Spouses that build businesses together choose a unique marital journey. My husband and I have been together for almost 25 years (including those two pre-marriage years which he says "definitely counts") and we've raised two kids. We worked together full-time for 10 years in the first company I founded 20 years ago (Information Experts), before I launched my second firm 5 years ago (Successful Culture).
Two of the most challenging entities a person can build are a successful business and a successful marriage. 50 percent of all businesses fail within the first 5 years.
And, entrepreneurs are more susceptible to divorce than the general population for a variety of reasons.
Combine these three factors, and you face a lot of risk. Stakes are high at home and at work if things get rocky. The levels of expectations for one another are much higher than in a typical business partnership or typical marriage. Consideration must extend much further than, "I have this great business idea, can you help me?"
I conducted a survey of spouse-run businesses across multiple industries to learn the secrets for keeping the magic alive at home and in the office. I wanted to know (beyond my own lessons learned):
- How many hours a day partner-spouses spend with one another
- How spouses work through differences of opinion at the office
- Top strategies for keeping things running smoothly at home and in the office
- Common mistakes
- Advice for other couples considering taking the partnership plunge
Here is what I learned.
Couples that work together spend almost every waking moment together. If you can't imagine being with your spouse at least 20 hours a day, don't work with them. Jenny & Dan D'agostino own Go Ape, an outdoor adventure company. They spend an average of 20 hours a day together.
Bob & Maria Kingery own Southern Energy Management and spend 18-20 hours a day together. "We sat at a partners' desk facing each other every day," shared Maria. "I recently cut way back on my day-to-day responsibilities at the company and I'm looking forward to reconnecting with Bob again on a personal level."
There is no hierarchy. Mutual respect is a must. Across the board, spouses view their partners as equals. "We have complementary skill sets and domains we look after. We have agreement on who has final say in each domain," explained one anonymous respondent.
Aligned expectations are essential. Derek & Melanie Coburn, who co-founded the high-impact networking community CADRE, report to one another on various aspects of the organization. Their roles are clearly divided and defined, so expectations are clear and well-communicated.
The biggest mistakes spousal entrepreneurs make are:
- Trying to work within a hierarchy. Having one spouse report into another seems to backfire.
- Being afraid of disappointing the other person. This is addressed through honest, respectful communication.
- Not staying in assigned roles & dedicated swim lanes. "There is a reason why we assigned each other specific roles in the business, and it seems to work best for us if we stick to those roles unless asked for advice," said Jenny D'Agostino.
- "Brushing off each other's ideas too quickly, assuming that you know what the other is going to say before they have said it. Allowing staff members to 'side' with one or the other. Not valuing each other's contribution enough," shared Orlaith Carmody, Managing Director of Mediatraining.
- Being manipulated by employees. "Those we work with figure out who to ask for what, and how to manipulate us," shared an anonymous respondent.
Strategies To Keep Things Running Smoothly
- Don't manage each other. Pick your battles and your tradeoffs.
- Share calendars & plan ahead.
- Keep routines when possible.
- Give each other personal time.
- Agree to boundaries. Know when work conversations are off-limits.
- Leave the weekends as work-free as possible.
- Clearly define the roles and respect them.
- Present a united front to the employees (and to the kids).
- Invest in a great assistant. Your spouse is not your assistant.
Advice for Those Contemplating a Spousal Partnership
- Be very clear on your roles, and how you will measure success.
- Practice communication, and constantly work at it.
- Stick to your swim lanes and respect boundaries.
- Find separate support groups. You can't be everything to each other.
- Remember that roles will evolve. There will be times when each of you may have to step back or step further in. Be flexible.
Finally, agree on three things before you start:
- Why are you starting this business? What is your most important goal?
- What kind of life do you want to live, and how are you going to set up your business in a way that you get to live the life you want to live *throughout* your journey in business together, not just as a result of some long-term, future "success."
- What distinct roles and responsibilities will play to your greatest individual strengths and serve your business best?
Following these lessons learned and words of wisdom will go a long way in helping you to build a thriving business and happy home life.
Good luck! You'll need it!