The Risks and Rewards of Bringing Your Spouse or Partner Into Your Business

business partner

Today’s guest post is adapted from the book Start Love Repeat: How to Stay in Love with Your Entrepreneur in a Crazy Start-up World by Dorcas Cheng-Tozun (@dorcas_ct) Copyright (c) Dorcas Cheng-Tozun by Center Street. Reprinted with permission of Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.

Note from Jane: Dorcas’s book is addressed to the partners or spouses of those who are undertaking an entrepreneurial lifestyle—such as authors! I’m excerpting it here because I’m meeting more and more writers who are drawing their loved ones into their business life, whether by necessity or choice. This specific excerpt is drawn from the book chapter “Getting Involved—Or Not.”

When my husband, Ned, was running his children’s music business after college, he had the brilliant idea of promising his customers that every Christmas CD would come with a personalized letter from Santa that was hand signed.

Ned has many talents, but neat handwriting is not one of them. So, for weeks, I would go to his place after work each night and join the assembly line of family members and friends processing the orders. I signed Santa on thousands of letters until my hand cramped up. I occasionally added flourishes, like curls or hearts or stars, to the signature, just to keep it interesting.

Ned did not approve. “You’re making Santa’s signature way too feminine,” he told me, as if he knew what the handwriting of a magical man who lived in the company of elves and flying reindeer should look like. I raised my eyebrows at him—I’m doing all this for free and you’re asking me to do what?—and he wisely backed off.

Chances are that you’ve also helped out with your entrepreneur’s business at some point, whether you were keen to do so or not. In the beginning phases of a new company, there is always too much to do, and never enough free labor to do it. As a result, significant others are often called upon to be involved in some way with the business, even if they are not officially business partners.

That’s what happened to Leah Everson of Minneapolis, Minnesota, when her mechanic husband, Tim, opened an auto shop out of their garage. Since Tim was not particularly business minded, she volunteered to help with the books. “I was helping with invoices, making sure sales were logged, all while trying to find an accountant to help us,” she told me. Their business relationship led to quite a bit of conflict; today Leah realizes that “our conflict came out of trying to work out details we didn’t understand.”

There are some real risks to working together, especially if you are both still learning how to run a business and manage your household through the uncertainty of the start-up existence. If neither one of you is entirely certain what you’re getting into and you’re both figuring things out as you go, it’s likely that you will experience a high degree of stress and anxiety—and end up taking it out on each other.

There are, of course, plenty of couples who work together in a business and enjoy it. The extra level of partnership actually enhances their relationship. The reason these couples make it work seems to boil down to the issue of control. Can the partner who is the entrepreneur fully trust her spouse to fulfill his responsibilities in the way he sees fit? Or, if both partners are company founders, can each commit to allowing the other to be fully empowered in his or her area of responsibility? Significant others who feel respected and empowered, and who are given roles that match well with their interests and skills, tend to be able to stick with the business longer.

Unfortunately, most couples don’t know how they’ll respond to one another in such a situation until they try it. Working together, even if it’s with the best of intentions and the most hopeful of expectations, will likely create additional tension in your relationship. If you and your significant other already wrestle over control and decision-making in other areas of your life, you may want to approach the idea of working together with an abundance of caution. That being said, if you have confidence in the resiliency of your relationship and are genuinely interested in supporting your beloved’s venture, there is plenty to be gained from the experience.

Up until I started working full-time for Ned and d.light, I had been content to assist Ned’s business on an ad hoc basis, leaving a clear demarcation between his career and mine. The separation was practical as much as it was emotionally fortifying. I could bring in a steady income, albeit a pathetically small one, and I could retain something that was wholly mine, untouched by the ever-increasing reach of d.light.

But when we relocated to China, I had few career options. Ned was strangely excited. “You should work for d.light,” he encouraged me. “We really need the help. You could make a big difference. And it’d be fun to work together.”

Despite my many concerns about having my husband as my boss, working with Ned was one of my favorite parts of our otherwise challenging time in China. Ned and I were partners in the fullest sense of the word, relying on each other in every aspect of our lives. We underwent what felt like an accelerated marriage track, learning far more about each other and how we could best support one another in two years than many couples do in ten. We experienced a deep level of bonding that has remained with us ever since, and for which I am deeply grateful.

But I have never returned to working for d.light full-time since we left China. Now that we have a young child, I don’t think it would even be possible for both Ned and me to keep up with the demands of the company. I am still involved, stepping in occasionally to help with a project or to provide guidance to a new employee taking on some of my old responsibilities. However, my most prominent role in d.light today is simply as supporter-in-chief, providing affirmation, encouragement, and advice whenever Ned needs it.

Working together with your spouse can be a gloriously rich experience. But it also makes your marriage far more complex. When both of you are working on the same business, the issues that every couple wrestles with—such as power, communication, conflict resolution, and boundaries—seem to come center stage with greater urgency and higher stakes. If you’re not able to work through these issues together, not only will your relationship suffer, but so could the business and everyone it touches, including employees, business partners, and customers. That’s why co-preneurial couples, more than any other type of couple I’ve interviewed, tend to have particularly detailed and formal agreements on how they interact with one another. Some specific strategies I’ve heard include:

  • “I am the majority shareholder with 51 percent; my spouse has 49 percent. This helps us make decisions for the business when we can’t reach a consensus. The marriage is equal but the business can’t be.”
  • “We don’t discuss work issues when we’re in our pajamas. We interact as colleagues only when we’re in our work clothes.”
  • “We have a meeting every Sunday night to do a detailed review of our schedules for the upcoming week.”
  • “When we finish our work for the day, we come out of our home offices, physically close the doors, and focus on just being spouses.”
  • “If we want to take a vacation, we set a budget, scope out our to-do lists to prepare for it, and make sure we’re organizing our lives to make it happen.”
  • “If I have a work question for my spouse, I will email him about it, even if he’s sitting just a few feet away from me.”
  • “I take care of the business side, my spouse does the technology side. We give each other full authority in those areas and don’t interfere at all with one another’s work.”
  • “We regularly do big outings with our daughter for the distraction and to practice doing normal family stuff.”
  • “When we have fights, we have to be able to forgive one another wholeheartedly and give each other a clean slate.”
  • “We do one weeklong getaway each year as a retreat to reconnect with each other.”

Start Love RepeatAs fastidious as some of these agreements may sound, having such practices in communication, decision-making, and boundary-setting can significantly help a couple navigate through the stickiness of being both spouses and colleagues. Even then, there is no magic formula to ensure that a couple will work together well. Some amount of trial and error is unavoidable in learning how to be business partners—or in discovering that the two of you just aren’t meant to be professional colleagues.

If you enjoyed this post, take a look at Start Love Repeat.

Now it’s your turn: Have family members become business partners in your writing career? What have you learned?

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