Laura’s note: I answered questions for Elisabeth Frost’s new blog, Optimistic Musings of a Pessimist, earlier this week. Now, she and her husband John are answering a few questions about co-founding and running businesses together for me.
First, introduce yourselves!
Elisabeth: Wife, mom, biologist (and reluctant entrepreneur).
I manage a clean-tech research program developing commercial pheromone, essential oil, and bacterial products for insect pest management in forestry and agriculture.
I also manage day-to-day accounting and communication responsibilities for our consulting business. Though we try to split household and parenting tasks equitably, the math rarely works since John travels ~50% of the time.
Favorite things: adventuring with my family, being alone (especially after an adventure with said family), eating good food, writing on my personal blog, and reading.
John: Husband, father, technophile (and enthusiastic, life-long entrepreneur).
My three dreams growing up were to: be Superman (I had the costume to make that dream a reality), travel the world, and run my own business. I managed two out of the three.
I started by selling homemade “kites” when I was in Grade Two – just a wooden frame, mind you – no cloth. By my early teens I had established lawn mowing and snow removal businesses where I would bring on clients and then outsource the labor to my friends. I’d charge $25 for a lawn, and pay someone else $15 to cut it.
For most of my career, I’ve worked at the intersection of business, culture and technology; I’m currently the COO of a European tech company that specializes in sustainable infrastructure (roads, railways, etc.).
Favorite things: photography, adventuring with my family, refurbishing tech (and selling it for a profit), German automobiles.
Why did you first decide to launch a business together?
A bit of a disclaimer. The company we co-founded, Frostbyte Interactive, started in tech consulting, branched off (see below) and has essentially come full circle. It remains the vehicle through which we’ve launched all other endeavors.
The first of those that had “legs of its own” was a product we called AccessDeck.
While we were both in graduate school, one of our side hustles was proctoring exams for students with various learning challenges at a university. When we started in our role, less than 5% of the student population was registered with the Accessible Learning department. A little over a decade later, it had surpassed 25%. We discovered similar trends were playing out at other universities.
Existing scheduling and administrative processes were cumbersome, inefficient, and lacking relevant functionality. We developed a customized software package to address these issues, deploying it at a local university before selling the technology to other schools.
How did your entrepreneurial journey continue from there?
It took us too long to realize that our customers (academic institutions) had protracted sales cycles. All these years later we are proud of what we developed, but our focus should have leaned toward commercialization, not just the technical solutions.
Know that old adage to work smarter, not harder? When you’re starting your first business it’s challenging to work smarter because you’re typically starting with limited knowledge and few connections. So it requires a lot of hard work and sweat equity. We were committed to always operating in the black (in over a decade of entrepreneurship we’ve never taken out a single loan, electing to bootstrap things ourselves and pursue funding initiatives). In retrospect, the most valuable things we gained from those early years were connections that led to investment grants/awards and networking leads for future collaboration.
Second business (Aerhyve): We operated Frostbyte Interactive out of an incubation hub and one day John – who was fascinated with emerging aerial tech – told the office manager: “I need to find a way to get money to buy a drone.” Long story short, we got a drone (and then 7 more, all of which lived inside our tiny apartment with our young, growing family) and launched a second business in agricultural tech.
We focused on the leading edge of Artificial Intelligence (long before ChatGPT!), developing technologies that could identify specific crop deficiencies using a special type of Machine Learning. For example, agriculture producers could take an aerial picture of their crops and isolate patches of weeds that needed treatment; even more importantly, we could tell them what species of weed they were seeing – critical for selecting the appropriate response – without ever having to put a foot on the ground!
This AI technology was attractive enough that Aerhyve was soon part of an acqui-hire and John and our other employees joined an American tech company.
Are there upsides to being married to your co-founder?
We like to spend time together and when you’re founding a business you get to spend a lot of time around your partner!
We trusted each other implicitly and had shared motivations since we were working toward a common goal. The longer we’ve worked together, the more trust we’ve developed both personally and professionally.
Founding a business is a bit like entering a full-time relationship. It’s all consuming and can easily fracture a marriage because the business can come to represent an extramarital affair of sorts; in our case we were BOTH involved in this “relationship” so common issues with jealousy or lack of understanding about the investments of time and energy were fully understood by the other, since we were experiencing everything concurrently.
How about the challenges? I would imagine there are some personally, and professionally.
The early days were tough. We had our first child a few months after finishing graduate school. Neither of us had established careers and we had very (very) little money. We scrimped and saved and found a lot of creative ways to make ends meet.
Startup life is a rollercoaster and when you’re strapped in on the ride together it means you’re riding the same highs and lows. While this can pave the way for more empathy, it also means you don’t have a partner to even out your bad days. Usually you’ve faced the same challenged day at the office – which may just be the living room of your home. Which leads into…
It’s very hard to “turn off” work when you’re an entrepreneur. The lines of work/home almost always have to blur to get things off the ground. That’s inherently tough, especially when you’re trying to raise a young family.
2014 was an especially hard year; our daughter got seriously ill with pneumonia and our son was born after a complicated and stressful pregnancy. We had to work through all of those events with no real sick leave. The flexibility you get as your “own boss” is a bit of a misnomer. There was no one else to pick up the slack when we were going through personal crises…and bills still had to get paid.
Given that you were both working for the same company, how did you make decisions about the division of labor with the kids and the home?
Early on, division of labor with domestic work was very equitable. We shared cooking, cleaning, and parenting responsibilities. When we launched our agri-tech business it necessitated a lot of travel, almost exclusively by John. While he does the majority of paid work in our household these days, Elisabeth handles the majority of the domestic responsibilities.
Any advice you’d give to people thinking about doing this?
Make sure you have a rock-solid relationship. It’s like people struggling in marriage who think “We should have a baby! That will solve all our marital issues.” Um, nope. Babies are hard. So is co-founding a business.
The nature of business is not to make money but rather to make customers. This tenet still permeates everything we do today.
On that note, it really can’t ever be about “money.” In fact, you need to be prepared to have some lean years. The payoffs of entrepreneurship are rarely large (statistically, most businesses fail), and the sweat equity required can involve living on very limited funds while getting the business off the ground. Even with a sustainable business, it needs to be passion, autonomy, changing the world, etc. that provide the constant motivation.
Ensure that if one person is more drawn to entrepreneurship (in our case, John), that the other party knows there is a “kill switch” to walk away from the rigors of start-up life.
You need to like being around each other.
It’s critical you have the same approach to spending. If one person wants to take financial risks hoping for big rewards and the other partner is risk averse, this can be a major red flag.
Make sure you have a diversified combined skill set. While we worked together on everything, we had different approaches and strengths. In early days we were literally a team of two and had to divide up an entire gamut of roles.
Are there particular time management strategies that have helped with the entrepreneurial life?
Entrepreneurship is like running a marathon uphill. It’s important to pace yourself…
Favorite things to do together? How did/do you recharge?
We love to adventure as a family. Visiting lighthouses in Nova Scotia is one of our favorite activities.
We walk together. During early years, this was a major source of creative inspiration and relief from excess tension due to business challenges. Now we walk our children to school most mornings and then have at least 20 minutes of time together to talk on the way home.
At-home date nights. This is one of the best habits we’ve established in our marriage. Each week – at least once, often twice – we feed the kids separately, put them to bed, and John (never Elisabeth!) prepares a special meal we eat together while watching a movie (we don’t feel the need to gaze lovingly into each others eyes over candlelight because we spend a lot of time together since we both work from home). It’s relaxed but special.
Photo: In the early years…