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Last summer, Amy and I spent a long, wonderful lunch in Paris with Cliff Shaw and Christy Clark. Cliff is CEO of Mocavo, a company that went through Techstars that we’ve funded, and I deeply enjoy our friendship, even though we don’t see each other that often. I remember our lunch with great pleasure, so when Christy and I had a brief conversation about her reaction to Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur, in encouraged her to write a guest post with her thoughts on the entrepreneurial couple and when it’s time for couples counseling.
Christy is a licensed professional counselor with a private practice focused on intimate relationships and sexuality based in Boulder, Colorado. Her post absolutely blew me away with its power, clarity, and intimacy. She’s brave to put her and Cliff’s struggles – and their solutions – out there. I hope you get as much out of it as I did.
Navigating an intimate relationship is never simple; doing so with an entrepreneur adds a whole additional layer of unique challenges. I’ve come to think of it as a somewhat advanced maneuver: the triple axel of relationships, if you will.
This is a subject I am particularly passionate about. Not only have I been partnered with an entrepreneur for the past eighteen years, but I am also a psychotherapist with a practice focused on intimate relationships and sexuality. Much has been written on the topic of entrepreneurs and their partnerships, including “Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur.” Brad Feld and Amy Batchelor, a couple I know and respect tremendously, packed their book with great information and ideas about navigating your partnership in the context of a startup. I imagine many couples are able to incorporate the thoughtful ideas and tips on their own with great success.
However, I want to talk about the couples who cannot.
Every couple has different standards and agreements for their relationship including frequency of sex, need for communication and expectations of time spent together. Running a startup will undoubtedly test the boundaries of these agreements. When one or both partners steps outside the shared expectations, problems might occur. From both personal experience, and years of working with people in crisis, I recognize that it can be difficult to assess when it is time to seek outside help. It seems simple enough. You are having problems, things have changed, you get help. The reality is much more complicated. I think our personal story best illustrates this dynamic.
It was 2005. I was finishing my last year of my masters in a counseling program and my partner Cliff was working on his second startup, Pearl Street Software. High school sweethearts, we had been together for nine years and were both deeply committed to one another. I woke at 3:30 in the morning to find the space in the bed next to me empty, as usual. The feelings of helplessness and frustration rose in me immediately and then came the thoughts: “He’s working himself to death, he didn’t sleep, AGAIN!” “He’ll be exhausted all weekend and we won’t spend time together, AGAIN!” “He promised me he would be to bed by 1am.” “He broke his promise, AGAIN!”
I walked down the stairs to find him sitting alone in the dark on the couch. “I’m so scared,” he said. “All I can think is what if everything I’m doing isn’t enough?” The “everything that he was doing” was working seven days a week, sixteen plus hours a day. He had zero self care, existing on caffeine, adrenaline and fast food. Between his work and my graduate school we were becoming virtual strangers. As was our pattern, I moved immediately into the role of soother. “It is enough,” I said. “How could you possibly do more?” Secretly, I was wishing that he would show me even one percent of the attention he gave his work. I was deeply and profoundly lonely. He was beyond unbalanced and rapidly coming unhinged. We were up to our eyeballs in debt. Cliff wasn’t taking a salary. We were living off royalty payments from a previous company, leveraging every cent we had to keep the company afloat and pay the employees.
The fear and panic bubbled up between us, and the fight began. The same fight we had over and over. It was filled with anger, hurt and tears. I yelled, he yelled. He told me I was filled with resentment. I was. He explained, that he was doing this for us. “How can you not see that?” he raged. I told him he was neglectful. He was. We sat in our living room in the early hours of the morning and tore the seams of our relationship apart with words. The threads keeping us together became thinner and thinner.
It hadn’t always been this way. But now, most anything could trigger a fight like this: a perceived slight by one of us, his failure to help me around the house, any unmet expectation. I used words as weapons, sarcasm and eye rolling. He became defensive and iced over. We had almost no quality time together. He had no boundaries around his work. Any agreement we made to do things differently lasted less than two days. I was emotionally wrung out from being his cheerleader, advisor and sole emotional support. I was also filled with contempt, which I often directed at him. Our combined anxiety was so great it felt as if it could swallow us whole. We were in trouble.
