The secret to running a business with your romantic partner? Be yourself

Startup business partners Image credit: eamesBot / Shutterstock

I’ve worked with my fair share of men over a career in tech that began in the heady 1980s – from those who yelled at me in public meetings, to, more recently, a government-appointed mentor who told me “no one could ever see you as a leader of a tech company”.

Unsurprisingly, thirty years ago sexism in the industry was rife and I was often the only woman at the table. I still am.

I cut my teeth in the heavily male-dominated tech industry and I began to appreciate what a good company culture should look and feel like, with a better balance between masculine and feminine values. My eyes were opened to how technology can not just change individual lives, but shape the future of entire populations.

In 2014 I took the biggest decision in my career to date with the best man I know – my husband, Ian. We set sail into uncharted waters to build Smart Green Shipping and help the maritime industry significantly reduce the 3% of global carbon emissions it’s currently responsible for.

The journey has been a lot like the yacht racing projects I was involved in – you know where you’re heading, but have to contend with unpredictable conditions along the way.

Here are some of the things I’ve learned about building a business with my partner in life and business.

Emotional honesty

The relationship that I have with Ian is one that I would want with any business partner. I want to be human and emotionally honest. Too often at work, people find the need to have a different persona, something rougher and harder around the edges.

This is particularly true of entrepreneurs trying to raise capital. The ‘Dragon’s Den’ mindset – one I see as being combative, competitive and uncompromisingly commercial – still seems to win favour with investors and often sidelines introverts or those who are more cerebral.

I always knew I wanted to be a different type of entrepreneur, and Ian and I try to lead by example in that respect. For us, and many other climate tech entrepreneurs, the planet is our number one stakeholder and that means every decision we make in the business needs to be aligned to our values and mission.

Yes of course we need to make money to scale, but we are not going to take shortcuts if it means diluting our mission over time. Using our mission as our North star has helped Ian and I stay focused, and make decisions about the team, product development and business proposition that keep us on track to deliver the impact we know we can.

Husband and wife to co-founders

The average rate of divorce in the UK is 42% (higher in the US), and this is often half-jokingly cited as a reason for investors’ reluctance to back husband-and-wife founding teams. Ian and I have been (happily!) married for 30 years and we’ve been through a lot together.

There are specific rituals that we have built into our relationship that have been fundamental to our smooth sailing so far. The importance and non-negotiable nature of these was brought into sharp focus when we launched Smart Green Shipping.

Many years ago Ian wrote a book on self-awareness and its fundamental importance to success. For our relationship, this meant doing a lot of work on ourselves – managing our own emotions and understanding why we behave and react in certain situations. Frankly, owning your shit.

Developing this self-awareness before we even started the business has meant that when difficult situations happen at work, we understand there might be other factors at play.

We also know how important it is to ‘switch off’ when we finish work. That usually means doing something that gets us physically moving – perhaps a run, some gardening, or a bike ride. Time spent apart is also understood and appreciated.

Ian and our son might go to watch their beloved Liverpool FC play at Anfield on the weekend, while I keep and tend to a couple of rescue horses as they keep me grounded. I also find it vital to get out into nature and walking long distances helps me open my mind.

Partners in life and business

It took us years to secure the finance to deliver our green infrastructure project as investors typically want fast returns with low financial risk. In the search for funding, I met an individual who’d worked in motor racing and been an aerodynamicist with Tesla. He offered us a $1m investment but we needed much more than that to unlock the grant.

Although I was grateful, I nearly dismissed the offer on the grounds that it wasn’t enough until Ian made me realise that this was the catalyst we needed to give confidence to the other smaller investors who had already expressed an interest in working with us. This is one of many examples where Ian’s intuition on the funding side and his experience of that world helped me make a better decision. It ultimately helped us unlock the grant.

Ian and I know that to make a difference in the face of everything that is stopping us, we must step out of our comfort zones, be honest and allow space for different perspectives. I’m still learning how to bring together the perfect team, but I know that trusting others is critical.

To the next generation

When Ian and I started our business together, we knew that we wouldn’t be able to decarbonise an industry like shipping in our lifetime. It’s the next generation at the helm of our business.

I think starting a business with a partner gives you a different perspective. You’re in it for the long haul and there’s so much more at stake. For anyone who might be considering it, my advice is twofold – first, understand and commit yourselves to your mission because it ends up being your legacy, and second, know that it’s a long road mired with challenges, so you’ve got to really love and respect each other to make it work.

Diane Gilpin is the founder of Smart Green Shipping.