When Karen Fichthorn tells people she works with her husband, nearly everyone says the same thing: “I could never work with my spouse.”
That surprises Fichthorn, who has owned Fichthorn Brand Development with her husband Rick for 30 years.
“It seems natural for us, but we were married only a few months when started,” Fichthorn says. “The best part is that I get to spend more time with him.”
Karen and Rick Fichthorn met when they both worked for an advertising agency (Rick redesigned the Crush soda logo that’s still in use today). A few months after they married, they started their firm, which creates product packaging, ads, and brand identity materials. The company has offices in Sanibel, Florida, and New York City.
Being in business together for nearly as long as they’ve been married works for the couple, Karen says, because they are fully committed to both. The keys to their success have been division of labor, professionalism, and protecting their personal time.
Define your roles and responsibilities
Tom and Gina Scarda, presenters of the workshop How to Work with Your Spouse and Live to Tell About It, say they meet many husband-wife teams who don’t know how to make the leap from life partners to business partners. The Scardas bought a smoothie franchise in 2000, expanded to three stores, and then sold the business in 2005. Now they advise other franchise buyers, most of whom are married couples.
“I think a lot of times the couple doesn’t have clearly defined roles going into business, and they don’t play off each other’s strengths,” Gina Scarda says.
The Scardas were both retired from law enforcement in New York City when they opened their first store. Tom says he thought it was an asset that both of them were outgoing. But when the spotlight shone more brightly on his wife, he says, he had to deal with some jealousy issues.
“I felt like Mr. Gina Scarda. She would get the interview, and I would get angry,” he says. “But then I decided to embrace it and let her run with it. Who cares who gets the attention as long as it’s good for the business.”
Karen Fichthorn says she and her husband progressed naturally from their former jobs into a successful division of labor in their firm. Rick remained in creative services while Karen handled “everything else,” she says, including marketing research, copywriting, and some client services.
The same was true for Steven and Nathalie Laitmon, owners of The Calendar Group, a household and corporate staffing service in New York City and Connecticut. Steven Laitmon says they started the company in 2002 because they realized they had complementary skills. The Laitmons mapped out their roles so that neither spouse was supervising the other. Nathalie interacts directly with clients and potential job candidates. Steven handles the company’s operations.
“I know where she’s strong and responsible, and she takes over,” Laitmon says. “We’re not in direct conflict with each other.
It’s important to put a great team in place and let them do what they’re great at, whether your team is your wife or someone else.”
Test the waters
If you’re not sure you could work with your spouse, try a trial partnership. When financial advisors Mark and Sara Woodward were dating, they thought it might make sense to merge their practices. Before they committed to each other in business, Mark says they tried some joint marketing and worked a few clients’ cases together.
It was a good fit. In 2008 the Woodwards launched Blue Ocean Partners in Vienna, Virginia. Today, Sara manages the firm’s client services internally while Mark works directly with clients. They added another partner last year, and while Sara isn’t legally a partner, Mark says they still make big decisions together.
“My partner knows that all the decisions I make have to meet with Sarah’s approval,” Mark says. “Often he finds himself trying to convince her before he comes to me.”
Communicate through conflict
Perhaps even more than other married couples, married business owners need clear, open, and intentional communication. Tom Scarda says his wife never realized he was jealous of the attention she received until he worked up the nerve to tell her.
Nancy Lynn Jarvis and her husband, Craig, struggled in the early years of their real estate business because of different working styles and overlapping duties, she says. They would talk over each other at client presentations. Craig wanted to computerize Nancy Lynn’s files because he preferred to work that way.
“We tried, but we did not work out that well as a team,” Nancy Lynn says. Finally, the couple set firmer boundaries. Nancy Lynn says her husband’s suggestions did improve her workflow, but she wanted to make the changes herself.
The couple retired from real estate in 2008, and Nancy Lynn began writing mystery novels. The Jarvises formed Good Read Mysteries to publish her books. Their division of labor and expressed boundaries have smoothed out their work relationship, she says.
“Now he’s my initial editor. I’m really eager to get his impression,” Nancy Lynn says. “I trust him completely.”
Separate home and office
Karen Fichthorn says most people have a different persona at work than at home, and that’s an important distinction for couples. “You don’t treat each other as strangers, but you have to be more professional,” she says. “You can’t have this overlap between work and home.”
Married entrepreneurs seem to struggle more with bringing work home, however.
The Woodwards limit work-related conversations to 30 minutes each evening when they get home. Mark says it was Sara who drew that line, and he agreed. “At a certain time, work needs to be at work and home needs to be at home,” he says. They also keep a standing date night, and Mark says there are certain evenings he promises not to schedule work activities.
Steven Laitmon says he and his wife know they should set firmer boundaries. But they still have to remind each other not to let business take over their time at home, especially with three young children.
“The challenge of being business owners and parents is when to turn it off,” Steven says. “We are excited, passionate, and entrepreneurial. We feed off each other, and it’s easy to get each other excited about business development objectives. But we need to be able to say this is family time, no more.”
Fichthorn says it’s also vital for joint business owners to develop their own personal pursuits in order to keep the marriage from becoming just a business partnership. She also advises couples to have separate commutes so that each partner can have some time alone to reflect on the business and decompress after a long day.
Weekends should be kept for personal activities, not a continuation of work. “Saturday and Sunday have to actually be the weekend,” Fichthorn says. “You need that break, otherwise your brain keeps going in that one work track.”
Even with all the strains that working together may impose, sharing those experiences with your spouse can actually strengthen a marriage, Fichthorn says. “Usually when a spouse comes home grumpy or exhausted or happy, you don’t know why,” she says. “If you are working together, it’s a little easier because you’re both going through the same things.”