at why your mistakes happened, how could you have done things differently? How will you change things moving forward? 
 
Cheers 

posted on Thursday, July 12, 2012 at 10:11 PM by Rajesh


A start up needs the support of your whole family. I am doing it as a single mum with two kids.It's not a risk, you have to love what you do.

posted on Friday, July 13, 2012 at 10:23 PM by jane evans


Quite a timely article for me. My family knows the toll my work takes out of me, so it's sort of an expectation that if I'm all in, they also have to be all in. 
 
I make sure to give them as much time as possible, but they also know that I have goals that need to be met - for their benefit and my own.

posted on Tuesday, July 17, 2012 at 12:07 PM by Upperatus


I though this was a very insightful piece and loved your bed analogy. I started my own law firm 7 years ago and it was definitely the best decision I made, and worth the trade off. Your piece inspired me to write a blog piece of my own, referencing yours, as I think that it’s a great way of looking at starting a business where no risk means no reward.

posted on Friday, July 20, 2012 at 6:10 AM by Shireen Smith


Having a supportive spouse, particularly one who is willing to provide the steady income while the entrepreneur spouse gets her business off the ground is priceless.  
 
If I didn't have a great spouse, I'd have never been able to pursue my entrepreneurial bent.  
 
Furthermore, even though she didn't understand my business, she understood a lot of other things and was able to provide wise counsel many times when I was at crossroads. 
 
Entrepreneurs--your spouse is an amazing asset. Make sure that you keep your spouse involved in everything. Just because your spouse doesn't understand what your business does is no excuse for not keeping your spouse involved, as your spouse is sharing that risk with you.

posted on Friday, July 20, 2012 at 6:17 PM by Jason Hull


Congratulations on stepping into the unknown because that's where all the Magic happens. I wish you continued Success in all your endeavors.

posted on Tuesday, July 24, 2012 at 9:41 PM by The Acquisitionist


This article was wonderful. I've struggled to put risk in its proper place. Thank you.

posted on Saturday, July 28, 2012 at 9:58 PM by Dawn


Lisa 
Thanks for the post. I really enjoyed reading the story and it truly resonates with me. Like your husband, I left a corporate career to start a consultancy, during the recession and to make matters worst, a mid-career move. Best thing I've ever done! The questions you received can sometimes be disempowering but they are well intended! Peace.

posted on Monday, August 06, 2012 at 11:45 AM by Tony Bond


Comments have been closed for this article.