Married couples working together is not a new idea. After all, husband-and-wife teams have run farms and small enterprises together since the dawn of time—this is how arguing was invented, sociologists will surely soon announce.
Marion McCollom Hampton, Ph.D., a senior partner at Banyan Family Business Advisors, says husband-and-wife business ownership duos can work swimmingly—but it’s kind of rare. Such endeavors should not be approached lightly.
“When it works well, husband-wife business partnerships are spectacular,” Hampton says. “In those cases, they’re in sync and have such an intimate relationship that they can accomplish amazing things. But when it doesn’t work, it is an incredible train wreck. For most people it is very, very hard to draw the line between business and home—and that can be devastating for both the company and the marriage.”
In her decades of advising small businesses, Hampton has developed guidelines to help married couples start, run and retire from successful enterprises:
Detail duties. Even if each partner has naturally slipped into a particular role in the business, it is critical to sit down, give both spouses a title and write down their job responsibilities.
What’s the partnership model? Decide what kind of business relationship you have. Many couples find themselves in what Hampton calls the “joined-at-the-hip” phase when they launch a company. It can be necessary to work closely together all day, every day, while getting a business off the ground. But this arrangement can be toxic or even explosive if it carries on into more mature growth phases. “It is really hard to pull off working together at the office and at home all the time,” Hampton says.
Revisit roles. As the business grows and changes, so too do the duties of the managing partners. For example, often a business launches with one spouse in the senior role and the other serving as an adviser or administrative assistant. As the business matures, the secondary position can develop into an equal. If the new dynamics are not identified, power struggles and resentments emerge. “Competition and resentment are common between people who love each other and work together,” Hampton says.
Establish time for work and time for family. It is natural for dinner-table talk to turn to work when both parents work together. Hampton has seen this dynamic swing out of control in different ways: Some parents are so immersed in business they shut out their children, and others unconsciously impose their passion for the company on the kids. “Sometimes a couple who works together can draw such a tight circle around themselves they shut others out,” Hampton says. Aim for chunks of family time when no business talk is allowed.
Also make a point to discuss company happenings with children in an effort to share this part of your life and educate them about what you know best.
Seek a sounding board. Many businesses benefit from consultants who can lend an objective perspective. With outside help, husband-wife teams, in particular, can resolve many of the logistical and emotional stressors that naturally emerge. Family business advisers, couples therapists, advisory boards and coaches can be valuable investments for couple-owned businesses. “Especially in situations where one spouse is not carrying their weight, an adviser is necessary to open the lines of communication,” Hampton says. “No one else is going to do a performance review.”
Peter and Gina Blatt
Company: Blatt Financial Group, an 11-year-old financial-planning and estate law firm in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
Secrets: Carve out time to talk business one-on-one; negotiate job titles and roles as the business changes.
The Blatts have had two incarnations of their business partnership. The first lasted for three years while the business started out of a guest room in their home, with Peter serving as the principal and Gina as administrative assistant.
“That time it went horribly wrong,” Peter says today. They were so involved in growing the business that they didn’t take the time to actually talk about it. “Gina would wake me up at 2 a.m. to remind me to follow up on an invoice because it had been on her mind, building up,” and she felt she had to give a heads-up.
After a three-year stint of staying home with their two children, Gina returned to the practice. Today, after dropping the kids off at school, the two take a brisk 30-minute walk together, working on fitness goals while also hashing out their business concerns. “That way we can focus on our family more when we are home,” Gina says.
The Blatts have had to negotiate roles as the business has grown. “When we first started, I saw myself as helping him out,” Gina explains. “Then at a party someone asked, ‘Do you work for Peter?’ In the past I would have said, ‘Yes, I’m the office manager.’ But that didn’t feel good. At that point I wanted to be acknowledged as the co-owner.” That change followed a period of tense bargaining.
