What it’s like to be the SO of a start-up founder.

Early Sunday afternoon, my boyfriend and I were about to head to one of our favorite eateries when he received an urgent email–something on the site needed to be fixed, ASAP. He told me he’d need to bring his laptop to brunch to resolve the issue. I said no problem.

Mimosa We sat at a table towards the back of the establishment. He pulled out his laptop and began coding furiously, intense concentration etched on his face. Now was not the time to interrupt or make chit-chat. I sat my iPhone on the table and, after checking my email, began playing a quiet game of Hedgehog Launch, occasionally sipping on my mimosa once it arrived.

Within a few minutes, another couple sat down at the table next to ours (the table edges were separated by less than 2 feet, I would guess). The woman was sitting on the same side of the table as my boyfriend.

And that’s when the meal got interesting.

She quickly remarked to her boyfriend/husband/date that “he’s coding.” Nothing unusual there, just regular human curiosity and observation. But then I began to hear snippets of her conversation every few minutes… “Isn’t she offended? I would be so offended.”… “Look, she’s almost done with her food, he hasn’t even touched his.”… “What horrible restaurant etiquette.” I wasn’t offended, I just hoped her increasing loud comments weren’t impeding my boyfriend’s ability to work. They weren’t, and we had a good laugh on the walk home. Clearly she–and no one she knows–is involved in the start-up sphere.

For years I trained to be (and was) a professional ballet dancer, and my boyfriend showed me the same patience, respect, and understanding that I now strive to show him. There’s no room for being offended, for being irritated if plans get changed. Rehearsals run late, problems arise. If you want to spend time together, it can be just as rewarding to sit in silence, working side by side, as it can be to go out or have conversation.

To be in a relationship with someone heavily involved in a start-up, you need to put aside the “me” and focus on being a partner. Look towards the future and make the present, well, pleasant. There’s no room for bullshit. If you’re insecure, unhappy that you’re not getting to do what you want, slighted that the focus isn’t on you, it’s not going to work. Although all relationships should be partnerships, the added strain of late nights, early mornings, and heavy workloads really puts them to the test.

One of the best ways to combat this is to get involved yourself. Teach yourself to code, if you don’t know how to already, then you can either help with their project, or start something of your own. If that’s not appealing, then you’ll just have to find ways to entertain yourself sometimes. Having a support network can also be a godsend–network with their coworkers, or other friends/couples in start-ups. You’ve all got something in common and you’re all most likely fairly intelligent, so stimulating conversation shouldn’t be lacking.

I don’t imagine our Sunday brunch experience was the first, nor will be the last, time we get weird reactions from others not in the scene. We’ve popped open our laptops in all sorts of places, forgone drinks and dinners on multiple occasions in favor of working late into the night. We have no intention of stopping that any time soon.

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  1. Jason
    Posted December 2, 2010 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t had the experience of working through late nights since college was done. I find it nice to be able to do whatever I want after work.

    • dude
      Posted December 2, 2010 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

      And some people have more drive than you or, *gasp*, enjoy what they do that they want to work on side projects for fun.

      Go back to watching TV.

      • zimzum
        Posted December 2, 2010 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

        I invoke the DHH rule…

        Everyone is different some like to live a relaxed life others want to work 18 hour day. Some people start businesses in their spare time without doing 18 hour days, David Heinemayer Hanson comes to mind. Sometimes those fun side projects become gasp good businesses. I know Craigslist is really not what your reaching for but hey not everyone has your preferences.

    • Startup Junkie
      Posted December 2, 2010 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

      And you work a 9-5 watching so painfully that second hand tick tock tick tock… until it strikes the 5. Yes you have money. Yes you have time to get fat and watch Dancing with the Stars. No you are not happy. No you will not be a star.

      We stay up late. We do it everyday. We love it. If we weren’t doing it we wouldn’t be happy. This is not work. This is passion. This is love for what we do. This is happiness. Get some.

      • Posted December 2, 2010 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

        For a blog post about accepting other ways of life, you guys are sure being aggressive douchebags to someone who also has their own way of life.

        Seriously, if he’s happy with his life, leave him be. If you feel the need to defend your own so valiantly then you probably don’t even truly believe in what you’re doing to begin with – justification shouldn’t come in the form of beating up on others.

