Q:My husband and I are planning to take a buyout from our employer and set up our own tech support business from home. I'm hoping this will give us more time with our kids (ages 3 and 7) and help us save money on day care and babysitters. What tips can you give us for making our homebased business a success?
A: Starting a homebased business with your spouse can be a great way to combine your family and business activities under one roof. But it takes some advance planning and a great deal of trust and communication to make it work. If your partnership turns into a power struggle, you can put both your business and marriage at risk. But if neither one of you wants to step up and take charge, your hard-earned business may turn into a money-losing hobby.
Follow these five steps for creating a homebased business that will provide you and your spouse with fun and profit for many years to come:
1. Divide your roles and responsibilities. Even though both of you may possess the skills to do the work and serve your clients, it's important to divvy up your company's roles and responsibilities so that you don't step on each other's toes. In many small businesses, one partner is the "front of the house," handling sales and business development and preparing proposals and job estimates. The other partner acts as the "back of the house," handling the day-to-day operations and taking care of the bookkeeping, payroll and general office duties. While big decisions such as investing money in a new computer system or hiring an employee should be made together, this can be an excellent way to share power and minimize arguments.
2. Develop an effective way of airing differences and resolving disputes. While good communication is essential to any marriage, it's just as important in a business relationship. A couple who can't compromise on minor issues such as what kind of printer to buy is going to have difficulty resolving the many problems that will inevitably crop up as the business grows. One way to clear the air is to hold weekly management meetings-on Monday morning, for example-to review the company's performance during the previous week and to put in place plans for improvement. If disputes erupt during the week, you and your spouse can either address them on the spot or wait until the next weekly meeting. It doesn't matter which approach you choose, as long as you and your spouse agree to it.
3. Put a child-care plan in place. Just because you'll be working from home now doesn't mean that you don't need daycare or babysitting-quite the opposite! If kids are running through your home office demanding attention, you're not going to be able to get much work done. One option is for you and your spouse to switch off child-care responsibilities (every other day or mornings and afternoons) so that the other spouse can focus on the business. Another option is to find a part-time or full-time babysitter or child-care program so you can run your business while taking breaks to read to your children, help them with their homework or take them to the park.
4. Make sure both of you have enough room to work. While some people have no problem working in a noisy office with lots of commotion, others need quiet and privacy in order to concentrate. For example, if you're going to be on the phone pitching clients while your spouse is writing code and troubleshooting clients' networks, you may need two separate rooms to work. While this isn't always possible in a home office with limited space, you can turn one room-say, the dining room-into the "sales and marketing" office while reserving the den or spare bedroom as the "tech room" where your spouse can focus on writing software and documentation.
5. Agree on an exit strategy before you begin. While it's hard to think about the company's future before you've even launched it, it's important to sit down with your spouse and decide where you want the business to go. If you're content with a kitchen-table business that puts food on the table for your family and your husband wants to be the next Bill Gates and dominate every desktop, you're heading for trouble down the road. You could also run into problems if you want to bet the house and the kids' college fund on building the business and your spouse feels uncomfortable taking even the smallest financial risk. While it may not be necessary to have a lawyer draft a formal shareholders' agreement with buyout provisions and the like, it's a good idea for you and your spouse to agree on an annual budget for your business and to make a list of common goals and objectives.
If you have any doubt as to whether you and your spouse can agree on these issues, it's probably wise to sit down together before you start your business and have a frank and open discussion. If you've got a good relationship with your spouse and a good idea of where your business is going, you should be able to start a successful homebased business-and build a solid foundation for your family's future.
Rosalind Resnick is the founder and CEO of Axxess Business Centers Inc., a storefront consulting firm for start-ups and small businesses. She is a former business and computer journalist who built her Internet marketing company, NetCreations Inc., from a two-person homebased start-up to a public company that generated $58 million in annual sales.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.