Small Business

Married Couples Run Sugar, ModCloth Other Tech Start-Ups

Jon Swartz, USA Today
Couple looking at laptop
Eva Serrabassa | Getty Images

When Brian Sugar ponders an executive decision at his high-tech start-up here, all he has to do for quick advice is instant-message his business partner — on the other end of the living-room couch.

His wife, Lisa, agrees that their 5-year-old online women's network, aptly named Sugar, should make a key personnel move. In between shop talk, they comment on the San Francisco Giants game they're watching on TV, after tucking the kids into bed.

Unconventional, yes, but this tech tandem has thrived. Their company reaches 25 million unique monthly visitors because they have created specialized content via a constellation of 39 sites for women under 34 years old.

They have ambitious plans for their "baby": Sugar. It's in the process of expanding its content network and escalating its commerce business. And Sugar recently unfurled PopSugar Shop, a dedicated site to national and local discount offers in fashion, beauty, food and fitness. Their company is smack dab in what some might call Matrimonial Alley.

Several city blocks away, Kevin and Julia Hartz of online-ticketing platform Eventbrite are trying to figure out how to squeeze more bodies into their cramped offices. The agency employs 175, but is in full-fledged expansion.

Two floors above, Susan Gregg Koger and husband Eric are readying a photo shoot for, the online fashion company they created while students at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. In a whirlwind, two-month stretch in mid-2006, they managed to graduate from college, buy their first house, marry and move the company to a larger facility. Last year, they shifted headquarters to San Francisco.

A few miles south on Highway 101 in Mountain View, Evernote CEO Phil Libin is trying to persuade his wife, Sharmila Birba, who runs the company's finances and human resources, to accompany him on a business trip to China and Japan. She's not so sure.

"Sharmila gets jet-lagged if she takes the train," he says, laughing.

Silicon Valleyis rich in such tandems: married couples in technology who are able to balance the demands of matrimony with the pressure-cooker demands of running a start-up. It isn't easy, as any of them will attest, but their life partnerships do offer some advantages.

Cisco Systems was founded by Len Bosack and Sandy Lerner, a married couple who worked as computer operations staff members at Stanford University, and Richard Troiano, in 1984. VMwarewas the business union of Diane Greene and Mendel Rosenblum and three others in 1998. Michael and Xochi Birch, who co-founded Bebo in 2005, struck it rich when AOL bought the social-networking service for $850 million in 2008.

Then, there were Judy Estrin and Bill Carrico. For two decades, Estrin and Carrico were the Romeo and Juliet nerd love story in Silicon Valley. Together, they founded seven companies, including Bridge Communications, which pioneered technology for linking different networks, and networking-software maker Precept Software. Cisco acquired Precept in 1998.

Family businesses are responsible for 80 percent to 90 percent of all U.S. businesses, with husband-and-wife teams accounting for about one-third of that, according to several reports on small businesses.

"The most important thing is they respect each other the same way they respect any good employee, and they remember that all work and no play will be the death of their marriage," says Diane Lykes, who counsels couples in business together.

Complementary skills

With the divorce rate hovering around 50 percent, most marriages face steep odds. Things get even more complicated when you add the onerous task of starting a company and being responsible for the livelihoods of dozens of others.

Imagine, then, the pressure of running a start-up in the fiercely competitive tech world while raising children. Calling Superman and Superwoman.

But into this yawning chasm of responsibility have stepped several couples, who have combined their complementary skills, divided up responsibilities, invoked trust in each other and fine-tuned their communications skills to create profitable enterprises employing hundreds of people.

Donna and Adam Powell have been down this road before.

Before they co-founded Meteor Games, an independent online-gaming studio, in 2007, they sold earlier venture Neopets, the first major Web-based kids game of its kind, to MTV for $160 million in 2005. A third company, Shout Advertising, was sold before Neopets.

"I could definitely see us starting a few more companies together," Donna, 32, says. "We love the start-up process. Getting people to believe in your team and making it a reality is incredible."

The start-up process "helps strengthen our marriage, despite some ups and downs," she says, referring to a decision they made to pivot Meteor from 3-D technology to social games.

Like the Sugars and Kogers, the Powells have been together for years. They met as teenagers. They married in 2008.

"Adam and I get on incredibly well," Donna says. "It comes naturally." She describes chief creative officer Adam, 34, as the "reclusive, eccentric type."

