By Carol Ann Dykes Logue
Recently, I realized how many clients we have that are run by husband and wife co-founders. We have always had a few, but there are more and more startups in our Incubation Program with both partners all in and engaged full-time in the business. I thought about how stressful it is, in general, to start and grow a successful business and how much more so it is when your business partner is your life partner. How do you find balance in your multi-faceted relationship? How do you keep from wrecking the marriage?
I have often said that we are often like “marriage counselors” in our roles as entrepreneur coaches.
When there is more than one co-founder, that is certainly true. But what else do we need to be mindful of when working with client companies run by life partners?
I decided to ask some experts….including some of our married co-founders….for insights and tips on running a business with your spouse. As we coach our entrepreneurs through the ups and downs of growing a business, we need to be sure we are aware of where they might need critical support. There are typical and atypical benefits and challenges that we don’t see in non-married co-founders.
Here are some of my observations over the years. Many of them were confirmed by our clients that provided input.
- Be sure you have thoroughly assessed the real state of your relationship before starting a business together. Marriages are hard enough without the tremendous, additional stress of starting and growing a company together. Be sure your relationship is already strong, mutually supportive, and that you have open and honest communication skills already. Know what you respect about each other and be honest about who is better at doing what. “If one of you micromanages at home, you will at the office and that’s deadly. If you don’t communicate well as a couple and have deep mutual respect, it will only be magnified when you are running a company together. And it may doom your marriage.”
- Know what your risk boundaries are individually and as a couple. “We had an open discussion on what we were willing to sacrifice and what we were not. This discussion led to identifying off-ramp conditions and bounding what risk was acceptable for us. Entrepreneurs, by nature, do not want to quit, so this open discussion and identifying off-ramps created guardrails on what we, as a family, were willing to sacrifice and what was out of bounds. Having this discussion before starting a company and knowing what is acceptable and how much can be put at risk and sacrificed will help when challenging choices have to be made. Starting a new company comes with financial and personal obligations, meaning less time spent with your family and using saved funds to run your business rather than spending it on your family (i.e., vacations, or a new house). ”
- Be business partners at work…not spouses. In the work environment, think, speak and act like business partners. Don’t make life uncomfortable for your employees by being “too familiar”. Address each other with the respect you would anyone else in the company. Don’t bring up personal issues and disagreements in the workplace. Take them “out of the office”. Humor can go a long way, as does complimenting each other for the contribution and leadership they provide.
- Just as you should with any co-founder, get it in writing! No matter who you are running a company with, it is critical to have strong business agreements that lay out who is responsible for what and how business issues will be handled. It’s not a sign that you don’t trust the other person; it’s a sign that you value the relationship and want to do everything possible to reduce potential conflict and problems! Spend the money to have a good attorney – one who is running their practice with their spouse is helpful – and be unemotionally honest about what is best for both your relationship and the business.
- Clearly define your roles and respect them. “In setting up the business, we first had to self-assess our strengths in our skill set and assign ourselves company roles.” After your get those documents in place – including detailed job descriptions, let your spouse do their job! “I’d say it’s been easy for us to work together because our mindsets complement each other in a way. [He] is science and idea driven and I work on details and love doing the administrative side of the business. We both like to work with people.”
- When you are running a company with your spouse, you can’t “leave work at the office”. You pretty much know the answer to the question “how was your day, Honey?” because you are both experiencing the highs and lows, joys and frustrations. “It is a difficult task to adjust your personal married life to mesh with your professional start-up business life together. It has been an adjustment to learn how to make both ends work. I think the best advice would truly be to not let the work-life come into your personal relationship. It’s a hard task to resist the urge to talk about work when you are home with your spouse but you have to remember that you also have to have a personal connection and life with your spouse. On the plus side, that personal connection you have with your spouse helps you understand and predict things in the professional atmosphere too.”
- Be kind to each other. Running a company is frustrating. Customers are annoying. Finances get tight. Days are long. Employees are rewarding and challenging. Opportunities and lack of them are both stressful. Kindness and patience are essential for the survival of your business AND your marriage.
- Remember you are a couple FIRST and business partners SECOND! Be committed to making time to spend together doing things that are not about the company. That is hard for any entrepreneur but when your spouse is your partner in the company, it’s doubly hard. And make time for yourself and with friends and family. Remember you have a life that is bigger than your business.
- Don’t be afraid! Make it fun so you can enjoy the journey with the one you love.”
*Note: the text in italics are quotes from incubator clients run by a wife-husband team.