Several weeks later, after another particularly bad fight, Cliff came to me with an ultimatum: we go to therapy or we end the relationship. We had kicked around the idea of therapy a few times that year, but we always seemed to come to a resolution after a serious fight, even if it only lasted for a few days. One or the other of us would often reject the idea of getting help. We both used it as a threat, a last resort. It was the gold standard for personal failure. “Do we really need therapy?” I lamented. The irony of this statement is not lost on me. “We can do this ourselves,” I told him, not only because I was wrapped up in my identity as a budding therapist, but because I really thought we could. I’ve come to learn since that no woman is a prophet in her own land, regardless of degree or title. He just stared at me blankly. “Alright,” I finally said, “I’ve heard about someone good through friends at school. I’ll call him on Monday.”
While we continued to see our therapist off and on for years, what ensued after just a few sessions can only be described as miraculous. It was clear that we needed a third party. We needed his objectivity and his challenges. We were able to hear what the other was saying for the first time when someone else didn’t allow us to interrupt. We managed to stick to our agreements when we knew we would be held accountable the next week. It became easier to table recurring and unresolved arguments until we could be in the presence of a supportive mediator. It was hard work. It was painful. It saved us.
I think our story illustrates the primary reasons why couples in a startup relationship might wait too long to seek support. It helps to start by looking at the common personality traits of a startup CEO. These are people who come up with and pursue ideas that sometimes change the world. Passionate self-starters, they inspire and motivate others. As modern day pioneers, most have a mentality of rugged independence. They are trailblazers who can be single minded in their pursuit of success. The entrepreneur’s sense of self-worth can be completely tied to the success or failure of their company. The thought of failure can feel like dying or drowning.
The above traits, while amazing, don’t always lend themselves well to asking for help. Even if you have positive feelings about therapy, the simple acknowledgment that you need support, or your relationship is in trouble, might feel like an admission of personal failure. In the mind of an entrepreneur who spends every waking moment ensuring their company lives to see another day, it can feel like there isn’t room for failure in any corner of life. People in this position often push the limits of their relationship to avoid such feelings. In our case, while Cliff was ultimately responsible for getting me to make the call to a therapist, it took him a long time to acknowledge that his lack of boundaries and balance were not only failing our relationship, but he was failing himself as well.
For other people entrenched in the startup world, it can seem like taking any time from work at all, let alone time to sink into an emotional space with a partner, could derail them from their goals completely. Every day, entrepreneurs suit up in their own personal armor and head to the office to the fight the battle. What happens if they remove the armor and focus on their emotions? The soft underbelly becomes exposed. It’s vulnerable. It’s common for entrepreneurs to feel that there is no time for personal vulnerability when other people’s money and livelihoods are at stake.
Finally, for most people, whether or not they seek outside help is directly tied to their knowledge of and ability to notice the signs that their relationship is in trouble. Relationships rarely go bad overnight. It is generally a slow progression of little deaths perpetrated by both partners. Add to this that when we are in regular conflict with our partner we move into a “fight, flight or freeze” mindset. This is a primal and deeply physiological place that does not lend itself well to objectivity for either partner. We ignore or simply don’t notice the red flags. When the adrenaline is pumping one or both of you might feel as if you can save the sinking ship if you just try harder. This fight, flight or freeze mindset is often mirrored in the entrepreneur’s work environment, compounding the problem.
One of the factors which impacts the efficacy rates of couples therapy is the amount of time a couple waits to get support. Even the most skilled therapist can’t always help salvage a relationship where the resentment, anger or neglect has been building for years. By that point, one or both members of the couple has often emotionally or physically exited the partnership.
Here are some signs that you might need outside help. If you and your partner are struggling, find a moment to review this list.
- Recurring or unresolved conflicts that tend to revolve around the same topics
- A marked decrease in your sexual relationship
- Frequent feelings of resentment
- A sense of loneliness or distance from your partner
- Staying stuck in entrenched patterns of interactions (ex. you always pursue, your partner always flees)
- A general sense that your relationship has changed and not in a positive way
- Unfair fighting: treating your partner with contempt or using insults, shutting down or icing over, globalizing (you always, you never), bringing past fights up during current arguments, interrupting, defensiveness
- Avoiding your partner
- Considering an emotional or physical affair
If you recognize these red flags in your own relationship you might benefit from some outside support.
