If you want your business and your marriage to prosper, you need a family plan

When I started my first business, it truly was all my own--because I was single. Today I own another business, but I'm married, with children and stepchildren. Along the way I've learned a truth too many entrepreneurs ignore: if you're married and want to stay that way, there's no such thing as "my company." Smart entrepreneurs need to plan not just for their business but also for the impact it will have on their family life.

Consider the case of Lisa and Roy. Their names and the specific details of their story have been changed, but the overarching problems are all too real--and all too common. Ever since 1994, when I began researching my book, Honey, I Want to Start My Own Business: A Planning Guide for Couples, I've been encountering couples like this one.

Lisa: "When Roy was laid off from his sales-management job, he took his severance pay and most of our savings and bought a troubled manufacturing company. Roy doesn't know anything about the industry--or about running a business, period. I told him the whole thing was a big mistake, but he wouldn't listen to me. I was right, and it's been a fiasco since we signed the papers, three years ago. Now I'm afraid we'll lose our house. The worst part is that I'm losing Roy. He's closer to his business partner than to me. He doesn't appreciate how much I'm sacrificing: all he cares about is his stupid business. I'm afraid we're going to end up divorced."

Roy: "I'm doing what it takes to turn a profit and support our family. My partner and I knew the business would require a lot of sweat equity, but Lisa expects miracles. She doesn't understand anything about the business, but she's still on my case about how to run it. She also complains that our relationship is suffering. But every time we're together, she's angry and unhappy with me. I wish she'd just trust me to do what it takes to make this business work."

Lisa and Roy made a fundamental error. They didn't approach the decision to buy a business as a team, and Lisa wasn't prepared for the sacrifices required. Though Roy put together a business plan, Lisa and Roy also needed a family plan. A family plan addresses the issues that must be resolved when changes in your business will alter your family's life. What follows are some of the questions a couple like Lisa and Roy should have answered before deciding on the buyout--or any other major entrepreneurial business decision.

Finances: How much cash will Lisa and Roy invest before the business becomes profitable, or if it later hits a downturn? How much credit-card debt are they willing to take on? How are they going to pay the bills when the company isn't making money? Are they willing to risk losing the house? When do they draw the line and shut the business down if it's not profitable?

Roles in the Business: Since Roy used joint savings to capitalize the business, is Lisa entitled to decision-making power in the company? How will they resolve conflict if Lisa disagrees with some of Roy's decisions but doesn't have formal authority? How will Roy keep Lisa informed enough about the business to give her a long-term perspective?

Personal Sacrifice: How many hours will Roy put into the business each week? What steps will Roy and Lisa take to keep their marriage healthy despite the pressures of a turnaround venture? What sacrifices is each unwilling to make for the business--even if the result is that the company doesn't survive?

Children: Roy and Lisa's boys, ages 9 and 11, miss their dad and resent the lack of money for games, new clothes, and recreational activities. How can Roy and Lisa shield their kids from some of the difficulties? How can Roy make enough time with his boys to stay close?

Like Lisa and Roy, many couples underestimate the impact an entrepreneurial business will have on their marriage and their family. Whether the venture is successful or struggling, the pressure on relationships, finances, and time together can break down even the most committed families. The good news: A thriving business and a rewarding marriage and family life are not mutually exclusive. However, they do require careful coordination.

Customizing Your Family Plan

Like Lisa and Roy, every entrepreneurial couple must answer the same basic questions about how to allocate limited financial and personal resources. However, no two family plans are identical. Different types of entrepreneurial couples face different challenges--and they should plan accordingly. Which model is yours?

  • If you and your spouse are active in the same business: You need to clarify how business decisions will be made, what roles and responsibilities you'll take in the business and at home, and how to keep the romance alive when you're together 24 hours a day.
  • If you each have separate businesses: You'll be struggling with which business has priority over scarce family resources. Who baby-sits while the other works over the weekend? How will you coordinate travel and work schedules? With the demands of two businesses, intimate time together is scarce.
  • If only one of you is active in a business: If one of you is working a traditional job or taking care of the kids, and the other is running a company, you and your spouse spend most of the day in radically different universes. How will you ensure that you don't drift apart? How will you maintain a common vision of your financial and family goals?

Azriela Jaffe is the principal of the Critical Link, a coaching business for entrepreneurs and their families. She is the author of Honey, I Want to Start My Own Business: A Planning Guide for Couples.

Resources: Azriela Jaffe's Honey, I Want to Start My Own Business: A Planning Guide for Couples (HarperCollins, 800-331-3761, 1996, $23) is a helpful guide for managing the challenges that entrepreneurial businesses often pose for family life. Although some material in the book is geared more toward people considering self-employment, there is also plenty of useful information for company owners--and their spouses. In particular, chapter 3, "Financial and Family Planning: Planning Ahead to Avoid Disaster," offers a series of exercises that can help you and your spouse clarify and discuss your attitudes both about money and about the financial risks you're willing or unwilling to take for the business.

As an added benefit, Honey, I Want to Start My Own Business is an easy read that contains many lively quotes from entrepreneurs and their spouses. Plus, it's probably one of the few business books you'll ever read that offers advice about seducing your mate in a home office. (Jaffe's tip: "Check out what is appropriate so you don't offend your spouse by trying to make love while he or she is in work mode. Each couple needs a different degree of separation from work to maintain a desirable level of sexual and romantic intimacy.")