• Thu, Jun 3 2010

Bullish: If a Man Pays Your Bills, No One Will Respect You as an Entrepreneur

I keep a list of startup ideas on a loose system of legal pads, old envelopes, and iPhone Notes. There’s my plan for locating tutoring centers inside luxury apartment buildings. There’s my Weight-Watchers-type support group for thin people who just like to be fit. And there was this idea I had for a super-hip craft store.

It was going to sell craft supplies, of course, but also cool vintage-type stuff, like old record albums and ancient pulp novels and comic books, so that when Bust magazine recommends that you make a skirt out of a pillowcase, or lacquer bits of old Wonder Woman adventures onto a lampshade, you could get all the supplies in one place. And then there’d be an upstairs with a cozy classroom-type space where we make espresso and you could take feminist knitting classes.

Fun, right?

I have a best friend I can talk about money with, as should you. Ever notice people are much more ready to tell you about their sex lives than about their financial lives? Especially in the city where things are tight, this is the measure of friendship. Count how many people about whom you know 1) how much money they make, and 2) how much they pay for rent. This is how many true friends you have. I have exactly one of these.

Several times, over several brunches and dinners, I tried to convince my adorably cutthroat businesslady of a BFF that my craft store would be like gangbusters. I had even scouted out locations on the Lower East Side and copied down phone numbers of Chinese-speaking real estate agents. No, she told me. No. She referred me to a friend who had some experience in the crafting business.

The friend explained that, even at the Bust Craftacular, the semi-annual nexus of all things hip and crafty (where she had exhibited her wares and networked with the other exhibitors), a vast swath of even the most successful-looking entrepreneurs are actually supported by their (handmade-tie-wearing) husbands. Now, that’s no reason not to shop there for jewelry made out of old bits of 1950s office equipment. But it was certainly another hefty chunk of evidence coming down against my sinking my savings into The Craftykat.

I was reminded of this tale when I read comedian Becky Donohue’s most recent column on CoffeeandShowbiz: A-List Financial Advice from D-Lister Kathy Griffin. Donohue writes:

Taking a Lover is NOT a Way to Pay Your Bills!

Get over yourself, dickweed! No one should pay your bills, but you. I don’t care if you have a vagina and think you are God’s gift to the male species or if you have a penis and think you are God’s gift to the comedy world. It was annoying when you took your fries off of everyone else’s plate at the lunch table in high school and it’s still annoying now. You are an artist, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also earn a living. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard comedians and others say, “Well, my partner is just supporting me until I get that big break.” EWWWWW. I hate to break it to you, but no one has respect for you. They may not have respect for you behind your back or they may not want to tell you because, well, who the hell would want to get involved with you and your big head? Sure, everyone needs help from time to time. Sure, I’ve leaned on my partner. However, I am highly aware that it’s not cute for me to write sketches all day while my lover pays the bills. I’m telling you, he or she will make you regret it. Maybe not right away, but eventually it will come back and bite you. So, get a job. Sure, you’ll have to work harder to fit it all in, but think of the self esteem you’ll gain in exchange.

I wrote about my travails with women-in-business organizations last month, in Ladies Who Get Their Businesses Confused With Their Need to Be Loved. The ruin of so many of these organizations is that they are swamped with women who have no real need to build organizations profitable enough to support even themselves. (Of course, there are plenty of serious women entrepreneurs out there, a few of whom are saints who like to help out every Mary Kay lady on the block, but most of whom are probably annoyed to be associated with so many estrogen-fueled dilettantes.)

A few organizations, such as the National Association of Women Business Owners, do some useful screening to keep out those who are not full-time entrepreneurs or who do not own at least 51% of a company. It was at NAWBO, however, that these two things happened:

1) At an annual meeting, a speaker from the national organization gave a supposedly motivational speech in which she spewed some facts and figures: There are however many women entrepreneurs in America! she said, and Women owned businesses in the US make however-many gazillions of dollars per year! Everyone applauded. I did the math (dividing the second number by the first). I wrote on my napkin and waited for the Q&A, during which I asked, “Why are we applauding the fact that the average women-owned business makes $600 per year?” Shouldn’t we find a way not to lump ourselves in with every misguided Regretsy seller?

