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Rules of Engagement: When your Life Partner is your Business Partner

First comes love, then comes marriage, then if the couple is lucky, a miracle is born: their very own startup. This new little life force will even resemble them — a mix of his strategy, her vision, his marketing taste, her management style. Though startups can be messy, time-consuming creatures, these founders will dedicate their waking hours to raising a strong, healthy company. They will all live happily ever after…or maybe not. In this uncertainty lies the root of heated discussions from Silicon Valley to Luxembourg. Are couple cofounders an asset to a business, an unnecessary risk or neither? Venture Capital Firm Managing Partner Rodrigo Sepúlveda Schulz & married cofounders of LuxAI & Black Swan weigh the advantages & perils of sharing heart, home & company with one person.
(Featured Image: Aida Nazarikhorram and Pouyan Ziafati, married cofounders of Luxembourg-based health robotics startup LuxAI / Image Credit © Anna Katina)

Unsurprisingly, it depends on who you ask.

For Aida Nazarikhorram and Pouyan Ziafati, married cofounders of Luxembourg-based health robotics startup LuxAI, the answer is far from black and white.

“There’s a lot of talk about this topic. Whether it’s good or bad. For me, it’s always case by case. This lifestyle is a trigger. It can strengthen a strong relationship or weaken a weak one,” Aida said.

No strangers to risk, the high school sweethearts lost touch when Pouyan left for Europe to study. After eight years apart they ran into each other in their home country of Iran and realized time had done nothing to diminish their connection. A week later, they were married.

The idea to create QT, LuxAI’s socially assistive robot arose organically from Aida’s experience as a medical doctor and Pouyan’s background in engineering.

“When we tell people we have a startup, most of the time they project their own feelings, since they wouldn’t feel comfortable working with their wife or husband,” said Aida, who nonetheless recognizes the risk involved. “Often people will say, ‘yea, I also had a startup, with my first wife.’”

While evidence is lacking as to whether couples help or hurt a company’s chances, a study published in The Founder’s Dilemma asserts that 65 percent of high-potential startups fail due to conflicts among cofounders. Combine that, an already high divorce rate and the stress of setting up a business, and many venture capitalists see red flags.

“As VCs, couple founders raise a red flag for a number of reasons,” explained Rodrigo Sepúlveda Schulz, Managing Partner, Expon Capital. “For example, if the husband is the chairman of the board and the wife is the CEO, how does he tell off the CEO during the day and go to bed with her at night? It doesn’t work.”

“When do you stop being business partners, and when do you start being life partners? When do you unplug?”

Investors and accelerators tend to favor two cofounders over one, but add romance to the mix and it is a different story. The worry is not whether the spark will die, but whether it will catch fire and sink the whole ship before it does.

Rodrigo, who helps manage the Expon I Fund and Luxembourg’s €20 million Digital Tech Fund, hears two to three pitches a day and has invested in a few couple-owned startups. While relationship status is not a deal breaker, it is a warning sign that he addresses early on by discussing equity distribution, roles, decision-making processes and contingency plans in the case of a split.

“I’m not there to judge people, I’m just saying it can make things harder, particularly on a bumpy road when things don’t work out as planned. It’s the same when we invest in family businesses. We try to avoid those too,” he added.

The UN agrees, prohibiting romantic involvement between managers and their team members due to conflict of interest and the inability to “be an objective, neutral and fair supervisor to someone with whom you have a close personal relationship” (UN Ethics).

However, LuxAI and Black Swan — creators of SafeLive, a health-monitoring software for wearable devices — maintain that they are able to put the company first and prevent decisions from becoming personal.

According to Emilia Tantar, her tried and tested relationship with Black Swan cofounder and husband Alexandru Tantar is a strength that has helped them collaborate on 10 volumes of research.

“We have had an investor say he wouldn’t invest because we are a couple, but we have worked together for 15 years. The trust is there. We know we can count on each other and we know what to expect,” she said. “While doing our PhDs, even though we had separate offices, we spent one or two years working at the same desk.”

An obvious question is how couple cofounders achieve any type of work-life balance, a problem solo entrepreneurs also face.

“We can share our hopes and fears openly. There is less pretending.”

“If you’re working with your partner the whole day and then you go home, you’re still with the same person. When do you stop being business partners, and when do you start being life partners? When do you unplug?” Rodrigo said.

According to a University of Kansas study, professionals who disconnect and recharge outside of the workplace have higher levels of life satisfaction and positive emotions. How can couple cofounders really make the switch?

Like most founders, they admit it is not easy. “If we change the topic of conversation, it always comes back to work. We’ll say, ‘look at this car. It’s red. Maybe we should also make QT red.’ We are learning. We can do better,” Pouyan said.

Black Swan’s founders credit their son with forcing more balance into their lives, although their research habit of working long nights remains. To prevent regrets, they set rules. For example, business trips never surpass five days at a time and predefined priorities take precedent.

“Set priorities. You can even write them on paper,” suggested Emilia. “Major events for our son are our priorities, so if we work weekends we know we didn’t miss the important things. We reevaluate quite often. We’ve had times when we’ve had to step back and see if we left any priorities behind or if we were about to.”

The price to pay for a startup is often the founder’s relationship. Since his or her raison d’être is the company, a rift appears — one reason why having both parties on board could be an advantage. LuxAI insists that working together divides stress rather than multiplies it.

“You have to find each other’s strengths and weaknesses, even when they are difficult to admit.”

“In the end, I think it’s good if both are involved. We can share our hopes and fears openly. There is less pretending,” Aida said. “But be aware that you’re putting the most important thing in your life in danger. You might lose it.”

Over the last 20 years, Rodrigo has observed an estimated 75 percent of his startup friends separate or divorce, himself included. He recommends that entrepreneurs take one day off every week, whether a few hours a night or a full day on the weekend, that is fully dedicated to family, and an additional half-day off for themselves to clear their minds and focus on something other than work.

All three parties agree on one necessity: clearly defined roles.

“At the beginning, we would talk about every single thing. It was nice, but after a while, there were more tasks, so we had to separate them. We each have our own skills, so we have to trust that even though the other person isn’t doing it my way, it’s okay,” Aida explained.

Rodrigo approaches founders, whether couples or not, as Role A and Role B, seeking delineated duties, diverse backgrounds and complementary skills.

At Black Swan, the pair works in parallel toward a common goal, each sticking with their natural talents.

“I am more on the organizational side and Alex is focused on the research, but we are both aiming for innovation. You have to find each other’s strengths and weaknesses, even when they are difficult to admit,” Emilia said.

Companies like Eventbrite, Houzz and Flickr have shown us the potential of startup power couples, but countless others have left a trail of lawsuits and so-called startup widows and widowers in their wake.

Until the day that happily-ever-afters are guaranteed, the what-ifs will continue fueling this debate on whether couple cofounders should discourage the sacred startup-investor marriage.

This article was first published in the Summer 2017 issue of SILICON magazine. Be the first to read SILICON articles on paper before they’re posted online, plus read exclusive features and interviews that only appear in the print edition, by subscribing online.

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Senior Digital Marketing (m/f) | LuxAI