How To Marry Your Cofounder And Not Kill Your $200 Million Startup In The Process

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Kevin and Julia Hartz have been married for five and a half years.

They’ve been running Eventbrite, a ticketing startup worth ~ $200 million, for five years.

“We knew we wanted to start a business together before we lived together,” Julia tells us.

She and Kevin, Eventbrite’s President and CEO respectively, tell us how they’ve built a multi-million-dollar startup without sabotaging their relationship.

Business Insider: How did you meet?

Julia Hartz: We’ve been married for five and a half years and we met in 2003 at a mutual friend’s wedding. I was working for MTV on little show called Jackass.

Kevin was in San Francisco starting his second startup, Xoom, and his friend from Stanford married my boss.

In the church there were two sides, one of nerds and one of too-cool-for-school MTV kids. We were the product of that union. We sat next to each other during the ceremony and we hit it off.

When did you know you wanted to start a business together?

JH: We knew we wanted to start a company together before we lived together. We were literally unpacking my boxes the same day we were setting up saw horses using doors for desks in a little conference room. 

When I think of those early days I think of the wall of Cup of Noodles and the wall of wedding invitations on our desk. Because at the same time we were trying to launch a company we were also mailing our wedding invitations.


KH: When Julia moved to San Francisco from Santa Monica she was looking for a media/tech position.  Julia started interviewing around and got all sorts of interesting offers; I was transitioning out of a full-time role at Xoom.

We figured out Julia has some really great complementary skills, and maybe Julia and Renaud — our third cofounder and CTO — maybe the three of us could embark on something together. The three of us clicked very well.

How did you decide on Eventbrite?

KH: In the original business of Xoom, my business partner and I built all these payment applications.  We built seven or eight on top of PayPal’s API just as people are now building on top of Facebook’s.

When I stepped out of Xoom we had these other rudimentary payment services running and what became Eventbrite was actually growing on its own with no one running it. We thought, “This is really interesting, lets spend a couple quarters on it and see if it fleshes out.”

JH: I never considered myself an entrepreneur until I met Kevin and he made it look so easy.  I think it was his persuasiveness that got me to take the leap form a comfortable corporate position to a non-paid tech one.  He helped me tap into a passion I didn’t even know I had.

Were you confident you’d be able to work together?

KH: The beginning of Eventbrite was very experimental in a lot of different ways. We didn’t know if this was the right approach to ticketing. We didn’t know if the market existed.  We were also engaged so it was an experiment in whether or not we could work together. We kind of treated it as a trial — a run-through.

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My advice to other couples who want to become entrepreneurs is to test it out first. We always had escape routes. We said we’ll try it out for the first quarter, or the second quarter and check in. Because what you don’t want to do is sacrifice your relationship.

So we had these check-in points to say, “Wow, this is still working.” Have those exit routes. You don’t want it to blow up. If it isn’t working you want to make a conscious decision to go off in different directions.

You initially bootstrapped Eventbrite. What advice do you have for couples who can’t afford to both be out of work at the same time?

KH: We have always been frugal in nature but we did have the ability to both work full time and not take salaries for a significant amount of time. We decided to take a bootstrapping route.

Some general advice for any entrepreneur is to moonlight. You have a paycheck coming in during the day and a lot of great businesses have been created on the side. Show some progress, set some goals. Say, “In 3 months or 6 months we want to be able to have a working beta with X many users,” and demonstrate you can get to that before you make that next commitment. Or generate revenue or find investors before you jump out of the nest of your job. 

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Photo: Techcrunch via Flickr

What were the early Eventbrite days like?KH: We had a really close friend who owned a building and put us up to work on what would become the Eventbrite project.

It was a really fun time and we were with a bunch of other companies. Trulia was starting out in that building, Mark Pincus and Zynga started in this building. Joe Greenstein and Flixster, Tripit – We all started on one floor. It was this early, quasi incubator, like one big happy family. It was a really exciting time.

JH: We were in the same 10,000 square feet as 9 different startups at one point. It was a very magical time because we saw the inception of some very, very successful companies, as well as some companies that never made it.

KH: To be doing this with Julia was very exciting. We always had good smart people to exchange ideas with and be mentored by. For example we got Michael and Xochi Birch involved who founded Bebo. They were a husband-wife couple from even before Bebo. They had two successful businesses before that.

That vibe you see really apparent today is to learn from others.  That was 208 Utah Street in 2006.

Was it hard to recruit a cofounder or investors as a couple?

JH: Not at all. We started a company before we got married. Everything that we’ve known has been as partners. It really hasn’t created any closed doors for us. Perhaps that’s because we’re not realising it.

We were able to recruit Renaud Visage as he was leaving to go back to France. So not only did we have this funny dynamic of being a couple and starting a company, we had a cofounder who was based in France. So we had everything working against us at the same time so perhaps that’s why it succeeded.

As far as funding and building a team, you being romantically involved with your cofounder really shouldn’t play a factor in how you run the company and how you create a team or find resources. It’s all about the partnership.

We acknowledged our relationship head on with investors. If you treat it like a taboo it will be a taboo. But if you treat it like we’re partners like anyone else, and we’re great partners who really work well together then that’s a benefit to the company.

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KH: There were some concerns here and there but we also bootstrapped the business. So, for one, we showed results and we showed that we could work together. But more importantly we showed we could build a great business and then the investors came to us.

What are the similarities between being cofounders and being a couple?

KH: They’re both partnerships. A relationship is a partnership. There are some differences in the sense that not all couples can work together.