2) At the same annual meeting, the same speaker defined women business owners as those owning 51-or-more percent of a company. Now, this definition is itself problematic: I have had many male entrepreneurs tell me with a smirk that they put their companies entirely in their wives’ names in order to try to grab a piece of some imaginary pie of lady-benefits. I hope these men somehow come down with menstrual cramps, which they richly deserve. But in any case, a woman in the NAWBO audience was quite upset, and said, “What if you own a company with your husband? Why does it have to be 51%?” I had already bitchslapped the speaker with math, so I kept quiet, but deeply wanted to say: Then you’re half of a woman business owner! Get your own damn club. Do you really think that owning a business with your husband, and having a man’s name on the masthead, is the same thing as running an enterprise assumed by potential clients to be controlled by a woman? Because it isn’t.

I can tell you from experience that, if you go into a business partnership with a man — or even employ your romantic partner in the freaking mailroom — people will assume that it was all his idea, or that he’s somehow in charge, even when the evidence is overwhelmingly to the contrary. (On the flipside, some clients will be more likely to trust your business with large amounts of money. That money might not feel as good if the reason you started a business in the first place was to not be someone else’s lackey, either presumed or de facto.)

You can try to compensate for being assumed to be your partner’s adjunct by giving yourself an important title, making your partner aware of the situation, and constantly dropping into conversation, “When I first got the idea to start the company….” sounds tiresome. And if your male business partner is also your male sex partner, you’re very likely to face the choice of constantly being assumed to be second-in-command, or else destroying your relationship by constantly overcompensating for those assumptions. (I did it! I did it! Not him! No, really!) Or, you can not care that you’re not getting the credit you deserve, and then no one will respect you.

(Obviously, some couples just love working together. Some couples also like to share an email account, which is creepy.)

Interestingly, comedian/entrepreneur Becky Donohue (quoted above) is married to a woman, which makes it a whole lot easier to avoid both the problem of your man-friend being credited for your work, as well as the problem of just getting lazy and knowing that a dude will support you. (I feel certain that, as a pre-teen in the early ’90s, a teen magazine I subscribed to quoted Debbie Gibson as saying, “If you have a backup plan, you’re gonna fall back!”, which I found very profound at the time.) I wrote before about lesbianism as a motivational technique. Nothing wrong with liking dudes, of course, but it’s probably a good idea to keep your financial life separate from your sex life.

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  • CurlyComedy

    Great post! My husband is a struggling artist like me, so by being able to support ourselves financially (two separate incomes) we can support each other emotionally. He’d probably have my back in the encouragement department, but if he were the only one bringing home the bacon he’d start griping about the frying pan I purchased, and vice versa. We are building a robot nanny in the event that we have kids. Can you do an article about working non-moms’ bubbling resentment of stay-at-home moms? I’m related to so many, so I don’t WANT to hate them. But I envy anyone who doesn’t have to make their own money, and gets to hold a squishy baby to boot.

    • A

      Oh my. I am currently a SAHM and I have a lot to say to that! For some people, it’s a great job and really where their passion lies, but for a shocking majority of SAHMs it’s not because they enjoy being dependent on someone else for money, it’s for a lot of other matters to do with class/finances, the fact that daycare is an absolutely terrible place to put an infant, even if you can afford it, education level, the economy, etc and so forth.

      And as the mother of a squishy baby, please believe me when I say a day doesn’t go by where I’m not envious of someone who has a single moment to themselves/silence/sanity/opportunity to leave the house/freedom.

  • Jennifer Wright

    Okay, the thing I’m most confused about is why your first two ideas don’t exist. Because I’m pretty sure they’d make a fortune.

  • Jen Dziura

    Aww, thanks, Jennifer! I actually own domain names for both of them. We’ll see.

  • A

    This is the most sexist thing (to both sexes) I’ve read in a while, and I’m a women’s studies major, so that is saying something!

    • Sharonica

      @A, your accusation doesn’t mean anything if you don’t make an argument (other than “I was a women’s studies major”?) Do you think it’s sexist to report that other people will have sexist thoughts if you do a certain thing, such as go into business with a male partner? Would you call someone a racist for pointing out that if a nonwhite person does something well, a white person often gets the credit? Don’t shoot the messenger.