You may think that the ultimate in togetherness is renovating a house, or raising kids. But maybe nothing in couplehood is more rewarding – or, more demanding – than starting a business together. Entrepreneurship can provide a huge added dimension to a relationship that energizes both the venture and the love. Try to start a business from home, and tell us that's not the ultimate in togetherness!
But there are no guarantees that it’ll work out. You raise the stakes in your life a lot by spending your work hours and your off hours with your spouse or significant other. The stress of having both your livelihood and your primary love relationship riding in the same boat can destroy a company, a couple or both.
How entrepreneurial couples make their businesses and relationships work
Trust yourselves: Couples say one of the biggest joys of this arrangement is being able to trust that your business partner has your best interests at heart. “It’s a great comfort knowing that I’ve got someone protecting my flank and that I don’t have to worry about the political issues that come up in a business,” says Marianne Clark, vice president of Mac Farms Inc., the Burlington, Mass., company she owns with her husband George, executive vice president. The company produces a carbonated dairy beverage called eMoo. Their mutual reliance has come in handy during episodes in which older relatives, such as Marianne’s mother, have fallen ill and required care. “With two people up to speed on the business, one of us can veer off and handle specific tasks even in the midst of emergencies like that,” George says.
Talk all the time: Doubling up on work and relationship means that communication is even more important for entrepreneur couples than for other couples. “The ability and willingness to communicate about everything is critical,” says Thomas D. Davidow, a Brookline, Mass.-based family-business consultant. “Marriage is complicated enough, and when you add your business life on top of it, you’ve just added many, many more situations that are going to have to be talked about.”
Divide the labor: You both need to be devoted to the success of the work, but that’s about where your responsibilities should diverge. You need to delineate your different roles clearly so that you can each have a domain within the enterprise where the other doesn’t interfere. That may be easier than it seems: Since opposites often attract, your relationship has probably made you used to complementing one another.
Lisa and Doug Powell solved that problem in their graphics-design business by each taking the lead on different projects. “If there wasn’t a distinction, we would fight and it would get really ugly,” Doug says. And now Lisa is heading up the Minneapolis couple’s new venture: a company called Type 1 and Type 2 Tools that produces educational materials for diabetic kids.
What about the children?: Most advisors say you should try to keep your kids’ lives away from the company and the business out of purely family concerns such as child rearing and vacations. “Having kids forces you to define these two parts of your life very clearly,” Lisa Powell says.
On the other hand, Cindy Pearson believes that her three kids benefit from being exposed to the inner workings of the franchise business that she and her husband recently started in Des Moines, Maintenance Made Simple. “It short-changes your kids,” says Cindy, whose own parents ran a small business from their home. “When they set out to be adults, they start at ground zero.”
Be wary: Some experts strongly warn that you “should not try this at home.” It’s too difficult to keep the work and relationship roles separate, so you shouldn’t mix business with pleasure, advises Karen Sherman, a New York-based psychologist. Dr. Sherman also warns that, “by working together, there is not time that couples also are apart – so they don’t bring any freshness or diversity of life into their relationship.” And when one of the pair dies, she says, “the other is very lost because so much of their life has been intertwined.”
A way to hedge your bets is for one partner to pursue the business full-time while the other sticks with what he or she was already doing. That’s why Susanne Alexander is president of Marriage Transformation, a startup in Euclid, Ohio, that focuses on “relationship coaching,” and her husband, Craig Alexander, is still working nearly full-time. “We felt it was unwise to put all the stress on the business right away as our sole source of income,” Susanne says. “His job keeps us in benefits. And we’ve been gradually transitioning.”
Exit strategy: Face the possibility that, despite your best efforts and intentions, your dreams of sharing work and home just might not unfold perfectly. And because most people believe that their relationship is far, far more important than a particular business venture, your company could be at risk. So you might have to alter your plans.
Ann Perrault and Jackie Victor found one way to work around that predicament. The couple started a bakery in downtown Detroit several years ago, and Avalon International Breads has boomed. But then Ann’s production role began to overlap more with Jackie’s overall management responsibilities, and business also got in the way of raising their two young children. “It took us three quarters of the year and a lot of therapy to decide that we should take a break in terms of working together,” Ann says. Last October, Jackie began a sabbatical from Avalon. “I’m happier, and she’s happier,” Ann reports. “And in two years, we plan on switching roles.”
Our Bottom Line
Starting a business together can be the ultimate experience in 'marrying' your work and professional lives, but it's not without risks – be aware of them up front and plan accordingly.