        That said, shouldn’t you be working right now? ;)

    • Jack
      Posted December 2, 2010 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

      Good on you! Just ensure it’s all in moderation. The compulsive behaviour which makes a startup engineer successful can spiral out of control if unchecked, affecting life & health and definitely relationships.

      I speak from experience. One of the worst situations I ever witnessed was as an engineer at a startup video game company working from 60-100 hours/week for a year+. Our VP of Engineering’s wife (married about a year) brought a baby crib to the team room so that baby would get to see daddy for a few hours one night. Daddy was intensely coding in the corner, ignoring his family, while the poor attention-starved wife chatted with others and the newborn drooled and cooed. I thought it was sad and pathetic. And unfortunately, typical. [Sorry, but if you've got a family, your dragon-hunting days may be over. Find a balance. Go home to your family, while you still have one.] The company is tremendously successful (PC Gamer game-of-the-year titles, Billions of $$s annual sales, multi franchises, etc.) but at what cost? Several divorces, wrecked health, etc. in that first 2 years.

      Sorry to be such a downer. I guess my advice is to be that voice of reason, pulling your coder boyfriend back to the “everyday” world if he needs it. And he does. We all do. Watch for the signs of stress and obsession. Startups are like pro sports — they can beat you up mentally and physically. Everybody needs down-time.

      Take care.

  2. Posted December 2, 2010 at 3:59 pm | Permalink

    One of my best coding sessions ever was when a friend just sat beside me and listened. I told her everything I was doing, and it actually made my code a lot more organized and logical so that anyone with any type of background could pickup where I left without missing a beat. I love your take on this.

    • Posted December 4, 2010 at 12:07 am | Permalink

      Basically, you did extreme programming with a noncoder. Can’t hurt. :)

  3. Posted December 2, 2010 at 4:05 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I come from the perspective of a founder, and it has been rough on my marriage ( oh and the three kids too) but the good thing is you’re single and you haven’t married the guy yet… Steve Blank has some excellent posts on this topic.

    Good Luck,

    Natalie Hodge MD FAAP

  4. Posted December 2, 2010 at 4:11 pm | Permalink

    My girlfriend could have written this post. I’m very fortunate to have her, as your boyfriend is to have you. We require supportive people around us to be successful, it’s impossible to do it alone.

  5. Posted December 2, 2010 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Great post! Thanks for sharing. Always nice to see people taking ownership for things and who are comfortable with themselves and eager to strive towards a mutually supporting relationship.

  6. Posted December 2, 2010 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    I think I am going to take your post and make all potential girlfriends read it .. and sign it =)

  7. Jeff
    Posted December 2, 2010 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    Great insight and attitude! I find it one of the hardest things trying to be passionate about something that others look down upon.

  8. Travis G.
    Posted December 2, 2010 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    I wish more women in this world were like yourself. (I’m sure the same applies for men where the women are very driven towards certain goals) Having the mature understanding that the endeavor is very important to them, and not needing constant validation I find very rare these days.

  9. Adam M
    Posted December 2, 2010 at 6:34 pm | Permalink

    These are the kinds of values that would make me fall in love with a woman. Whilst the partners I’ve been with always appear supportive at first, they’re quick to complain or act up when their plans are affected. Whilst I do love coding, if given a choice I would rarely choose it over spending time with a partner. It’s a rather frustrating situation I often find myself in.

    If you’re running a start-up- those inevitable bugs will surface and they will do so at the least convenient times. Putting them on hold whilst you enjoy dinner with a SO is like sleeping in on the morning of an important business meeting. It’s simply not an option and would likely mark the end of your job.

    Perhaps I have been asking too much or have chosen incompatible partners, but I have turned pretty sour towards the idea – being ignored because your SO thinks you’re ignoring them only adds unwanted pressure to a relationship and the stress of fixing something as quickly as possible is enough for me.

    In honesty, those are the times when I need my SO more than ever, yet bringing this to their attention always seems to fuel the cause for an argument- something I just don’t have the time or energy for.