"He rarely gives talks," says Donna, who is chief operating officer. "That is his idea of hell. I am a lot more outgoing about the company." Zac Brandenberg is CEO.

The Kogers founded ModCloth in 2002 in a college dorm room, when both were teenagers. Since then, the business has mushroomed into a 250-employee operation and was named "America's Fastest-Growing Retailer" by Inc. magazine in 2010. They recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of their first date, when they attended the same high school in Cooper City, Fla.

Their collaboration is classic left brain-right brain. While Susan is the creative force, with a hand in designing clothing and keeping close tabs on the fashion industry, Eric handles the technical side and operations. "It's a pretty clear divide," Eric says.

Of course, tandem partnerships don't always work. Despite their track record of multiple start-ups, Carrico and Estrin divorced, and no longer work together. Estrin did not return e-mail messages seeking comment.

"There are plenty of founding teams that separate," says Michael Moritz, a partner at venture-capital firm Sequoia Capital, which has invested in Sugar and Eventbrite. "Microsoft, with Bill Gates and Paul Allen, comes to mind."

"Sugar is proof of when things are harmonious," Moritz says. "Brian is tickled to not only work with Lisa, but see her all day at work. There is deep affection that permeates the company."

Balancing Work and Home

Not everything is high-tech honeymoon, however.

It takes hard work, communication and sacrifices to make a working marriage work. It means carving out an hour for dinner; weekends together; avoiding too much overlap on major decisions; traveling together on business; juggling kid duty; and occasionally bringing children to work.

The eldest daughters for the Sugars and Hartzes, for example, have their own office spaces.

While the Kogers and Hartzes work at side-by-side desks, Libin, 39, and Birbal, 40, work at opposite ends of Evenote's big, open offices. It's not that they don't get along — they married in 1996 — but their tasks often involve different teams.

They commute together from San Jose, but "don't interact that much in the office," Libin says. "If we didn't work together, we might not see each other."

Birbal at one time had misgivings about working with her husband and actually refused to join his last company, CoreStreet, a government-security firm. "I thought it might have been too much," she says. "Now, I'm happy to have done it."

We Are Cloud got its start in France when a then-26-year-old Rachel Delacour created code for the company's cloud-based service. Now 32 and a mother, she's been recognized with awards in Europe for "Best Start-up of the Year" and "Best Cloud Computing Technology." The company is expanding from Europe, South America and Asia into the U.S.

Delacour admits working with her husband, chief technical officer Nicolas Raspal, is "hard."

"The most difficult is to judge your husband or wife's professional performance," she says. "But it does get easier. We completely understand how the other works, and we hire older managers to balance decision making."

Lots of moving parts

It's a military operation at the Sugar household in the morning and at night.

At 5 a.m., Brian begins work. By 8 a.m., both kids are up. The eldest, Katie, is dropped off at school during the 9 a.m. commute to work. After a full day of work, everyone is home by 6:30 p.m. for dinner. The kids go to bed at 8 p.m. Mom and Dad watch TV and catch up on news that might interest their predominately female audience until about 11:30 p.m.

"All these moving parts: A start-up, two kids and two dogs," says Lisa, the self-appointed CEO and planner of the family.

Some couples go to extreme measures to ensure things don't unravel. Frank Sinton and wife Lisa, who started video-aggregator MeFeedia in 2007, transplanted their family of three kids under the age of 9 from Southern California to Ormond Beach, Fla. From a beachfront home, they're just 10 miles from the office. (The company remains based in Burbank, Calif., to which Frank, who is CEO, frequently travels.)

"We wanted to raise our kids in a smaller town," Lisa says.

Despite his workaholic nature — he often puts in 20 hours a day — Frank is laid back, and Lisa is the Type-A personality. "What's important to me is he comes home for dinner," says Lisa, who tries to carve out an hour around 5.

To restore some balance to their hectic lives, Lisa, an attorney who is vice president of business development at MeFeedia, uses a home office and employs a nanny.

"There are conflicts at work, but we usually resolve them at the end of the day," Frank says.

Then again, just being married is hard. "Any family with two parents working full-time jobs is a challenge," says Joseph Steinberg who, with wife Shira Rubinoff, runs Green Armor Solutions, a profitable security-software company they founded in 2005. They have three kids.