At a recent event for Equal Justice Works, an organization that provides training for lawyers committed to public service, I was seated next to a young attorney. I learned that she is planning a wedding and was anxious because she had been out of town for a week and was unable to check off more details from her “to-do” list. Commiserating about the intensity and challenges of wedding planning while working full-time, I assured her that all would work out well in the end.
She asked about my business and seemed fascinated to learn that my husband and I jointly own a consulting company. She had often considered whether she and her fiancé could work together. They were in the same year in law school and spent a great deal of time together. She wasn’t sure it would work, but seemed intrigued by the possibility.
She hesitated and asked, “What is it like to work with your husband?”
I have been asked this many times, and I always give a version of the same truthful answer: “It has been a challenge and a learning experience for both of us because we have very different styles. We spend a lot of our time helping people work more effectively together, so our process of learning how to work well and sustainably as a married couple helps us add greater value to our clients.”
Having given my standard answer, I remembered an article I read earlier that day about a couple that started a business together five years ago and sold it recently for $30 million. They are no longer married.
I was completely unsurprised when I read this. Building a successful marriage, on its own, offers plenty of challenges. Adding the complexity of a business relationship can sometimes feel overwhelming, if not impossible.
I turned back to her. “Don’t do it; it’s too difficult.”
The truth is, now that I know what it really takes to sustain a marriage while building a business with a spouse, I cannot encourage anyone else to do so without being fully aware of what they are getting into before they dive in headfirst.
There are many positives to working together. My husband and I both love what we do, and feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment when we make a measurable impact on our client’s business performance and in their professional and personal accomplishments. Because we set our own schedules, we have tremendous flexibility. The potential for generating a significant return on our investment is exciting.
At the same time, we don’t have the luxury of one reliable income to cover the ups and downs of starting and building a business from scratch. Separating business and personal is never easy, and the stress of balancing family and business commitments is often enormous.
In my imagination, our life would have been much easier and far less stressful if we had not started our business together. We each came to our business from different careers. I often think that it would have been wise, though considerably less exciting, to have continued our initial career paths until retirement.
My husband was a widely recognized architect specializing in large-scale corporate and commercial projects and urban revitalization. I am a Doctor of Chiropractic and had built a practice that I ran successfully for over ten years.
Maybe it’s only wishful thinking on my part, and our relationship would be no different if we had continued in our first professions. There certainly is not much to be gained by seeing the “grass as greener,” and I actually don’t spend a lot of time on that. I am clear that when we made the call to start our business, we were both ready for a change. It was time to reinvent our selves and our work. I have much to be grateful for, and I am.
But for my young friend embarking on her journey of marriage, and for anyone else considering starting a business with their spouse, there are five points I would consider and plan for before making the leap. In order to increase your odds of success:
1. Have interests outside the business.
It is likely that you will see your spouse every day, most of the day, seven days a week, 365 days of the year. While for many this is exciting because they see each other so infrequently, so much time together can dampen a relationship.
To avoid this, it is critical to have outside interests and activities separate from the business and from each other. Whether it’s a hobby, a physical activity, or just spending time with friends, it is important to have time apart to keep perspective and feel refreshed.
2. Maintain clear boundaries.
Understand your strengths and how they complement each other. Define clear roles and responsibilities for each of you and maintain them. While you will need to wear many hats as a start up and will support each other in your various roles, it is critical not to continually over-step your role.
Agree upon clear boundaries for work and personal life. The most important boundary for us is to not discuss work after an agreed upon time at night. For instance, as you’re crawling into bed or worse, into foreplay, don’t suddenly blurt out, “Did you follow up with George Bennett today?” It is a serious turnoff! Or it can start your mind racing before you go to sleep, making sleep elusive.
3. Treat your spouse as you would any other business colleague.
Why is it that we find it so much easier to treat our colleagues with more patience, and sometimes respect, than we do our spouses or family? It seems that it is with the people we love the most that we have the lowest standards for communication and interaction. As if with deepened intimacy, we know each other so well we should be able to sense what we each want and how we want it.
While sometimes this may be the case, it can be destructive. We need to have the highest standards when it comes to communicating and interacting with our spouse or partner, particularly in a business.
4. What comes first—the marriage or the business?
Decide at the outset whether the business is worth losing the marriage over. We decided early on that our marriage would always trump the business. This hasn’t necessarily made it easier for us, but it is a clear and overriding rule that we fall back on when we are at a critical point of tension.
5. Have a backup plan.
When we launched our business, we were successful in attracting funding and Fortune 500 companies. Nine months from launch, the market crashed as the dot com bubble burst. Two months later, my husband was diagnosed with a sizable, yet benign, brain tumor. Then, 9/11 occurred. Needless to say, much of our business evaporated and my husband had almost a year-long recovery from surgery.
We had to be extremely resourceful to survive. Using all the tools we had available to us, we adapted our services to fill changed needs in the market, leveraged our past professions, and had help from friends.
Looking back, I can see how learning to survive the challenges of our first years in business brought us closer as a couple. But it wasn’t easy, and it’s not for everyone.
If you think you and your spouse have what it takes to run a business together, learn from our experiences and mistakes. Use the steps outlined above and you will be far more likely to succeed. And you may even have fun!