For many entrepreneurs, the idea of working alongside their spouse is either terrific or terror inducing. That’s because the arrangement combines two intense undertakings—marriage and running a business—that are each taxing enough on their own. Yet, for those brave souls who are willing to work with the one they love, running a company together can be a rewarding experience—both financially and emotionally, says Dr. Kathy Marshack, a psychologist, business coach, and author of the book Entrepreneurial Couples: Making it Work at Work and at Home. She recently spoke with business writer Susan Caminiti about what to consider before launching a business with your significant other, the importance of boundaries, and why not sharing the car ride to work is a smart idea.
SC: What’s one of the things that you see couples overlook in the excitement of starting a business together?
KM: One of the issues that couples need to look at if they’re considering working together is that they’re going to be around each other a lot more than if they work separately. Everyone who has a business cares a great deal about the outcome. So if your spouse does something in a way that you wouldn’t have, there’s going to be an opportunity to argue. I always tell couples, the things that you love about your spouse you’re going to have an opportunity to love and see those things more often. But the things you don’t like, well you’re going to see those aspects of him or her more often, too.
SC: So if you have a couple that wants to be in business together but tells you that they don’t want the company to destroy their relationship, what’s the advice there?
KM: Here’s another way to look at it: Running a business together can absolutely give you an opportunity to iron out things you wouldn’t have discovered about each other for another 20 years.
SC: Such as?
KM: Maybe you don’t like the ever-so-nice, polite way that your spouse addresses your employees, but then grumbles about them behind their back. When you work together you get to see that whole dynamic and it might cause you to wonder if he or she is grumbling about you behind the scenes. That happens and it’s not good. You might not like that trait and being in business together gives you a chance to discuss it, and perhaps work out another way. Working in separate places would have prevented you from seeing that side of your spouse, or at least not seeing in a work setting.
SC: How important is it to define job functions? If you both own the company can’t both partners just jump in where needed?
KM: If you were to go to the bank and get a line of credit for the business, the bank would expect you to have a business plan. Couples tend to believe that because they’ve fallen in love, that being in business together is going to be a snap and that everything will fall into place naturally. It won’t. You really do need to have a plan that spells out what each of you is responsible for. Now that doesn’t mean you can’t change the plan, but you need something written down that is periodically reviewed.
SC: Do most couples do this?
KM: Most couples in business never do this. They just go to a lawyer or go down to the bank, open an account and just hope because they’re having so much fun working out of the garage, that it’s all going to somehow be okay.
But what usually happens is that [one partner] will work 60 hours to 70 hours a week at work, and the [other] will work 40 hours, and then another 25 hours a week taking care of the home. That just wears couples out. They begin to feel like drones in the system without a relationship. That’s no fun. You need a better plan than that.
KM: Let’s start with the understanding that human beings need money and our income is very important to us. We will put relationships aside, even our parenting relationships, in order to make money. So I think it’s unrealistic to say that we’re not going to let the business ever get in the way. I think it’s more realistic to have a plan that puts you in the best position to guard against these things.
SC: What are some specific things a couple can do?
KM: Try not to have the business in your home, and at the very least, never put it in the bedroom. I suggest that couples drive to work separately even if they’re going the same place. It’s a psychological indicator that work is one place and home is another. Also it’s a good idea not to take business calls after a certain hour. Now I’ve seen lots of couples say ‘Oh no, I could never do that.’ They’re so afraid that they’re going to lose a client that way. What I try to tell them is that by operating that way they run the risk of losing a spouse.
SC: What else can they do?
KM: If they go on a business trip together, plan two days either before or after to strictly have vacation time. Otherwise they’ll just end up making business their entire lives. When both people are working somewhere else they have a little bit easier time calling an end to the day. When you work together, you work more hours. In fact my research has shown that entrepreneurial couples work more hours than dual-career couples.
SC: Why is that?
KM: Dual-career couples see themselves as social partners. They feel an obligation to stop work, come home, and help with the kids. The entrepreneurial couple tends to work more hours overall, but the woman still feels more of a pull to take care of the house and kids and to do it all. The man works hard too, but more of his time is spent tending to the business.
SC: What’s the upside of working with your spouse?
KM: It can be extremely positive because you have the utmost trust in this other person, much more than you would have with another business partner. So that kind of energy is really exciting and it’s wonderful to know your spouse wants this business to succeed as much as you do. But when things do start getting stressful, I suggest that they use that love for each other to remind them that they can still be very successful in business and slow things down a little bit to make time for each other. For instance, schedule a breakfast meeting each Tuesday morning outside of the house to talk about the business so that it doesn’t spill over into family time. It’s not that difficult but it does take thought and planning.
SC: Any other tips for couples on how to make this arrangement work?
KM: One of the mistakes made by lots of entrepreneurs is that they don’t necessarily have business skills. They developed their company when the economy was booming and so they sort of took credit for that. They didn’t realize they were successful because the economy was booming, not because they brought any particular business acumen to the table.
So, one of the things I always talk to couples about is the idea of getting some solid business skills. Take classes or get a mentor who teaches you these things. One of you has to be the business manager who’s looking at the bottom line.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.