Before You Work With Your Spouse
As many of you know, I work with my spouse. He’s my high school sweetheart, the father of my offspring, a super quiet loner type guy and a rabid Washington Redskins and USC Trojans fan. We don’t do everything together. In fact, we do a lot separately. And it’s a good thing too since our road to Indie Business ownership has not been altogether smooth. But we share common goals. So whether together or separately, our activities generally support those goals, one of which is to have fun as we provide for ourselves and our two children. Emergency funds, college savings, dance costumes, mortgage, our daily bread. You know the drill.
Most couples have the same goals as we do, and there are lots of ways to achieve those shared goals, the most common of which is via a traditional full-time job that matches your talents, educational background, skill sets and interests to a particular job description. If you land the job, you work for a third party, earn a regular pay check, make some new business friends and hopefully enjoy health benefits and opportunities for personal and professional growth. That’s great, but for some of us, a regular job is not all it’s cracked up to be. Long rush hour commutes, dwindling family time, day care hassles, latch key kids, sick kid nightmares, etc. So what do we do?
We create ways to make a living without the limitations so often imposed by a traditional job. We use technology. We resurrect talents and gifts we forgot we had. We wear many hats and make it up as we go along. This is easier said than done, but frankly, with the Internet, it’s not nearly has difficult as it used to be.
The New Family Business
More and more, I’m meeting parents who want desperately to work from home, especially while their children are young. I’m also meeting married empty nesters who, after years of working a traditional job, want to make money together from home.
Single parents (dads and moms) are also demonstrating exceptional creativity when it comes to finding ways to generate income without having to rely solely on child support checks or secure jobs, which, these days are harder to find than a controversy-free Republican vice presidential candidate. (Sorry, couldn’t help it.)
For those of you who are married (or similarly attached) with children, or married empty nesters, you may be seriously considering starting a business with your spouse. If so, you may think your biggest question is, "What can we do to make money?"
That’s a good question, and one you obviously have to answer. But other questions are far more important. After all, you can always find a way to make money, even if it means having a job you hate.
No, before you go into business with your spouse, you have to ask a much bigger (and harder) question: "Can we successfully make love and money together without ripping each other and/or our business to shreds?" OK,maybe somewhat exaggerated (for some people, it’s not), but you get the point.
I’ve been studying this issue for years, both up close and personal in my own family and by watching others. I’ve noticed that, time and time again, certain issues present themselves as the most challenging. They are also the most difficult to handle because they are not a lot of fun to address.
My goal with this post is to highlight some of the questions to ask and answer before going into business with your mate. I hope you avoid some of the same problems that I and others have dealt with.
1. Do I Trust Him*?
Kayla Fioravanti is co-owner of Essential Wholesale, an Oregon-based company with 30 employees and well over a million dollars in annual revenues. I asked Kayla why she said she "loved" working with her husband in their family business. I asked her to go beyond the obvious, that it’s convenient, fun, great for the kids, etc.
Kayla answered, "Because I know I can trust my husband to lead the company in a direction that’s good for our business and our family."
So there it is. Trust. Personal and business trust. It’s at the core of everything, isn’t it? You’ve got to be able to answer the question whether or not you trust your partner both personally and professionally before you go into business with him.
Be honest on this one because, frankly, if you don’t trust on all levels, a business venture will be risky on all levels. Don’t set yourself up for failure. You’ll take enough risks in business. Don’t make this one of them. If you don’t trust him, work on the relationship and address business options when the timing is better.
2. Is She Responsible?
Look at her FICO score, all 3 credit reports, car payment history, college track record, etc. Are her bills paid on time? Did he graduate on time? Does he diligently work to complete work-related projects on time? No? Find out why. If the explanation satisfies you, great. But still insist on a plan to correct past mistakes and turn over a new leaf. Hold her accountable to stick with the plan for a significant period of time before starting a business together.
If the explanations don’t satisfy you, keep your day job.
3. Is She Established Career-Wise?
If you and your spouse are already established career-wise, it is a plus. Whether it’s as a fast food restaurant night manager or a stock broker with a fancy corner office, an established and consistent career path is a sign of a person’s ability to thrive in the business world and will help both of you feel confident and empowered as you hang out your joint shingle.
It will also helps prevent feelings of inequality. If you have a long career as a corporate muckety muck and your spouse has a long career as an award winning street sweeper, that’s one thing. But if you had the muckety muck career and your spouse has hated his job for years and was never recognized for his contributions, you may be headed for trouble.
Discuss how prior employment and business experiences may affect your ability to jointly approach a new business venture. Acknowledge baggage and put it in a proper context before moving forward with a business.
4. Is He Confident?
If your spouse walks with hunched shoulders, feels inferior because she can’t lose the baby weight or is terrified of speaking a word in public without thinking everyone is looking at her overbite, don’t print up the business cards yet. If a person doesn’t not feel confident within herself, it’s highly unlikely that she will feel differently about her business. This can spell disaster, especially if you expect her to fulfill a social role in the venture.
