Business Startups

What All Co-Founders Can Learn From Couples Who Start Businesses Together

Commentary

By Shanea Leven

“We’re very fortunate to be building something together where we have the same goals, passions, and dreams and that we’re able to communicate on a daily basis.”—Julia Hartz speaking about her Eventbrite co-founder and husband, Kevin Hartz.

Like my husband Josh, and me, the Hartzes are committed to one another in business and marriage. I’m the CEO of CodeSee, Josh is the CTO, and together we run a venture-backed company and global team from our San Francisco apartment.

Our situation is not entirely unique. Consider the couple Diane Greene and Mendel Rosenblum—they co-founded VMware and led the company together for over a decade. And Rashmi Sinha and Jon Boutelle, who launched SlideShare and later closed in a sale of the company to LinkedIn.

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In many ways, we’re no different from nonmarried business partners, whether it be Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin or Twitter’s Biz Stone and Evan Williams, other duos who’ve experienced the compelling connection forged in co-founding—a relationship that can present as many challenges as finding a fitting romantic partner.

Some background

My husband’s and my journey almost never began. In 2016, I came across Josh’s profile on a dating app. I’d never tried online dating and was feeling skeptical so much so that I didn’t give his profile a second glance. The hat he wore in his profile photo didn’t help.

Thankfully, the app allowed me to review details of past potential suitors, including things Josh had highlighted in my profile—things he liked. I decided to give him a shot. I was attracted to his smile and discovered we shared a love of technology. At the time, I was a senior product manager at eBay and he was a lead engineer at NoRedInk.

CodeSee co-founders CTO Josh Leven and CEO Shanea Leven

We met for dinner at a restaurant on Haight Street in San Francisco and ended up talking for hours, stopping only because the place was closing for the night. We married on May 18, 2018.

Sometimes you just know you’ve discovered something right. Our experience with CodeSee followed a similar path, becoming full-time co-founders and lead executives of our company in September 2020.

Spouses and startups can co-exist beautifully, as long as the partners take steps to minimize complications and maximize the health of their personal and professional relationships. Many of the lessons we’ve learned as married co-founders apply to all close business relationships.

Some guidance

  • Divide and conquer. At the outset, establish the specific areas of responsibilities between you. This avoids role confusion and disputes. In our case, I define how we build the business and product, but Josh has the final say on software engineering matters. We each voice opinions, but it’s clear where the line is drawn.
  • Beware of spillover between home and work. It can be challenging delineating a husband-wife conversation from a CTO-CEO discussion. A heated business conversation can start to feel personal—especially when you step into it in off hours. It’s helpful to preemptively set expectations for topics of discussion and schedule time to connect the bounds of work.
  • Protect work-life equilibrium. Starting a company in tandem requires careful balance. We love our company, but also realize the risks associated with failing to find time for each other. And no matter your co-founding relationship dynamic, we all require the space to be human. This can look like a shared attendance to working hours. Respect your downtime.
  • Focus on communication. Having open lines of communication between company stakeholders is necessary to ensure expectations are aligned. While Josh and I communicate well, going into business together upped the ante. We took an intentional approach to meeting the challenge, reading, “Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High,” and implementing the best practices in conversation recommended by the authors. We’ve become even better at recognizing each other’s needs, and appreciating the critical qualities of trust and vulnerability in both sides of our relationship.

“A successful marriage requires falling in love many times, always with the same person,” said author Mignon McLaughlin.

Arguably, this sentiment holds true beyond the author’s intention, extending to describe the relationships between successful co-founders. When you launch a company with another and collaborate to see it thrive, you’re not just building a business, you’re building a bond.


 Shanea Leven is co-founder and CEO of CodeSee, a developer platform that helps developers and development teams better understand codebases.

Illustration: Dom Guzman

 

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