ENTREPRENEURIAL COUPLES



Many of today's small business enterprises are co-owned and co-managed by entrepreneurs who are also partners in their personal lives. These partnerships, which most commonly take the form of husband-wife teams, can be immensely positive experiences, strengthening each person's commitment to and enjoyment of both the business and personal sides of the partnership. Indeed, accounts of husband-wife teams and other romantic partnerships that built thriving companies together are ubiquitous. But business experts and entrepreneurs who have built successful firms via this route warn that entrepreneurial couples often face additional hurdles that solo business builders do not encounter, and they note that when businesses founded by couples fail, their union is often placed in jeopardy as well.

"More and more married couples are going into business together," wrote Echo Montgomery Garrett in Small Business Reports. "You might call it the new American dream. When it clicks, working elbow-to-elbow is emotionally and financially rewarding." Indeed, tax returns turned in during the 1980s and 1990s indicate that the number of businesses jointly owned by married couples far outpaced the growth of proprietorships in general, and that the trend toward so-called called "co-preneurships" was a sustained one that shows no signs of slowing. Experts agree that entrepreneurial couples of the 1990s benefited from the same positive environmental factors that helped so many other entrepreneurs during that time period, such as increased access to capital, low interest rates, healthy consumer confidence, technology advancements, increased quality of life concerns, and a variety of other factors. "The lure of unlimited possibilities if you're successful and the security of having a trustworthy and caring partner to share the load tempt many couples to take the marital as well as financial risk," noted Profit-Building Strategies for Business Owners.

CONSIDERATIONS THAT FACE THE ENTREPRENEURIAL COUPLE

Couples that are considering launching a business enterprise together, however, need to weigh many aspects of that effort before taking the plunge, however. As Profit-Building Strategies for Business Owners observed, "many couples understand what they're getting into: long hours, a life that's often too shared, tough sledding till the business shows a profit. But veteran couples-in-business-together say that knowing about it still doesn't prepare you for living through it. The daily pressures of working side by side, frequently hassled, with no time left for any other life and taking few or no vacations, can put a heavy strain on any marriage." Entrepreneurial couples and business consultants alike cite the following as important factors in creating a successful business with a spouse or partner:

1) Both partners need to bring significant value to the business. As Dennis Jaffe observed in Working With the Ones You Love, each spouse should have a clear skill to contribute to the business. Spouses that are unable to make meaningful contributions in one or more areas of a business's operation should not be partners in that company. Such people are unlikely to be happy, since they are usually well aware that they are not "pulling their weight," and also because efforts to give them responsibilities in areas in which they are ill-equipped often end in failure, if not outright disaster for the company. Moreover, arrangements in which one spouse is basically doing all the work of both "partners" often generate resentment on the part of the spouse doing all the work. This problem can be particularly acute in instances where one spouse gets a business up and running, and then has to introduce his or her partner to the intricacies of the business. Consultants note, however, that the value split does not necessarily have to be 50-50. After all, a spouse whose duties run exclusively toward taking care of the company's bookkeeping needs or serving as a restaurant's host/general troubleshooter during main traffic periods may not be taking care of half of the business's management requirements, but their execution of those duties can go far toward giving them a feeling of self-worth and assuring spouses that they are not shouldering the full weight of the business by themselves.

Ideally, partners in a couple-owned business will have separate, complementary skills. When partners handle different responsibilities of the business, it tends to minimize disagreements over day-to-day matters and creates an environment in which both partners are able to exercise some autonomy and develop respect for the talents that the other brings to the enterprise.

2) Partners should not be competitive with one another. Successful couple-owned business are willing to accept blame for business problems rather than simply point fingers at one another.

3) Newlyweds should exercise caution before partnering up for business. "The newness of both ventures causes uncertainties that can hamper growth in the business and cause problems in the marriage," stated Profit-Building Strategies for Business Owners.

