DON’T DO IT.
That’s my initial gut reaction whenever someone asks me whether it’s wise to work with a spouse or family member.
My wife and I have been running our startup together for the past five years; don’t get me wrong, we love it! We enjoy the challenge of building a business together and appreciate the unique value that each of us brings to our work. Our work life is a huge source of joy in our marriage.
But here’s the truth: you can truly love someone as a person, but still be incompatible with him or her as a professional.
Not being able to work with someone you love says absolutely nothing about the strength of your relationship to that person. Personal complementarity does not correlate directly with professional complementarity. When conflicts arise with your spouse in a professional setting, you risk having those issues bleed into your personal life as well. For that reason, I believe that it’s generally too risky to work with a loved one because the cost of failure could be the failure of your relationship (how much is that worth to you?).
Nevertheless, if you still want to see whether you and your spouse can make it as a startup team, consider the following scenarios to test your professional complementarity.
Your skills overlap too much: FAIL
Redundancy will kill your business partnership.
If you and your spouse have too much of the same skillset, you’ll run into conflict because both of you will want to tackle the same work. You may find yourself judging each others’ work and passively aggressively thinking thoughts like “if I were doing that task, I would do it way better than him.” Additionally, too much of the same skillset means that you won’t be leveraging each other optimally to run the entire gamut of responsibilities that are required for running a business, thus throttling your productivity.
To paraphrase one of my friends about overlapping skillsets being a killer to spouse founders:
“My husband and I are both very competent product managers. As a result, we would never be able to work together. Our philosophies on building product are so different that we would just fight all the time.”
Your skills do not overlap at all: FAIL
If you believe that having too many overlapping skills with your spouse is a problem, you would think that having no overlap is better. Not necessarily.
When you and your spouse have no overlapping skills, then you may find that you are each doing work on separate islands. Over time, you and your spouse may find that you are following different strategies to run your startup, damaging the focus your company needs to succeed.
Islands are dangerous because they can lead to miscommunication, which kills relationships too.
Your skills overlap mainly on strategy: WIN
The ultimate scenario of complementarity is when you and your spouse do not overlap, except for strategy.
In this world, you and your spouse can stay out of each others’ ways and run the respective areas of the business that suit your strengths. But, overlap in strategy means that you will be in constant, constructive debate over the general direction of the company and will be consistently aligned on the path you are taking your startup.
This is an awesome foundation for a healthy spouse/founder partnership.
Is this advice just for spouses or family members?
Nope. This article isn’t just about working with a spouse or family member. Think about the scenarios outlined above when you are taking on a co-founder or adding a key hire to your team.
Even if you’re not tied by blood or marriage, the relationship you have with your key business partners in a startup will feel very similar and intimate like a family relationship. You will be spending most of your waking hours with these people and revealing a side of you that is rarely seen by anyone else. Thus, choose wisely and make sure you’re truly complementary, so that your company will be set up for success and everyone will be happy.