Talk to enough startup founders, and they’ll tell you that running a business with someone is like being in a marriage. There’s stress, conflict, and you’re often spending more hours in a day with your co-founder than you are with your actual spouse.
And like marriages, many startup relationships fail. For his book “The Founder’s Dilemma,” author and Harvard Business School Professor Noam Wasserman examined 10,000 startup founders and discovered that 65 percent of startups fail due to co-founder conflict, which is higher than the U.S. divorce rate.
To help entrepreneurs navigate the complexities of a co-founder relationship, new Chicago counseling service Amity Chicago is bringing couples counseling to startups, with the goal of lowering the founder divorce rate.
Launched earlier this year, Amity was founded by two family therapists, Shira Galston and Myra Castaneda, whose husbands both work in the startup world. Galston is married to Chicago Ventures VC Ezra Galston, and Castaneda’s husband Jorge Selva co-founded software startup Siempo.
Galston and Castaneda saw how their spouses were dealing with startup-founder stress, and decided to launch Amity as a way to use their skills as relationship therapists to help co-founders work out problems. And like most couples that go to counseling, communication is the No. 1 issue for startup founders, Galston and Castaneda say.
“With these companies, often times they start as good friend relationships or acquaintances,” Castaneda said. “All of a sudden, what used to feel personal with your friend can’t really be personal anymore because it’s a business relationship. We work through managing those dynamics.”
Amity spent the summer working with the latest class of Techstars Chicago companies, helping founders with issues ranging from stress, to work-life balance, to improving communication with a co-founder.
“While the conversation around mental health in tech is elevating, it’s still largely unspoken,” Techstars Chicago managing director Logan LaHive told Chicago Inno over email. “As a founder myself, I felt the pressure to project stability and confidence, while genuinely feeling isolated and depressed … Amity gave our Techstars Chicago founders an optional outlet to talk in-confidence with trained professionals, and if it helps even one founder, we consider it a major success.”
Amity’s co-founder counseling lasts between eight and 10 weeks, and the practice has worked with around 15 companies so far.
Similar to how couples in relationship counseling work on exercises to improve communication, Amity gives startup founders similar tasks to complete at the office. Homework can include simple listening exercises, journaling, and learning how to start a conversation by becoming aware of the first thing you say to your co-founder.
“We’re helping founders bring more awareness to the importance of their own well being, both physically and mentally,” Galston said, “and how important that is to the success of the company.”
Though a somewhat nascent practice, co-founder counseling has caught on in other parts of the country. Prominent Silicon Valley startup accelerator Y Combinator has a dedicated therapist on staff to work with founders, and Reboot offers co-founder bootcamps and other resources to entrepreneurs in New York, San Francisco, and Bolder, Colorado.
Galston and Castaneda, who work at the Northside Center for Relationship Counseling in Ravenswood, said they host founders at their practice, but also visit clients at their offices or talk via video chat. The ultimate goal, they say, is to improve founder relationships and help businesses succeed.
“[Startup founders] are working 80-plus hour weeks. They’re grinding very hard,” Castaneda said. “They’re often having to put their lives on hold to focus on the company, and that takes a toll.”