4) Good communication is essential. "Couples sometimes have trouble making the transition to a working relationship," one consultant pointed out in Travel Weekly. "The way they communicate as couples may not work in an office setting." Experts note that the keys to good communication in dialogue with a spouse are the same as they would be for any other business partner—listening, focusing on the issue at hand, not taking criticism personally, etc.—and that entrepreneurial couples have to recognize business disagreements have nothing to do with their love for one another.

5) Adapt to changing roles. "Some spouses have difficulty seeing the person they married in a totally different light," wrote Garrett. "If, for instance, your spouse has always been the more passive one, it may be disconcerting when he or she suddenly becomes an aggressive CEO." Experts say that this adjustment is often particularly hard to make for husbands who are accustomed to calling the shots in their marriage, only to find their wives tapping into previously unknown reserves of independence and purpose in the work environment. 6) Separate work life and home life. Many entrepreneurial couples warn that it is easy for husband-wife and other romantically involved business partnerships to lose sight of the personal side of their relationship in a flurry of business issues. In such cases, the romantic spark that first drew the partners together can be snuffed out by payroll concerns, worries about the landlord, proposed regulatory changes, and a plethora of other issues that are always swirling outside the doors of small business enterprises.

Entrepreneurial couples can take several steps to curb this threat, however. Some couples agree to never discuss work at home or in bed, while others actively seek out non-work activities that they can do together. Other couples, meanwhile, agree to have one or the other take time away from the business, so that both partners can take a step back, regain their perspective, and rekindle their personal relationship. "Usually the marriage existed before the business, and if it falls apart, the business falls apart," said consultant Kathy Engstrom in an interview with Travel Weekly. "Both have to be nurtured and protected." This is particularly important in instances where children are involved.

7) Set aside time away from your spouse or partner. "Most couples need a tad more space [than they get in a business partnership with a spouse]," wrote Jim Davies in Management Today. "For many in long-term relationships, office hours represent a welcome break from their partners, a chance to function as independent entities and to assert their individuality." Since entrepreneurial couples spend enormous amounts of time together, successful husband-wife teams agree that one of the keys to their success is their decision to set aside solo time for each partner. Even if the solo activity (community work, a class, a sport league) is only one evening a week, this time can do a lot to recharge the partnership batteries of both people.

8) Objectively assess whether you and your partner would work well together in a business. Some couples enjoy good personal relationships, only to see their eagerly embarked-on business partnership quickly deteriorate into an unsightly welter of hurt feelings and financial losses. "Basic personality traits have a lot to do with how couples fare together in business," stated Profit-Building Strategies for Business Owners.

"One researcher found that spouses who plan vacations easily and enjoy doing home renovations are the kinds of personalties that tend to make good business partners. For couples who communicate and share their business ups and downs on an open, equal basis, experts predict that the marriage can thrive and grow more healthy as partners learn to work out conflicts and differences."

FURTHER READING:

Alverson, Marchel. "Saying 'I Do'to Husband and Business." Women in Business. January-February 1998.

Bowman-Upton, Nancy. Challenges in Managing a Family Business. U.S. Small Business Administration, 1991.

Davies, Jim. "Sleeping Partners." Management Today. October 1998.

Fraser, Jill Andresky. "The New American Dream: Building a Business Together." Inc. April 1990.

Garrett, Echo Montgomery. "And Business Makes Three." Small Business Reports. September 1993.

Jaffe, Dennis. Working with the Ones You Love . Conari, 1990.

Long, Felicity. "Sleeping With the Enemy: How to Work With a Spouse." Travel Weekly. February 3, 1994.

Shook, Carrie. "Partners in Business—And in Life." Business First—Columbus. September 25, 1995.

Thompson, Kevin D. "Married … With Business." Black Enterprise. April 1990.

"What a Couple Needs to Know Before Plunging Into Business Together." Profit-Building Strategies for Business Owners. July 1992.

Wiley, Jenny. "Making Husband and Wife Partnerships Work." Custom Builder. May-June 1997.



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