Here’s the punchline: The single most important action you need to take to avoid turning your partner into an entrepreneur’s widow(er) is to over-communicate with them.
This principle is remarkably simple but at first, it might seem counter-intuitive. You might think that entrepreneurs are somehow naturally gifted communicators given the constant practice they have at pitching and selling.
Well, looks can be deceiving. As a first time founder in 2008 I struggled immensely with communicating the challenges I faced each day in building my company to my loved ones and in particular my partner.
Some challenges were petty, others were significant and at the end of each long day, exhausted and with traction and capital waning, I often didn’t have the words to describe the current state, let alone strategise a way thought it. And at the end of the day, I didn’t want my partner to be burdened with my challenges.
I started this venture.
These were my issues to solve.
I was also convinced that she wouldn’t understand, not because she wasn’t capable or thoughtful, but because she wasn’t in the trenches. How could she possibly understand and even if she did, where would I start?
People whose partner’s are entrepreneurs know this story all too well.
They feel the stress, angst and jubilation that their partner feels. They carry the load when business travel calls, they provide encouragement from the sidelines, and they help pick up the pieces when luck is in short supply.
They are on the same rollercoaster as their company building partner.
And oftentimes they are on this ride with access to only a fraction of the information that’s floating around in their partner’s head. This isn’t a sustainable situation for your most important partnership.
“Thanks, but this isn’t a thing”
If ever there was an example of lacking self-awareness, this would be it. If you’re a founder and wondering why this is even an issue, you’re either single or about to become single.
Relationships fail when information sharing stalls.
In most normal, low-pressure environments ‘over-communicating’ is the act of repeating the same message ad nauseam.
The context here is different because the entrepreneur is usually under-communicating with their partner. The good news is that ‘over-communicating’ is straightforward, but it takes discipline and it starts with you, the entrepreneur.
And at its core over-communicating means finding common ground to create a shared understanding that is capable of short-circuiting angst or uncertainty while further strengthening a relationship.
Start by asking 5 questions
Here are five questions that entrepreneurs should ask their partner. This isn’t an exhaustive list and not all of them relate to building a company. And there isn’t a secret tempo or sequence in which these questions should be asked. They should just be asked when the opportunity presents (and as an entrepreneur, this is likely to be often).
1. Can I practice pitch with you?
You should always be closing deals with new customers, partners, investors or hires. The safest audience is your partner so give them permission to adopt the character and pitch them.
2. Can I get your thoughts on this value proposition?
Learning and iterating quickly is the name of the game in startups. If you’re spinning your wheels on developing messaging for a new feature or product, ask your partner for their input and how they would describe it to a friend over coffee.
3. Can you play with this new version of our product?
This is an easy one and it’s all about observing and capturing how your partner engages with the product. Try also asking what it would take for your partner to share your product with everyone she knows.
4. Do you have any thoughts on how to manage [insert tricky situation]?
Entrepreneurship is akin to fire-fighting. There is always a spot fire to extinguish and a tricky situation to manage. Ask your partner’s opinion about how they would handle the tricky situation at hand.
5. How can I help?
This is probably THE most important question that YOU should ask your partner each week, if not each day. When you are head-down building your business, it’s easy to miss the nuances that your partner hopes you will see. This question is a surefire way to reconnect and put your money where your mouth is in terms of being mindful and engaged in your relationship.
Like most things in life, over-communicating is a two-way street. By all means, try these questions but the bottom line is maintaining clear channels of communication. Remember, it could mean the difference in the ‘do or die’ or an important relationship.