    Your blog was an interesting read. It gave me hope in the sense that there are woman out who can appreciate that the world does not revolve around them and that relationships are a two way street. Also, your tolerance and understanding means the world to your SO.

  10. Posted December 2, 2010 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    I hope Dominique Karwoski googles herself and finds this article. Love love!

  11. Felix Ker
    Posted December 2, 2010 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

    Wow, I’m so gonna let my girlfriend read this. Great one, Christina!

  12. jay
    Posted December 2, 2010 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

    You are an awesome woman! It needs a big mindset to get over the “me first” thought. You have got that. Wish you guys a lot of years together.

  13. christine
    Posted December 2, 2010 at 10:56 pm | Permalink

    As a girlfriend of a co-founder, and as a girl working in tech, I enjoy the idealism of this article, but at the same time, I feel that the needs of one become more neglected. It’s great if you are both workaholics ( I am definitely one too), but sometimes, though I want to gripe about product features,site issues and bug fixes as well, I sense/see that in our conversations, his immediate needs overshadow mine since he is individually impacted, and I work for a ” corporation” and not myself, and will not suffer any personal consequences if the site goes down.

    Looking towards the future is also optimistic — but I think, sometimes,what if it doesn’t work out? Relationships take time to build, and would you have sacrificed your time, a little too much? Great if you have stability, but otherwise, I find myself wondering if the investment will be the glue that binds us, or breaks us.

    That being said, pitching in wherever one can, which I do, and being supportive is ultimately what needs to happen — but I really think it’s up to every individual to
    determine what new goals they need to set for the relationship, and the expectations that come out of that determination. Being on the other side of the fence, isn’t always as easy as pulling out your laptop while he does that too — I did that for 5 days straight with him, and much as I love the alone time, we need some downtime love too.

  14. Posted December 2, 2010 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

    as a start-up founder myself with an SO of four years, i almost shared this with my partner, but then thought twice. I feel like it would not come off well. “Hey honey, it’s fine if i need to work and cancel on our special times together, see how this article puts it… you should understand when i need to get sucked into my computer.”

    But at the same time, i like it and understand.

  15. Posted December 3, 2010 at 12:08 am | Permalink

    great post … I have struggled with this in the past and sometimes even wondered if I was crazy for thinking my significant other should understand. Thank you for making me realize I am not. Clearly some people out there do understand and this post will make me sleep a bit better knowing that.

  16. Posted December 3, 2010 at 7:28 am | Permalink

    Myself, Co-FOunder & CTO @ Webile Apps, an internet & Mobile startup in India.
    I had many such situations in my love-days and even in the marital-life. All my sweet-heart does is spare-me-time to fix the issue.

    She is sure on what kind of mental pressure would I be if the fix was not delivered.

    So, she believes/hopes in the good-times after the fix rather than fighting for the not-so-good-times when am under pressure.

  17. Posted December 3, 2010 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Hello there
    I am not in the tech. world but my “SO” lol boyfriend is and has been for as long as he has been in tech which is 14yrs old and he just turned 35 on wed. I just wanted to say that I can totally relate to that situation as far as change of plans and having to not always do what I want to or as in any start up being fiscally responsible ect but I wouldn’t want him to do anything else because he absolutely loves it , is great at it and he has what I don’t have but am inspired to be which is motivated and excited to work every day that’s fantastic! and when he’s happy he makes me happy as well. His job right is basically relying solely on his tech prowess LOL so he is and needs to be available whenever, wherever but we are building for our future.
    I have learned to enjoy the quiet moments as you said and we are comfortable enough with one another that we don’t always need to do and go places to have fun or enjoy each other’s company we have a cat and a very active chocolate lab so we keep busy…
    I appreciate your advice to get to learn a few tech things as coding which my boyfriend is such an expert at (among other things) yes I brag about him a lot LOL and getting to do what I want is what I am working on myself soo. I would love to meet other start u /tech couples or people to hang with but where and when right .
    So I loved your blog and funny is my SO was the one that first found it and now I am a fan of yours and will now restart blogging again when I was laid off of my job but I miss it .
    Key to every relationship is mutual respect , understanding, trust and communication and I am no expert but it’s been working for me and it sounds like it’s working for you as well.
    Good luck and keep blogging about your life ..I like it !

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