Nobody wants to experience divorce but it’s an unfortunate fact of life. While the rate of failed marriages has actually fallen from its 2003 peak there were still 111,000 couples who decided to part ways in 2014. The fact divorces are common doesn’t make them any less unpleasant – especially when you receive the bill at the end of it all, which can often run up into the 10s of thousands of pounds.
A new start-up called amicable wants to slash that cost by taking a different approach to divorce – one where separating couples are encouraged to work through the process collaboratively rather than getting lawyers involved. It’s the joint creation of tech entrepreneur Pip Wilson (who sold her last business, consultancy Bluefin Solutions, for $66m) and psychology expert Kate Daly.
‘Kate went through a fairly horrendous divorce herself,’ Wilson tells MT. ‘She retrained as a counsellor to help other couples that were going through the same thing and managed to have some really positive results by coming up with a way of doing it that seemed to make a big difference. But it wasn’t scalable and relied on her being there, and it was also very expensive.’
So the pair teamed up to combine Daly’s technique with technology that they hope will make it viable for use on a larger scale, and called it amicable. The service includes a free app which any couple can use to communicate and make financial decisions as they split up. And it also provides a divorce coaching service that guides couples through the whole process for just £950 per person.
It may not be the most obvious or upbeat business opportunity, but there’s surely a demand for a less stressful and expensive approach to separation. Wilson says amicable is necessary because of how Britain’s legal system works. When you hire a solicitor they can only represent you – meaning each half of a couple needs their own representative. ‘So you get two people being told a view that is almost their best case scenario. You get polarised views which normally don’t overlap right from the start.
‘So even if the intention is to stay amicable often things can disintegrate over time, and all the communication is being done by lawyers at a cost per letter and discussion.’ It’s a particular problem for parents, she says, who really need to stay on good terms for their children’s sake.
Is there not an argument that each side needs somebody in the know fighting their corner? ‘If your main motivation is making sure you are getting the maximum you are entitled to then the legal route probably is the best way to do it, but we’re finding that’s not the message we’re getting from people.’ Plus divorcing via amicable doesn’t mean shunning legal advice altogether. ‘We work with a law firm but they will give us advice that we can pass on to both people at the same time,’ says Wilson. ‘We can make sure that whatever you agree is something a judge is going to be happy with.’
It’s still early days for amicable, which is backed by a small SEIS funding round of £150,000 from private investors. After a soft launch back in November it started actively pursuing customers in January and now has around 30 people going through the full process, including one couple that has almost finished, and 450 people have downloaded the app. ‘We’re very much in line with what we hoped to get at this point,’ says Wilson.
It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that not every soon-to-be-ex couple who tries amicable is going to find it works for them - the nature of relationship breakdown being that many of those who start with good intentions still end up fighting to the death over who gets what. But it’s a step in the right direction at least.
Keeping your cool is not helped by the fact that British law still controversially has no provision for no-fault divorce – that is, divorce where neither partner has actually done anything wrong. ‘It’s ridiculous – there absolutely should be a change in the law, says Wilson. ‘I have conversations with people every day who say we’ve just fallen out of love and want to be able to move on – why do we have to start the process by one of us saying some really horrible things about the other and the other having to read it? All that does it raise the levels of anger, which doesn’t help anyone.’
Wilson is in a pretty small minority as a successful woman tech entrepreneur. She blames that fact on the venture capital process. ‘I don’t think believe it is friendly enough to women and I don’t think there are enough women VCs to even it up,’ she says. ‘I think it’s partly [unconscious bias] and it’s partly that women are more likely to start businesses related to what they know, and that may not be the same as what those doing investment will know.’
The plan now for amicable is to help get the 30 customers through the process to show other potential customers that the model can work well. ‘We’re certainly getting the feedback that there really is a market for this and people recognise that there needs to be something different, and that something that really puts families first is a positive step forward.’