These days Cliff and I navigate challenges on our own 95% of the time. However, when we can’t, we acknowledge it quickly and we make an appointment with our therapist. He has seen us through the sale of Cliff’s second startup, our wedding, the birth of our child and the birth of Cliff’s current company Mocavo, all major life transitions. Just like running a startup, being in relationship with another human being can be one of the most rewarding and challenging life experiences. When difficulties arise, find and access the support that is right for you and your partner. It can make all the difference.
*In a relationship where there is emotional or physical abuse, couples therapy is not always indicated, due to power dynamics. If you suspect you are in an abusive relationship seek help immediately
I’ve talked openly about the five month long depressive episode I went through earlier this year. If you missed it, I encourage you to read my article last month in Inc. Magazine titled Entrepreneurial Life Shouldn’t Be This Way–Should It? Depression is a fact of life for some entrepreneurs.
My depression lifted near the end of May and I’ve been feeling normal for the past few months. On July 1st I wrote a post titled Regroup Successful. I changed a lot of tactical things in my life in Q2 – some of them likely helped me get to a place where my depression lifted. And, once I was confident that the depression had lifted (about 45 days ago), I started trying to figure out some of the root causes of my depression.
I’ve told the story of how I ended up depressed a number of times. In the telling of it, I searched for triggers – and found many. My 50 mile run in April 2012 that left me emotional unbalanced for six weeks. A bike accident in early September that really beat me up, and was inches from being much more serious. Six weeks of intense work and travel on the heals of the bike accident that left me physically and emotionally depleted, when what I should have done was cancelled everything and retreated to Boulder to recover. A marathon in mid-October that I had no business running, followed by two more weeks of intense work and travel. The sudden death of our dog Kenai at age 12. A kidney stone that resulted in surgery, followed by a two week vacation mostly in a total post-surgical haze. Complete exhaustion at the end of the year – a physical level of fatigue that I hadn’t yet felt in my life. There are more, but by January I was depressed, even though I didn’t really acknowledge it fully until the end of February.
The triggers, and the tactical changes I made, all impacted me at one level. But once the depression had lifted, I felt like I could dig another level and try to understand the root cause. With the help of Amy and a few friends, I’ve made progress on this and figured out two of the root causes of a depressive episode that snuck up on me after a decade of not struggling with depression.
The first is the 80/20 rule. When running Feld Technologies in my 20s, I remember reading a book about consulting that said a great consultant spent 20% of their time on “overhead” and 80% of their time on substantive work for their clients. I always tried to keep the 80/20 rule in mind – as long as I was only spending 20% of my time on bullshit, nonsense, things I wasn’t interested in, and repetitive stuff that I didn’t really have to do, I was fine. However, this time around, I’d somehow gotten the ratios flipped – I was spending only 20% of my time on the stimulating stuff and 80% of my time on stuff I viewed as unimportant. Much of it fell into the repetitive category, rather than the bullshit category, but nonetheless I was only stimulated by about 20% of the stuff I was doing. This led to a deep boredom that I didn’t realize, because I was so incredibly busy, and tired, from the scope and amount of stuff I was doing. While the 20/80 problem was the start, the real root cause was the boredom, which I simply didn’t realize and wasn’t acknowledging.
The other was a fundamental disconnect between how I was thinking about learning and teaching. I’ve discussed my deep intrinsic motivation which comes from learning. At age 47, I continue to learn a lot, but I also spend a lot of my time teaching. The ratio between the two shifted aggressively at the end of 2012 with the release of my book Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City. I spent a lot of time teaching my theory of startup communities to many people I didn’t previously know in lots of different places. I expected that I’d continue learning a lot about Startup Communities during this period, but I found that I had no time to reflect on anything, as all of my available time was consumed doing my regular work. So – between teaching and working, I had almost no time for learning.
