The Art of Running a Business as a Couple
Couple-owned business is a phenomenon that is growing fast across the world. But what are the secrets to couple entrepreneurship?
It’s been estimated that 3 million of the 22 million U.S small businesses in 2000 were couple-owned, and that number has likely gone up. (Harvard)
If a couple seeks to work together, they must prepare for the inevitable ‘two worlds collision’. This is a situation where your work and personal lives all mesh into one. I know this from personal experience.
My wife and I have worked in business together for the last decade. We met and got engaged in our first workplace. Since then, almost every business opportunity I have come across, we have worked on together.
In the beginning, it all felt more than a little awkward. We were like overdriven teenagers — full of energy, optimism, and determination to succeed against all the odds. But we lacked any knowledge of how to practically work together as a couple.
It took just six months after our first date for my wife and me to get married. At that time, we both worked at the same company, and we were pregnant with our first child. Although we were mostly unhappy in our working roles, all our decisions seemed to be purely financial. So, while it was a stressful time, we remained in our positions for convenience.
Once the burnout begins to kick in, it isn’t straightforward to turn it around.
Not too long after, we were waiting patiently for the arrival of our second child. My wife and I had a conversation about our feelings towards our roles and the company. Although some would say that we were too young for a mid-life crisis, you might say it was a ‘mid-career crisis’. We both agreed that the time had come for radical change.
It’s not that we hadn’t wanted to take off on our own sooner. We had discussed it for a long time. But, often, the expectations of parents are conditioned deep into their children. Our situation was no exception.
It’s not just about wanting to please your parents. All kinds of strange emotions come up when you find yourself becoming the ‘author’ of your own life. I think many people can relate to this. In some cases, it is a tangible feeling; in others, it is under the skin.
This time it just felt right.
It was not that the path to economic independence was nicely laid out for us. We still had big decisions to make. The food industry seemed like a logical place to start since we had both previously worked in the field. Entrepreneurship felt like something that we could both become passionate about. As a career choice, entrepreneurship is well known for its instability, but ultimately, it also felt like the right choice for us.
As an Entrepreneur, there are good days and bad days. One of the keys is recognizing the bad days as bad days. If you do this, then you avoid watering the seed of negative thoughts as they arise. If you fail to recognize those days for what they are, then a bad day can turn into a bad week, which can turn into a bad month. A lousy month can ultimately end your career.
So rather than buy into the internal negative dialogue and doubt, the correct method is to sit tight and wait for the positivity to resume. In other words, business as usual.
This practice can seem even more challenging when there are two minds in operation together. Mistrust and defensiveness can quickly arise in those periods of vulnerability. I regularly read about the critical need for entrepreneurs to be able to safely steer the ship through the storms — those days when everything feels like it will never work.
Our relationship can be a source of strength during these times. If one of us is feeling the storm, the other can keep them grounded. When both of us are riding the lightning, the energy is twice as powerful.
But, when both of us are sheltering from the storm, our working relationship can manifest as an obstacle. One of your questions what you are doing and the others might buy into that level of thinking. Before you know it, you are looking at each other and thinking — ‘Are we doing the right thing?’
Excellent Communication is the Bridge Between Confusion and Clarity
We have found most, through our own mistakes, that communication is the key. Robust communication and openness are critical in any business relationship; Particularly when your working relationship is only one side of the coin. You must get used to being around that other person all the time.
When there are business decisions to be made, you can’t bring your couple emotions into it. Then, when there are family decisions to be made, it must be about the children rather than how exhausted you feel.
Over our decade of working together at the levels of work and family, we have become expert problem solvers. Entrepreneurs are natural problem solvers. You have to be. These days, when you work with technology, so many things are out of your control.
A software company might do an update and fill your infrastructure with bugs. You know fixes are at least a month away, so you have to problem-solve instead. This ability to problem-solve crosses over from the working world into family life. It gives you a surprising series of tools that can be extremely relevant in the domestic realm.
Family life, on the other hand, keeps you seeing things objectively. You have to put your personal feelings aside and think about what is best for the children. This is also a skill that helps a great deal in business. So many companies are ruined because the personal feelings of Managers affect their business decisions.
It is becoming popular these days to create ‘staff first’ businesses that put the needs of staff above those of the business owners. This approach might seem bizarre to the old school, but it is surprisingly successful.
Nevertheless, it is a challenge for business owners to put their faith in such a model. Family life can teach you to put the needs of the business and one’s staff above one’s own.
In this way, our two lives complement and enhance each other. Family life helps us become better at our working experience and vice versa.
Business is Business
With experience, working with your partner across both lives, you get to understand what is going on in their mind. It can be easy for a young couple to perceive business anxiety in their partner and begin to wonder if it has anything to do with the relationship.
This is understandable since the two lives are so profoundly intertwined that it can become confusing. A partner can quickly think that the other partner is angry with them personally.
This confusion can happen on both sides. One partner believes that the anxiety is about them when it’s just about business. Sometimes though, the other partner experiences business anxiety and does project it onto the relationship.
So, it is not easy. It takes a tremendous amount of communication, clarity, and selflessness to recognize what is real and what isn’t. But, over time and, with experience, both partners can come to understand and separate what is business-related and what is personal.
My Father passed away recently, and it got me thinking about a lot of things. It was a timely reminder that things are continually changing. I realize that as we get older, our children may get more involved in the business, and my role will have to change gradually. Perhaps there will be nothing to pass on; such is the uncertain path of entrepreneurship.
But, if there is something, we will have to find a new way of doing things. In the beginning, it was just me. Then it was my wife and me. Later we became business partners involved in raising a family. Now, as our children grow up, we may have to re-think our roles again. Every new stage we encounter is like learning to walk back from scratch.
The final stage of our transitory entrepreneurial path through life will not be natural or comfortable. That is one thing we can be sure of. But, looking back, I see that we have been successful so far.
Everything we have achieved up to now has been accomplished by working together on a united front around our shared values and boundaries, as well as total communication about our fears and anxieties. This willingness to embrace complete openness has become a valuable source of strength in our business, and I would advise anybody entering entrepreneurship as a couple or not to take these values to heart.
My writing is based on true events and stories. It is as real as it gets. I changed parts of the stories and excluded real names, as I don’t want people to get hurt. But most of the stuff I write is authentic and includes my thoughts and feelings.
Generalist that thinks broadly (not deeply).