In her recent book, Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, author Katrine Marçal raises an important point. Could the world’s great men—inventors, painters and literary giants—do what they did if they also had to cook, swab and run carpools? If they didn’t have mothers and wives (in Smith’s case, it was his mother Margaret Douglas) to stand in, would these men have been as successful? Marçal’s is a feminist take on economics. She argues why the work that enables productivity and achievement itself is unmeasured and unpaid.
As most things tend to, the book set me thinking about how this dynamic plays out in the lives of entrepreneurs and their families. How is the credit for success divided up? More importantly, as in the case of the many gifted men that Marçal mentions in her book, can life with an entrepreneur leave enough scope for their spouse’s ambitions? Businesses are greedy time guzzlers. They gobble up days, weeks and years. Can the enabling background role ever be an equal balance when you live with somebody in the throes of running a business? Or, will one spouse always have to go slow, do less and temper ambitions?
The spouse of an entrepreneur who runs a successful business intelligence firm recently told me that her husband’s flourishing business has kept him busy for nearly a decade now. In the first few years of the manic chaos, she was at home, because it was a time that coincided with them having their first child. Over the past few years, her career has gained pace as well. She is ambitious and things are on the upswing for her. Yet things haven’t eased up for him. Growth has brought its own challenges: Being chronically busy is one of them.
She admits to feeling mildly resentful sometimes. “It would be good to have a few years when I got the enabling infrastructure I have given. Jostling for that with somebody who has to run and manage a company with more than 300 people and five offices isn’t easy. Most other jobs seem ordinary next to running a vibrant business,” says the Delhi-based tax consultant who works with a global accounting firm.
There are projects you give up, or events you don’t participate in, she adds, because one of them needs to juggle the many moving parts that urban working parents have to contend with.
Others I spoke with said that in their cases they have prioritized the business—and their spouse’s entrepreneurial ambitions—because it means success for the entire family. That the upside of a win had deep benefits for the family as a unit. Economic logic dictates that the career with the potential for the larger monetary returns get priority. Smaller ambitions can become collateral damage to this thinking, rational as it might seem, even in the most equal marriages.
Entrepreneurial ambitions can ruin relationships because one person—and their aspirations—get a lion’s share of the family’s attention, nurturing and mindspace.
Bala Parthasarathy, founder of Money Tap, an app-based credit line for consumers, has three children and has founded as many successful businesses. His twin girls were born during the most intense phase of building his second venture: Snapfish, a photo-printing, sharing and storage company that he co-founded and ran in the US in the early 2000s. Those years were tough. Fortunately, Snapfish was eventually acquired by computer firm HP in 2005 for $300 million (around Rs2,034 crore). Of course, it wouldn’t have happened without the support of his wife, says Parthasarathy, who had earlier also co-founded a software firm.
Marital harmony with entrepreneurs can be difficult, especially when you have to work like a maniac without the worthy zeal of creating a safety net for your family. Like Parthasarathy is doing right now with Money Tap. He has advice for couples: There should be equitable give and take on a regular basis between spouses.
Through the craziness of his entrepreneurial life, the one thing that they have always prioritized is his wife’s passion for adventure travelling and scuba-diving. She has travelled to more than 100 countries. It’s stuff she has done that he hasn’t. That balancing of passions has been their way of managing the equilibrium. As has moving to Bengaluru from Silicon Valley in the US a few years ago to set up a seed-stage venture—a large network of friends, family and trusted staff in that city makes bringing up children easier.
It’s the equitable give and take, he adds, and one that must happen with a consistent, regular rhythm that can keep the resentment at bay.
When did you last evaluate that give and take? When did you last cook someone’s dinner?
Surviving Start-ups focuses on the stories of the people (parents, siblings, spouses and friends) who make up an entrepreneur’s world. The columnist is the spouse of a start-up entrepreneur and draws from real-life experience.