Peter concedes: “At first I had an ego, and my attitude was, No! This is mine! But then I started to see that I couldn’t do it all by myself and how much stronger the business is with Gina as a partner.” Peter has the law degree and other professional designations, and Gina runs the office and serves as bookkeeper. But both say she is now a true equal in the firm—the details of the partnership are written in job descriptions for both spouses. “Gina has excellent judgment about people, and she has taught me how to decide if a client or employee is right for our company,” Peter says. Clients appreciate the atmosphere of the firm, which tends to attract many other family businesses.
“Our clients really like how we work together and treat each other—and that translates into how we treat them,” Peter says. “Our skills complement each other well and we are much stronger working together.”
Abbey and Frank Dieteman
Company: Dieteman Technology Consulting, founded in Oneida, N.Y., in 2012.
Secrets: Specify job titles and designate a boss.
Frank started the business five years ago as a part-time consultant and finally went full time last year. Abbey began working in the business in 2012 and went full time in September after quitting her corporate marketing job. Power struggles reared their head after Frank spent months teaching himself web design and launching the company’s site. “It was a painstaking process, and I was thrilled about it. Then Abbey came in and redid the whole site,” Frank says today with a laugh. “I felt like it was my baby—though in hindsight it is drastically better now.”
Soon afterward the couple established job titles and responsibilities: Abbey oversees marketing, sales and customer service, while Frank focuses on serving clients. Though Abbey has the final say over all marketing decisions, the company ultimately belongs to Frank—the couple decided he has the last word in the event of business disagreements.
The company is run out of one room in the Dietemans’ home, which they share with their two young children. This has forced them to establish rules for personal and family relationships. “When we started and the company consumed us, we talked about business all the time,” Abbey says. “But now at the end of the workday, we stop and focus on family during dinnertime.”
Adds Frank: “Otherwise you get burnt out at work. In a traditional job, you can be mad at your colleagues and then go back the next day and feel better about things. Well, I’m going home, and my colleague is eating dinner with me.” To further nurture life apart from business, each commits time to individual hobbies—Frank training for and participating in triathlons; Abbey, quilting and crafting. They recently went on a family camping trip to “completely unplug” for four days.
Their advice to other couples? Make sure you enjoy your spouse’s company and examine your priorities. “It was tough in the beginning, but we learned that our marriage and family are the most important things to us,” Abbey says. “We try to make light of any disagreements and have fun with each other. The main reason we went into business was to spend more time with each other, and it has been a blast.”
Gina and Bernard Baski
Companies: TriFit Club & Studios, a decade-old fitness club in Santa Monica, Calif., and Pür Pak, a vitamin supplement.
Secrets: Define roles at work and home; enlist the help of a couples therapist.
When the Baskis met 13 years ago, she left her college teaching job, and the two teamed to build a business based on their shared passion for health and fitness.
“It all happened so organically,” Gina says. “We are both good at different things, and we took over different aspects of the business.” She oversees all the companies’ administration and business development; Bernard is responsible for the fitness programming, hiring and training coaches. Add on the recently launched supplement business and two young kids, and “it can all be very challenging,” Gina says.
Over the years, the Baskis have worked through some difficulties. Gina, for example, became bitter because she was not able to participate in the daily fitness activities that initially drove her passion for the business. The couple benefited from seeing a therapist, and today Gina teaches classes and attends events each week to balance out the many hours she spends in the office. “I get resentful because I think his job is more fun than mine, and I certainly struggle with that every day,” she says.
They have also been challenged to separate their business lives from their relationship. “We work together, live together and train together—there is no reason to ask how each other’s day was!” Gina says. They like to unwind by taking long runs together and have made a point of ruling out work talk during that time.
The two have negotiated balancing family with business. Because Bernard has more flexibility in his schedule, he oversees more parenting duties to balance Gina’s zeal for the business, which they say is the main driver of their companies’ growth. “Being a mother is different when you’re a businessperson, and I really lament the time spent away from the kids,” Gina says. “The thing that makes me the happiest is that he is really there with the kids.”