When Alanna Harvey and Cristian Villamarin first started their company, they weren’t sure how much to share about their personal relationship. They founded Flipd, which makes a productivity app that helps users stay off their phones, after five years together romantically, but felt “shy” about disclosing their relationship to potential investors and employees.
“We didn’t know how to say it,” said Ms. Harvey, the Toronto-based company’s chief marketing officer, noting they soon learned the word “partners” was fairly well-received, while saying they were “dating” had the opposite effect. “Not everyone is comfortable with it.”
While family-run operations are common in small business, they’re less prevalent in the technology industry – and sometimes even carry a stigma. Couples who have founded startups together say they face hesitancy from investors, who worry the relationship could complicate the path to success. But members of founder couples who spoke with The Globe and Mail say the arrangement allows them to work hard without worrying about pressure from home, and provides support and a sounding board to help resolve problems quickly.
Ms. Harvey and Mr. Villamarin believe some investors passed on the company because of their relationship, expressing concerns about Flipd’s future if the couple were to break up. But they believe friends who start companies with each other are just as prone to relationship breakdown – if not more so – than people in a committed romantic partnership.
They’ve also heard comments such as, “I don’t know how you do it. I couldn’t imagine starting a business with my partner,” said Mr. Villamarin, the company’s chief executive.
“If you have two founders who are friends and they’re meeting with investors, I doubt an investor would think of their friend and say, ‘I could never work with this person,’ and unload this somewhat inappropriate topic on you,” added Ms. Harvey.
She believes that such biases keep many founder couples from speaking publicly about their relationship – which she sees as a shame. Ms. Harvey believes there are numerous benefits of the arrangement for the business and the individuals. “Starting a company can be really hard on your spouse,” she said. “It does take up a lot of time. There are long days, and you do have to work on the weekends sometimes. … I think we are a good support system for each other because we know what the other is going through.”
Andrew D’Souza says he and partner Michele Romanow chose to launch business financing firm Clearbanc “because it was the best founding team we could put together. … We didn’t start the company because it was convenient.” As such, the couple wants investors to see the business on its merits – it grew from 40 staff members to 200 last year, and each partner has extensive entrepreneurship experience.
But getting investors to look past the relationship hasn’t been easy – particularly when they were first starting out. “Some people definitely don’t want to back couples,” said Ms. Romanow, one of the investors considering pitches from entrepreneurs on CBC’s Dragons’ Den. “We had an investor who didn’t invest in seed and A-round because they didn’t think it was good to have a couple in charge. But they came back in Series B and wanted to invest.”
Mr. D’Souza says the couple’s closeness has deeply benefited the business; they spend so much time together that they never let a problem sit more than 24 hours. “If there’s a tough decision to make at the company, we won’t go to bed until we talk about it.”
However, he notes the hazy line between work and home life makes it particularly important to disagree with each other productively. “I constantly have to stop and walk back and say, ‘Is Michele just really passionate about this idea, or is she coming at me as an individual?’ When it’s somebody you’re in a relationship with, you probably have more of a hair trigger.”
For other founder couples, bringing work home at all is a challenge to be carefully managed. When Erin Bury took over as CEO at Willful, an online will company founded by her husband Kevin Oulds, she says numerous people warned her to make sure the couple made time for themselves that wasn’t work-related. Even so, when the company spent four months last year in an accelerator program, the couple experienced a rocky period in the relationship related to how hard they were working.
“We forgot to be a married couple,” said Mr. Oulds, now Willfull’s head of business development. “We didn’t step away from the business enough.” Now, he says, they’re better at carving out time where they don’t talk about work. “Sometimes we just want to watch shows and be married.”
Ms. Bury and Mr. Oulds says having a clear role definition has helped each of them flourish in their positions with minimal conflict, and that building a business together has been rewarding and fun. If that changed, both say they’d be willing to try something different at Willful.
“We decided our relationship is number one,” said Ms. Bury. “If it came to a point where our relationship was suffering because of the company, one of us would leave.”