We all have fears and insecurities. But if they are paralyzing, they will quickly become liabilities for the business. Acknowledge lack of confidence up front and figure out in advance how to deal with it in the business. It must be exposed, acknowledged and minimized so it does not handicap your chances of success. You’ll regret it otherwise.
5. Is She Personable?
This is kind of like getting along well with others, squared. Last Friday, my husband went to a networking group meeting. He thought I’d like it, so he called me and told me I should join him there, and to bring business cards. So I dropped everything and headed over, cards in hand. I was greeted at the door by someone who said, "Your husband’s here. He’s great."
I proceeded to enter a room where everyone already like me. And my business. How cool is that?
A likable personality is a huge plus. It doesn’t mean that a person has to be gregarious, the life of the party, or even particularly outgoing. (My husband is none of those things by nature.) What it does mean is that, whether it’s a good day or a bad day, he can adjust how he interacts with others for the good of your business (which is ultimately of course, for the good of your family).
6. Does He Appreciate Social Media?
Any business that does not appreciate the power of social media is going to either die or simply never get started. I. Am. So. Not. Exaggerating.
If you consider MySpace an invaluable part of your marketing repertoire but your spouse thinks it’s only for teenagers and predators, or if you feel it’s important to blog 3 times a week but your beloved thinks it’s a total time waster, you have a problem. A big one.
Inquire about the social media your spouse is involved in. None? Might want to find out why that is, and then consider carefully before going into business with her.
7. Can He Multi-Task?
How many things can your spouse do at once? Can he brew coffee, take a business call, look for a lost sneaker and monitor Twitter at the same time? I’m not saying that life is like that 24/7, but if you own a business and are also managing a home (again, especially if that includes the "pitter patter"), both of you simply must be able to do more than one thing at a time.
I remember once, we were in the midst of a very hectic day. Two kids under the age of 4, moving to a new home 600 miles away, saying good bye to family and running the business without taking a day off. It was really hard, but because we could multi-task (and because we clearly outlined who was responsible for what), we made it through.
Embrace multi-tasking as a way of life and don’t let anyone tell you there’s any such thing as balance. By the way, we also have part-time nanny and babysitting help with our kids. So even though we multi-task, we don’t have a coronary trying to do everything ourselves. Ask for help when you need it. Even if you have to pay for it. Help. It’s a good thing.
8. Is She Fair and Compromising?
Lisa Rodgers of Cactus & Ivy sells natural spa and body products from her studio in South Carolina. She told me that she is glad she doesn’t work with her husband because "we nearly killed each other building our house." Lisa also told me that she loves her husband more than anything. But having said that, all couples have to consider whether working together in a high stress environment is something the relationship can withstand for many years.
Jamyla Bennu of Oyin Handmade in Baltimore, Maryland says that she and her husband successfully work together in their bath and body care products business, thanks to what Jamyla calls a "comfortable pattern of division of labor for household duties according to proclivity and skill." Sound fancy? She clarified: she does most of the cooking, he does most of the cleaning.
When it comes to business, Jamyla says that the patterns established in their personal relationship form the basis for a healthy business working relationship. She puts is like this: "We put the shorthand of our personal relationship to work in our business to help us us communicate and come to a decision about every issue." Fairness is important Jamyla says, to keep any one spouse from becoming overwhelmed.
I have experienced the importance of fairness first hand, especially where our children are concerned. My piece of advice in this area is simple: you are in for trouble if either of you has uncontrolled selfish tendencies when it comes to juggling business and young children.
I can’t tell you the number of times we have dealt with this issue. We share a common goal of getting our kids to bed by 8:00pm, but what does that mean? After dinner, I wash dishes while he bathes, reads stories and tucks in on one night, and we switch the next? Sounds good, yes?
But what if on my night to do specific kid-relatedthings, a prospective client calls and wants answers to final questions that only I can answer, and he wants them before signing the lucrative new contract. Now. Hmmm, what to do? Should the person best suited to negotiate the contract do so while the other person takes over parent duties — even if it means changing the prearranged set up?
Or should we keep to the set up and risk losing the client?
There is no right or wrong answer here. The fact is that, each situation has to be addressed on its own merits. You will make snap decisions like this constantly if you work together. You will have to change quickly, be flexible and sometimes sacrifice your personal desires for the benefit of the business and the family.
Yes, it can get complicated. Unless you and your spouse share a sense of fairness and flexibility where your shared goals are concerned, you’ll be at each others throats when you should be enjoying precious family time and creating a strong and long-lasting business legacy.
Like Lisa Rodgers says, building a house is one thing. It’s intense and frustrating, and you have to be flexible, patient and compromising when it comes to everything from paint color to the type of kitchen counter tops you get. But when you’re building a house, there’s a completion date and you both know the pain will be over soon.
In business, it’s different. You have to compromise forever. If you don’t, the end that may be in sight for your business and your relationship. And you do have to choose sometimes. For an honest discussion of why it is that entrepreneurship spells the end for so many marriages, enjoy my Indie Business Radio Show interview with SBTV host and author of The Girl’s Guide to Building a Million-Dollar Business, Susan Wilson Solovik.
