From the November 1998 issue of Startups

Every morning, millions of couples get up together, have their morning coffee together??? and go to work together. Could you and your spouse do it, too, or would you drive each other nuts?

While entrepreneurial couples' motives are as individual as their relationships, one thing all successful couples need is a firm foundation. Not every couple can work together, cautions Azriela Jaffe, a Lancaster, Pennsylvania, business coach, speaker and author of Honey, I Want to Start My Own Business: a Planning Guide for Couples (HarperBusiness, $13, 800-236-7323). "A lot of people can't imagine working with their spouse all day long and still being in love at the end of the day," says Jaffe. "You have to love spending time together. Some couples thrive on being in each other's company."

Above and beyond that, Jaffe continues, "[Successful entrepreneurial] couples know how to resolve conflicts around power and decision-making. They've worked out these issues in their marriages [before they've begun businesses]."

For Susan and Jerry Hatchett, success as business partners followed naturally from success in marriage. Although Susan, 36, had assisted her husband ever since he bought his first pawn shop in 1981, she didn't join him as a full-time partner until he opened his most recent store, Jerry's Trading Post and Pawn Shop, in 1995. The Hatchetts also operate a homebased business through which they market Jerry's invention, the EasyBraid French braid maker.

"To get along well in business, you have to get along well personally first," says Jerry, 38. "Bumps exist in every marriage, but they need to be worked out at home, not in the business."

Got A Plan?

To help smooth the road to entrepreneurship, couples should write a business plan, says Patricia Frishkoff, founder and director of the Austin Family Business Program at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. In addition to traditional components like a marketing plan and financial forecasts, the plan should also outline your expectations in terms of your relationship. "With every decision," urges Frishkoff, "you need to look at the impact on both the [marriage] and the business."

Putting plans and goals in writing worked for Ann and John Christensen, founders of Christensen Designs in Manteca, California. The two were married in 1988; in 1989, they launched their first product, a windless wind chime John invented. Ann's invention--a message-in-a-bottle kit and launching service for those who don't live near the ocean--followed.

Last year, John, 52, a former engineer for the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, developed a line of remote-control video probe devices now used by wildlife researchers to study endangered species in a variety of habitats.

"It was a sensationally successful first year," says Ann, 43. "We sold more than 25 Tree Top Peeper II units to the Forest Service in 1997 at about $4,000 each."

Planning had a lot to do with that success. "We spent a lot of time talking about how we wanted to run the business and what things we find enjoyable," says John. "We also listed our talents: What can I do? What can she do? How can we put these together?"

Perfect Harmony

Even couples with strong marriages need autonomy for a business to succeed--but not too much autonomy. "It's easy for a husband and wife to get into competition with each other," John Christensen says. "For us, Ann's word is law when it comes to sales and marketing, although I can put in my two cents' worth. When it comes to [designing and manufacturing the product], she gives her input, but, essentially, I decide how that's going to work. However, neither one of us operates so autonomously that we don't listen to each other."

The Hatchetts' system for defining duties came about naturally. "We complement one another," explains Susan. "The tasks he doesn't care for happen to be the things I like to do."

Many couples find a division of labor arises naturally. But even if this isn't the case for you, it's important to agree on which tasks each of you will handle and how far your authority extends.

Balancing Act

As their businesses grow, many entrepreneurial couples find it difficult to separate home and work. "Most people can't shut off business when they go home and, particularly if you have children, you're not going to shut family off when you go to work," Frishkoff says. "Instead, the objective should be to appropriately juggle the two focuses in your life and integrate them in a way that allows you to have good relationships in both arenas."

While some spillover may be healthy, experts caution against letting the business take over your lives. "Work is an important part of your life, but it's only one part," says Scott Gregory, author with his wife, Shirley, of The Home Team: How Couples Can Make a Life and a Living by Working at Home (Panda Publishing, $22.95, 888-447-2632). "It takes a lot of time and energy to become a successful entrepreneur. But you have to remember to take time away from work and spend time with your family."

Although they face special challenges, entrepreneurial couples have one big advantage on their side: a common goal. "Jerry and I are working together toward the same goal--to do well for our family," says Susan Hatchett.

Couples who've discovered how to work together successfully while maintaining a loving relationship share the best of both worlds. Susan Hatchett sums up what most such entrepreneurs feel: "I can't imagine him going back to a job where we aren't together all the time."

Resources

The following books, newsletters and Web sites can help your partnership blossom:

  • Let's Go Into Business Together: Eight Secrets to Successful Business Partnering, by Azriela Jaffe (Avon Books, $12.50, 800-236-7323)
  • How to Raise a Family and a Career Under One Roof: A Parent's Guide to Home Business, by Lisa Roberts (Bookhaven Press, $15.95, 800-782-7424)
  • Scott and Shirley Gregory's Bookhome Publishing publishes books on relationships and business, as well as The Home Team Report, a bimonthly newsletter for people who work at home. Subscriptions cost $29 per year. Call (877)?32-2438 or visit http://www.bookhome.com

Patricia L. Fry is a freelance writer in Ojai, California.

Contact Sources

Austin Family Business Program, (800) 859-7609, http://www.familybusiness.orst.edu

Christensen Designs, (800) 928-9111, http://www.peeperpeople.com

Jerry and Susan Hatchett, c/o Jerry's Trading Post and Pawn Shop, (601) 841-9398, hatchett@futuresouth.com