11 October 2017

The challenges of co-founding a company as a couple

For co-founder couples, pillow talk can be a professional minefield.

In the second ever issue of Courier, we talked to Itamar Srulovich and Sarit Packer, who were a year into their new London restaurant Honey and Co. ‘We do argue, but we just fight it out and move on,’ said Srulovich.

There are countless couples who wake up and work together, ricocheting between two emotionally-intense powder kegs. Hospitality, fashion and retail have the most examples: the Firmdale hotel, Lonely Planet, Mr and Mrs Smith; Prada, Clements Ribeiro, Preen; Toast, Tiger and Links of London, to name a few.

Most pairs echo Srulovich’s sentiment: personal and business disputes demand immediate resolutions by sheer necessity.

A barney over putting a red sock with the whites or blowing the budget on someone to run the Instagram account simply can’t linger when home and work lives are entwined. To exacerbate matters, founders’ moods always weigh heavily among staff in a company, especially in a small one. Tension is palpable.

Separating work and play

Taking time off is a recurring gripe for couple founders. It can become impossible to take a holiday together, and consequently shut down the business for that period. Maternity/paternity leave, weddings and honeymoons become even more complicated.

Couples fall into one of two camps on the subject of demarcating work and home. Many are evangelical about creating clear divisions; others say it’s impossible to choose strict ‘no work talk’ time.

Sonu and Eva Shivdasani are the husband-and-wife partners of the Soneva group of hotel resorts. Sonu says: ‘Eva would read emails in bed at midnight… and refer to what she was reading or [ask] questions. That clearly didn’t work.’ Since then the couple have established ‘clear boundaries’ around work and life but, Sonu says: ‘It’s difficult as Soneva is our passion. So we discuss things like design and concepts but not day-to-day working issues.’

In the book The Art of Marriage, Tom and Ruth Chapman – the pair behind the fashion retailer Matches – explain they have a similar rule. Tom says: ‘We don’t talk shop after 8pm otherwise I’ll be up all night worrying.’

He adds that certain qualities – such as ‘noticing every little detail’ – that make Ruth an exceptional asset for the business ‘became hell as a wife’.

Fears for the future

Investors can be nervous about backing couples who might split up, which demands confronting unromantic questions over what would happen to the business. Investors also tend to ask founder couples about their plans for children – invariably directing those questions at female founders.

Gender stereotyping extends to the roles the founders take – the assumption being that the creative founder will be female, the commercial founder male.

One half of adtech firm Unruly’s founding team, Sarah Wood, says she was once assumed to be attending a meeting as the PR officer, despite having been introduced as the CEO. Her partner Scott Button takes a more product-led role as co-CEO.

However they divide the roles, couples say the biggest advantage of working together is being able to reconcile their personal ambitions with the aims of the company. They may want to work on something forever, exit when they have a family or sail off into the sunset together.

First appeared in issue 17 Jun/Jul