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OWNER'S MANUAL

Still Partners (in Life and Business) After 20 Years
 

Thinking about starting a business with your significant other? Read this first.

Jim Burba (left) and Bob Hayes have been partners--in life and business--for more than 20 years.

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Becoming business partners can sometimes ruin a great relationship that exists outside of that business. So how can you optimize two major aspects of your life without killing your relationship--or each other--in the process?

Here's another in my series where I pick a topic and connect with someone a lot smarter than me. (There's a list of some previous installments at the end of this article.)

This time I talked to Jim Burba and Bob Hayes, co-founders of Burba Hotel Network, developing and producing worldwide conferences for the hotel and tourism investment community.

They've also been a couple for over 20 years-- so yeah, they know a little about balancing personal and business relationships.

You were a couple long before you became business partners. Do you think that helped?
JB: When we met at a fancy black tie fundraiser, going into business together was absolutely not on our minds that evening.

Fortunately for us we had a pretty good idea of what we were all about as individuals. We had been life partners for nearly 10 years before we crossed the great divide into building a business life together. Over many, many conversations we planned how a business might work with our two strong personalities: Who would do what, who would be the "boss," how would we keep the professional from creeping into the personal?

BH: By the way, keeping the professional out of the personal when your business partner is your life partner is impossible. Remember that.

That still had to be a huge shift, though: You went to basically a 24/7 relationship.
BH: True, but we believe that a business relationship, just like a personal or life relationship, should be about separate parts coming together to form a greater "we." Both of us were distinct and unique individuals to start with, and keeping our own identity has been important. So we always make sure we have our own "me time."

To us this means we keep our outside interests and make them a priority. I'm passionate about art and design and Jim loves sports and travel. We make time for these personal interests.

Plus our business requires extended travel so this provides the perfect time for "me time" for both of us. Going to our events lets Jim to catch up on his reading and enjoy travel. Quiet home time when Jim is traveling lets me pursue my creative interests.

JB: Independent thought is a necessity to maintain balance in business, and being apart for short periods of time allows each of us to think as an individual. We don't walk alike or talk alike and we resist thinking alike because we're stronger as a team with our own unique perspectives.

However, we do admit to dressing alike occasionally, as most same-sex couples do when their clothes are the same size!

When you are together, how do you keep business from being the sole topic of thought and conversation?
BH: Working with your partner creates a heightened need to have a life outside of the business. In the beginning that is hard because a start-up needs all the time you can give it, but once the groundwork is laid you must plan for time away from the business.

JB: We need downtime away from work-related conversations--basically to turn off our business brains. So we purposely cultivate friends and interests outside the business and lead a very active social life together. Over the years we've been active with various LGBT organizations like Human Rights Campaign, Desert AIDS Project/Palm Springs, The Center Orange County, to name a few.

Some people also establish ground rules.
JB: We do too. One is what we call our 7/7 Rule: No talking about work before 7 am or after 7 pm.

BH: We do sometimes break the rule if we both agree. However, if it is before 7 or after 7 and one of us is reading the morning paper or has had enough business for the day he can just say "7/7"  and the work conversation stops. Period.

How did you decide how to divide responsibilities?
BH: When we went into business together we had a reasonably good understanding of our likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. Generally speaking Jim is good at being the front man and I'm more of a behind-the-scenes guy. Jim had the connections in the hotel business and the drive to go out and pitch our product, and I had the desire to set up a smooth, efficient, and profitable business operation.

JB: Past that we try to think of ourselves as employees of the company. Would you hire someone who could not or did not want to do the job? No, and neither would we.

If you can't do the task or aren't motivated to do it, it's probably better to find someone else who can.

Last thing: Advice for a couple considering taking the business partnership plunge.
JB: First ask yourself this question: "If I had the budget to hire someone for the role that will be played by my life partner, would I consider 'hiring' him or her?" The desire to work together won't overcome a lack of skills, motivation, or experience.

Two, never forget how important it is to be honest with yourself and with each other. If one partner can't fulfill his or her obligations the other partner will have to carry an extra burden. When you work and live together the stakes are very high. The last thing you want is for things to get out of balance with your business and have it affect your relationship at home in a negative way.

BH: So before you start, clearly define your roles and responsibilities. Then going forward always be honest about what is working and what is not. And communicate continuously as life and business partners so that you can take corrective action before your personal and business life gets out of balance.

JB: And if all else fails--have a martini. It works for us. There is nothing like a well-balanced martini to take the conversation away from work and on to something more personal.

Check out other articles in this series:

IMAGE: Courtesy of company
Last updated: Apr 11, 2013

JEFF HADEN learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.
@jeff_haden




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