Beware the toll that startup dream can have on your relationship

Mention the word "startup", and it’s likely that meeting cool and smart people, oodles of cash, freedom and passion come to mind. Sure there’s hard work and long hours, but nobody ever changed the world working 9 to 5.

But at a recent workshop at Melbourne’s Blockchain Centre, a co-working space that plays host to start ups, the conversation turned to an unexpected cost of chasing the small business dream : relationship crisis. And we’re not just talking about a spot of bickering with your spouse or partner. We’re talking full on marital carnage.

Justin Dry admits founding his wine sales startup puts pressure on marriage to his wife, Asher.

“The dream is a startup will make life better, and if that doesn't happen, there's rage,” says
Alexandra Barbas, a Senior Clinician and Counsellor with Relationships Australia Victoria.

“Marriage is about safety, security, and togetherness. Those are the kinds of words one thinks about in marriage”, says Barbas. “We don't sign up for risk. We don't sign up for danger. We don't sign up for uncertainty. And that's what businesses are; businesses carry risk.”

The startup founders and their partners who end up in Barbas’s relationship counselling rooms have often had to pull their kids out of fee-paying school for the sake of the business, and given up the house they were paying off for a rental.

Far from the dream of freedom and beating your own path, the families of founders can feel that the whole venture has been a big step backwards.

And while money problems are often the source of relationship friction, as it is with most relationship problems, even those startups that are succeeding financially can consume so much of a founder’s time that it can tear couples apart.

“People will often talk about business being the ‘other woman’ or the ‘other man’ in a person's life,” says Barbas.

That’s easy to see when you listen to the way many entrepreneurs describe their ventures. You’ll hear words like “passion”, “dedication”, “obsession” and “commitment” — the same words we use to describe romantic relationships.

Startups can also change the dynamics of a relationship in unexpected ways, including the power dynamics.

Marriage is about safety, security, and togetherness … We don't sign up for risk. We don't sign up for danger.

“While they may have seen themselves as equals before [the startup venture], it's not unusual for the spouse to see themselves as a having to take a back seat.”

While there are no statistics on how many relationships come to grief because of the stresses of launching a startup, the relationship risk is so significant that startup accelerator programs are now incorporating a focus on the relationship and mental health aspects of founders.

Social worker Valerie Judge works with the University of Melbourne and Monash University’s start up accelerator programs to support founders with their emotional well-being and mental health.

“A founder is creating a business that doesn't yet exist, so there's no structure, there's no format,” says Judge. “They're dealing with high risk situations all the time, constantly switched on 24/7, so there's not a clear go to work at nine and finish at five. You're constantly switched on.”

The relationship pressures of driving a startup are familiar to Justin Dry, co-founder of online wine seller Vinomofo. Dry, who has been developing startups since he was a child, says startups have gotten in the way of relationships in the past.

“I was so obsessed with that project at the time that it was almost all-consuming and so it probably did get in the way of other relationships. But more so just because it's my favourite thing to do,” says Dry.

Even now, Dry who married partner Asher in November last year and is expecting their first child later this year, struggles to switch off work to have quality, uninterrupted family time.

“Because my day's so quick, and there's so many projects on at any one time, I'm always fast. And to bring that into the home environment is not a great thing”, quips Dry. “Your partner starts telling you about her day, and you go ‘Yeah, yep, cool, great. Move on. Next one’.”

Dry uses everything from guided meditation to Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages to balance the demands of business with the wellbeing of the marriage.

“When I get home, I'll meditate for five or 10 minutes and it kind of brings me back to like, my normal kind of calm state. And then that's a beautiful place to then connect with your partner.”

Dry is open to further change when baby comes along.

"My world's going to be blown apart when I have the little bub. And it will completely change I'm sure.”

Becoming your own boss with your own startup is a dream for many. But unless founders factor the relationship and family impact into their business case, they may find themselves in a nightmare with nothing but their balance sheet for company at night.

Christopher Scanlon is the co-author of The Chess Raven Chronicles under the pen name Violet Grace.

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