I always cite my parents as a great couple; they’ve been together for 45+ years but they wouldn’t necessarily be able to work with one another. There’s a certain chemistry one figures out. Whether it’s a father and son team or a brother and sister, you realise very quickly whether you can work together or not.

The founders of Cisco were husband and wife and they had a very public falling out.  There’s a natural chemistry where some spouses can work together, but it doesn’t always work out.

How did you establish your roles, Kevin as CEO and Julia as President?

JH: In the beginning there were three of us so it was simple to establish roles because there weren’t many people. Renaud built our site so he was our CTO. Kevin developed the product so he was more of the product focus. I took on customer support, finance and marketing. 

As the business grew we continued that divide and conquer strategy; we looked for areas of the business that matched our individual skills and weren’t overlapping. If you have a cofounder, one of the benefits is you’ll get from point A to point B two times faster.

KH: We also had this perfect triangle where I would work on the product side and hand the designs and specs to Renaud. He would implement them and push the product out to our customers. Julia had a great pulse of the customers and would get their feedback, then filter that back to us. We had this very tight development and release life cycle. That was important.

How do you handle disagreements and keep them professional? How do you keep work disagreements from invading your personal lives?

JH:  It’s not easy when you have disagreements, but we’ve worked a lot on the foundation to be prepared for those times. First and foremost there’s one leader of Eventbrite. That is Kevin; he’s our CEO. I think it’s really, really important to establish that if you’re going to successfully grow a team. Humans want to know the hierarchy; it’s important for there to be one leader.

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Second, we have a tremendous amount of respect for each other. We’ve been doing this long enough that there’s no question who should be yielded to in what area of the business.

We try to listen to each other. I commend Kevin for being a really good listener, respecting my thoughts and hearing me.  Even if we can’t come to an agreement on something I know that he’s heard me and that’s a huge part of the strife.  There’s a tremendous amount of trust.

Setting up boundaries and game rules ahead of time and then practicing them creates success. I can’t actually think of a disagreement we’ve had where we haven’t been able to come to a quick resolution on our own and not involve anyone else. That obviously is a no-no.

KH: If Julia is the pitcher and I play first base, I’m not going to run out and pitch. That’s Julia’s responsibility. She has her set of rules and makes decisions around there. Where we’ve seen partners break down is that overlapping grey area, so really defining those boundaries is critical.

Kevin Hartz Eventbrite desk

Photo: Boonsri Dickinson, Business Insider

What are the benefits of marrying your cofounder?JH: Being married, we care deeply about each other and each others’ success. We have this bonus of actually wanting each other to succeed. I think that’s rare in partnerships. Sure, you care about that person, but would you lay down your life for your partner? So that’s a tremendous advantage for us.

At the core of it I want to see Kevin be the best CEO he can be and he wants me be the best President I can be. We really do support each other that way.

We also have a tremendous advantage because we can talk about work any time.  We don’t have to call a meeting or get a conference call together. It can be in the middle of the night when we’re problem-solving. It’s a huge advantage to the company.

Because we both feel very passionate about Eventbrite, Kevin and I are able to better ebb and flow. If Kevin has something he’s trying to work out, I know that almost without him having to say it.  There isn’t that usual friction when couples don’t really know what each other are going through at work.

Are your personalities very different?

JH: We’re both very type A. We are pretty similar.

If you’re going to be an entrepreneur most likely you’re going to be Type A — stubborn. You figure that is your common ground and then you find ways you can complement each other.

When I’m stressed out about something Kevin is always there to give me the reassurance or helpful perspective. There are enough differences between the two of us though.

Kevin has been in the industry 10 years longer than I have and has this amazing historian take on things. He helps me figure out problems by telling me what happened in the past. 

I think I have a great intuition about people or gut instinct so I can tell Kevin where people are coming from.  It’s less about focusing on where you’re the same and focusing on ways you’re different that can be helpful in ultimately getting a business off the ground.

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KH: I would also twist the word “stubborn” a bit because stubborn can have a negative connotation. Think of it as “strong willed” or “very defined thought.”  In your relationships both in and out of work, find a way to define things so you both stay true to your beliefs and opinions but you aren’t clashing.

One thing you always have to ensure in a startup is that there’s no dysfunction.  There can’t be any time spent on personal issues or fighting. That needs to be identified, reconciled and solved right away.

When you live with the person you’re starting a company with, it becomes hard to separate work and family. Do you have times when you decide not to work on work?

JH: In the beginning we didn’t separate work and home life at all and that was a benefit. When you’re starting a company there’s very little time to think about anything else.

In 2008 we had our first child, Emma, and that creates a natural distraction and separateness of church and state. You want to take time and focus on your child. That means not working or being in front of a computer. She created this nice natural balance for us.

Also, having to negotiate with a four year old is really great practice for talking mergers and acquisitions.

Has being cofounders strengthened your marriage?

JH:  It actually lends itself to navigating difficult or transitional periods in your personal life.

We just welcomed our second child. It’s man on man defence when you have two kids but we’re in our comfort zone with dividing and conquering.  Looking back now I think, “Wow we came through with flying colours.” It’s because we’ve worked together as partners.

Will you keep working on Eventbrite together forever? What are your future plans for the business?

KH:  The goal is to look at some longstanding businesses. Estée Lauder, for example, has been a many-generation business. The ticketing space itself is a massive market and we’re really just getting started here.

In terms of 2012 we’re growing aggressively internationally. We had over 21 million people attend Eventbrite events last year and we’re starting to do a lot on the consumer business side.  We’ll be helping users discover events, whether they’re classes or concerts.

We’re very well capitalised and we’re focused on investing in the growth of the business.

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