9. Can She Set Boundaries?
Karen Thomas, an Indie Business owner who asked me not to use her name, told me, "My marriage ended in part because I worked with my husband. Disaster without any boundaries."
Sad but true that some people end up choosing or being forced to choose between the business and the relationship. Regardless of what you may think of that from a moral, ethical or social perspective, it is what it is. To avoid this as much as possible, it’s important that both of you be able to set boundaries. Someone’s got to be able to step in, with regard to any given situation, and say, "We have to draw the line here."
Michele Keiper of bath and beauty products manufacturer Flower Peddler experienced first-hand the need for boundaries when her husband worked in her company for a short time after he was laid off his job. Michele says it became important early on that they respect each others different work management styles, backgrounds and personalities. Says Michele, "My husband is an engineer so each decision is analyzed and reanalyzed before anything happens. To me, it is a painfully slow process. My Type A personality assesses a situation quickly, makes a decision and gets it done fast and at full throttle."
Michele is quick to point out that neither style is better, it’s just different from the other one. She says that they matched their styles with tasks to get the job done. Michele stresses the importance of implementing boundaries around work time and couple time. She says that the experience of working together (which they don’t anymore since her husband is employed elsewhere in his field) made them a stronger couple, and gave him a better understanding and respect for what Michele does.
Each person must commit to a specific job description and set of boundaries that do not change. In this way, you and your spouse know exactly what’s expected of you, and don’t disregard boundaries or fail to fulfill expectations without talking it over with the other person.
(For a detailed look at how one couple draws these boundaries, enjoy my online newsletter interview with Karen and Erik. The couple sold their business, but the tips they provided for successfully working together are priceless.)
10. Is She Forgiving?
When I asked Maggie Hanus, who co-manages with her husband the suburban Austin-based A Wild Soap Bar, what has made her business successful, she said, "My husband and I would have killed each other a long time ago without forgiveness." Maggie would know too, because in addition to A Wild Soap Bar, she and her husband also co-own a landscaping business. He does the labor, she keeps the books.
While neither Maggie nor I are likely to star in an episode of Snapped, the fact is that co-managing a business with anyone will inevitably include disagreements. People will make mistakes, sometimes extremely stupid ones. People will drop balls, become grumpy and irritable, forget to go to the grocery store before it closes and just generally drive you nuts. If you or you spouse are the type to rub in every fault, wallow in imperfection (yours or the other person’s) and are just generally unable to forgive and (most of the time) forget, you are in for a bumpy road.
And lest we forget, Maggie reminds us of the importance of a good sense of humor. "There aren’t too many situations that a good belly laugh won’t improve," she reminds us.
If you think holding a grudge can destroy a personal relationship, it can be just as bad in a business relationship. If he screws up at home today, you have to forgive that. Otherwise, come Monday morning, you will come to the staff meeting with a nasty attitude. You’ve got to address the point of contention quickly and honestly, ensuring some accountability of course, but still moving on to tackle the tasks at hand.
There’s One More Thing
There is this one last thing that I feel constrained to address. It’s a touchy issue, but it is a very common one, and unfortunately, one that is not commonly openly addressed.
Sometimes, a significant other finds it difficult to handle the other partner’s autonomy and/or business success. There can be millions of reasons for this, but whatever they are, this, perhaps more than anything else, is an almost insurmountable barrier to Indie Family Business success.
If you feel even the slightest bit of controlling behavior, put on the brakes. What do I mean? Let me be blunt. If your partner wants to own and control everything simply because she wants to be in control or pursue a selfish power trip, bow out now. He may not admit it, you know? But we all know it when we see it.
Address this issue openly and honestly. If both of you can’t do that, don’t prepare your resignation letter. For more information on how to address other issues, enjoy my interview on Indie Business Radio with psychologist and author of Entrepreneurial Couples, Dr. Kathy Marshack.
What about you?
Let me just say to anyone who has read this far (and thanks, because it’s a lot of reading!), over here at Indie Business Headquarters, we do not have it all together. But we have experienced all of these issues (and more) so we feel that we can help others.
Our goal is not to share how perfect we are (and those of you who know us personally can attest to that), but to help others avoid some of the problems we wish people had told us about before we went into business together.
Still thinking of going into business with your spouse? Consider printing out this list and using it as a starting point for discussion. (And feel free to forward it to any friends you know who could use it.) If you can’t share openly about everything listed here — the good and the bad — my suggestion is to put business partnership off until you can.
Business is Hard Enough Without Sabotaging Yourself From the Beginning
There’s no way to know in advance whether a business will succeed. There’s no way to know in advance if a relationship will succeed. But you can go into each with clear and honest expectations on both sides. That alone will help maximize your chances of success at both ends of the spectrum.
What do you think? Tell us about the business you have with a spouse or significant other. What tips can you offer to help the rest of us? Feel free to leave your comments below.
The New Family Business: 9 Reasons Why Home-Based Business Ownership Works
How to Hire a Family Helper
Raising Kids and Profits: 7 Parenting Skills to Make Your Business Successful
The Family That Grinds Together Binds Together
Family Second, Yet Still First
*For easy of reading, "she," "he," "him" and "her" are used interchangeably throughout this post.