I had an intense insight a few weeks ago when a friend told me that as one gets older, the line between learning and teaching blurs. This is consistent with how I think about mentoring, where the greatest mentor – mentee relationship is a peer relationship, where both the mentor and mentee learn from and teach each other. With this insight, I realized I needed to stop separating learning from teaching in my motivational construct – that they were inextricably linked.
Each of these – the flip in the 80/20 rule that led to a deep boredom combined with the separation of learning and teaching – were both root causes of my recent depression. As I reflect on where I’m at in mid-August, I’m neither bored nor struggling with the learning/teaching dichotomy. Once again, I’m incredibly stimulated by what I’m spending my time on. And I’m both learning and teaching, and not spending any energy separating the two.
While I expect I’ll discover more root causes as I keep chewing on what I just went through in the first half of the year, I’m hopeful that explanation of how I’ve unpacked all of this helps anyone out there struggling with depression, or that is close to someone who is struggling with depression. It’s incredibly hard to get to the root causes when you are depressed, but moments of clarity arise at unexpected times.
VCs love to say things like “we are entrepreneur friendly.” It’s trendy, catchy, and looks good on a blog post. But, as I’ve said in my post Your Words Should Match Your Actions, one can “damage their reputations by having their words not match up with their actions.”
Now – this post isn’t about responding to emails. Nor am I trying to be preachy. I’m not trying to explain a new behavior. Rather, I’m making an observation about something I’ve experienced – both as an entrepreneur and investor – since my first angel investment in 1994.
Here’s the situation, as reported this morning by an experienced CEO of a company we are investors in.
“We’re raising money. I have a good intro session. Prospective investor wants to meet in person, see a demo. We have a good 2nd meeting. We agree on action items. I go away and follow up.
Follow up again.
Radio silence still.
The first time it happened I was inclined to think it was the investor and that they just couldn’t find the time to send an email response saying, “sorry – no longer interested”. Then, it happened again this month.”
Now – initial non-responsiveness – whatever. Lots of people don’t respond to emails, intros, or requests for meetings. But after two in-person meetings, to be non-responsive is just plain rude.
How hard would be it be to say “Hey – great spending time with you – but this isn’t something I want to pursue.” Or maybe “Sorry for being slow – I’ve been swamped – I don’t have time for doing this right now.” Or – well – anything.
I’ve had this situation come up so many times that I’m immune to it. I assume that the VC isn’t interested. But I’m amazed at how the reputational damage follows the person around. And then – at some point in the future – that VC is looking for a response for something. Hmmm …
I’ve had this happen with LPs. When we went and raised our first fund in 2007, plenty of people wouldn’t meet with us. That’s fine. Lots said they weren’t interested after a first meeting. Totally cool. But some met with us but then were completely non-responsive after the meeting. Ok – whatever. But when those non-responsive LPs call me today asking for something – whether it’s to get together to “get to know me better”, or to get a reference on someone else they are looking at, or to learn more about what I think about the market for hardware investments, it’s really hard to get on the phone and spend time with them. I do – because that’s my nature – but I always remember their non-responsiveness.
I hear – and say – “No thank you” all the time. Every day. 50 times a day. That’s just part of the role I play in business. But I always try to say “No thank you.” It’s just not that hard. Especially when I know someone, or have engaged with them in some way.
Are you the guy the experienced CEO just encountered? How would you feel if your name – and your firm’s name – just went out via email to 60 CEOs attached to this story? Maybe you don’t care, but if your message is “we are entrepreneur-friendly VCs” you just undermined the reputation of your firm in a major way.
I stopped travelling mid-May (I arrived home in Boulder from San Francisco on 5/17). I’ve decided not to travel at all for the rest of 2013, except for three personal trips (my parents 50th anniversary, Amy’s birthday, and my birthday.) After travelling 50% – 75% of the time for the last 20 years, I needed a break.
It has been awesomely mindblowingly great to not travel.
I’ve had three other periods of extended no-travel in the last 20 years. I stopped travelling for three months after 9/11. Two summers ago Amy and I spent 60 days together in Europe (half in France / half in Tuscany) just living (no travel). Last summer we spent 90 days at our house in Keystone. It’s clear I had a taste of this, but nothing like where I am right now.
Even though it has only been seven weeks, when I look forward to the rest of 2013 I feel huge amounts of open space and time in front of me. I know this has helped me come out of the depression, which I just wrote about in an article in Inc. Magazine, that I struggled with for the first part of this year.
But it’s more profound than that. In a few short months, I’ve changed my work pattern a lot. I feel so much more rested and alert. When I’m doing something, I’m in the moment. The companies I’m an investor in are all over the place, but I feel like they are actually getting more of my attention because I’m not being torn in a zillion different directions.
I don’t feel like I’m constantly trying to jam in the “work” around all the friction time – in airports, in taxis and cars being driven to things, before I head out to yet another dinner on the road, or late in my hotel before I go to sleep. My environment is familiar and comfortable and things just flow.
I’m mastering video conferencing – I’ve now got every configuration a human could need. I figured out three big things that solve for 99% of the strangeness of it.
- Make your video conference full screen – don’t have ANYTHING else going on your computer other than what is in the meeting.
- Use a BIG monitor – seeing heads that are normal size makes a huge difference.
- Make sure your audio and video are on channels with enough bandwidth. Shift to a conference call for audio while keeping video up if you are having performance issues.
I’ve also started using my Mezzanine video conferencing system extensively – it’s just incredible. More on that in a separate post.
I love Boulder and I’m finding myself running a lot again. It’s hard to run as much as I’d like when I’m on the road – early morning meetings, fatigue, and being in random places gets in the way. But here, I just put on my shoes and head out the door for one of my favorite trails. With or without Brooks the wonder dog.
On that note, I think I’ll go for a run right now.
Over the past few months I’ve watched several powerful and successful VCs and entrepreneurs damage their reputations by having their words not match up with their actions. I think this is especially true in the context of a long term relationship.
This is a deeply held value of mine and of my partners at Foundry Group. I occasionally screw up and when I do I own it, apologize, and learn from it. But it stuns and amazes me when others assert strong style / values / culture and then consistently have their actions not line up with their words.
Here are a few VC examples:
VC asserts he’s “founder friendly”: This is currently in vogue across many VC firms. Very experienced VCs are talking about how they are focused entirely on supporting the entrepreneur. But then, when something goes wrong, they act randomly and capriciously. Or they simply disengage without warning. Or they try to retrade an earlier deal just because they think they can. Or they threaten to veto a deal unless they get something more than they are entitled to.
VC asserts certain followup behavior with every entrepreneur they meet with: In the vein of “we are holding ourselves to a high level of interaction”, the VC suggests a certain behavior pattern in their deal evaluation process or interaction with entrepreneurs. They do this sometimes, but are inconsistent.
VC suggests that the deal is firm and will happen: Then, two weeks into “due diligence” which, based on the previous evaluation, should be a proforma exercise, abruptly pull out of the deal because “some of my partners aren’t supportive.”
This, of course, isn’t limited to VC behavior. I see it all the time with entrepreneurs. For example:
Entrepreneur suggests he’s “radically transparent”: Nice, and popular, but do you tell your employees exactly how many months of cash you have left? Or do you keep the fact that you and your partner are having a major conflict from your investors? Or how about that your business isn’t doing very well and you are working every backchannel you know to try to have an acquihire happen for you that will have a negative impact on your investors.
Entrepreneur asserts he isn’t shopping the deal: And then he does. It’s ok to shop a deal, just don’t assert you aren’t!
Entrepreneur inflates his relationship with another entrepreneur or VC: It’s fine to be connected on LinkedIn or say you worked at the same company in the past, but don’t say you are best friends if you haven’t interacted with the other person in over a year.
I could keep going. It’s similar to what Amy and I wrote about in Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur when we talk about your words having to match your actions. When I tell Amy that she is the most important thing in my life, and then am 30 minutes late to dinner because “I’ve just got to get something done” my words aren’t matching up with my actions. Or, when we are together, the phone rings, and I automatically answer it rather than asking if it’s ok for me to take the call. Or, when she gets hurt if I don’t drop everything I’m doing and go help her out.
Words matter. And having them match your actions matters matters even more.