Crowded House

can two entrepreneurs work under the same roof, indivisible, with privacy and success for all? We think so.
Magazine Contributor
8 min read

This story appears in the April 1998 issue of Subscribe »

If the balancing act is precarious when one entrepreneur sets up shop in the same spot where he or she hangs the proverbial hat each evening, consider the effect when two entrepreneurs with two separate businesses both have their offices under that very same roof.

The arrangement is messy, chaotic, aggravating . . . and, frequently, a source of joy. "It's cozy and comforting to have my husband next to me," says Madeleine Homan, president of StraightLine Coaching in Dobbs Ferry, New York, "even if we do nothing more than say `Hey, how are you?' to each other during the day."

But the pluses go beyond companionship. For one thing, each entrepreneur has another nearby with whom to share the joys and frustrations inherent in owning a business. "I finally understand how time-consuming being an entrepreneur is," says Amy Levy, president of Levy & Associates, a marketing and communications firm in Washington, DC. Levy started her business two years ago and moved into the office her husband, Terry Sellheim, president of T.R. Sellheim Construction Inc., had set up in their home six years earlier.

In addition, these homebased entrepreneurs can act as each other's advisory board--offering the kind of objectivity you usually don't have when you're in the middle of a tense situation. Nor do you have to be in the middle of a crisis to learn from each other. John Hickok, a professor, director and actor, considers himself privileged to sit just 10 feet away from his wife, Homan, a career and personal coach for creative people. "It's not that I sit and listen to the coaching advice she gives people over the phone," Hickok says. "But bits and pieces of it seem to splash across to my side of the desk, and, like a motivational tape that you listen to in your sleep, I absorb the information and benefit from it."

The "under the same roof" entrepreneurs can help each other in other ways as well. Take Tom and Georgia Patrick, presidents, respectively, of WindStar Wildlife Institute, a national, nonprofit conservation organization, and The Communicators, a marketing and communications consulting firm. Both operate out of a barn on their property in Jefferson, Maryland. The Patricks clip interesting articles for each other and share assistants if necessary. "We might even pitch in with each other's mailings," says Tom, "but we don't expect that kind of help from each other."

Best of all, says Hickok, "I've gotten to know my wife in ways I never would have if we didn't work under the same roof. Her work is interesting, and she's good at it. Having a window into her business life is kind of exciting."

Patricia Schiff Estess is author of Money Advice for Your Successful Remarriage and Kids, Money & Values (both published by Betterway) and president of Working Families Inc., a Manhattan firm specializing in family memoirs.

You Must Consider This

Working side by side raises issues, though, which all the good will in the world can't resolve without negotiation. These issues include:

*Space. This is probably your number-one consideration. Levy says the 10-by-10-foot room she and her husband share would never work if Sellheim wasn't out of the office at a construction site most of the time. And though Homan and Hickok's office is larger (they share a long desk and sit only feet apart because they both want the spectacular view of the Hudson River provided by that side of the attic), it gets a bit cramped when Homan has an assistant in once a week. "I have to let John know when the assistant is coming, and we have to remove the stacks of paper we have on the floor," she says. "Otherwise, it wouldn't work."

Separate offices seem to work best--like using two converted bedrooms at opposite ends of the house or one office in the basement and the other in a converted dining room. Of course, if you have the magnificent office setup the Patricks have, you're way ahead of the space dilemma. When Georgia designed their dream offices in the barn, she wanted a central area where they could lunch together or meet with clients. She wanted that space ringed with five offices with walls of glass--one for each of them, one for each of their assistants and one for extra projects. The glass screens out sounds but allows them to see each other.

*Phone systems. Technology has made a myriad of configurations possible for phone usage. Two entrepreneurs under one roof have to devise a system that works best for each of them. All subscribe to the "two entrepreneurs, two lines" theory, though some use the home phone as the second line. In addition, Levy has an extra long phone cord so she can take her phone outside the office she shares with her husband when she needs quiet. Homan, who also often needs privacy, has a cordless headset. And the Patricks have different rings on their phones, so if they're in their conference room, for example, they can determine whose phone is ringing.

*Employees vs. assistance. Jim and Jaine Carter, co-authors of He Works She Works: Successful Strategies for Working Couples (Carter & Carter Enterprises), have been running their human resources development firm out of their Naples, Florida, home for the past four of their 25 years in business together. They use only contracted services, their secretary works out of her own home, and they have an arrangement with a nearby CPA firm to use its conference room when they need it. "We used to have people working here, but it became uncomfortable," says Jim. "Although we were working out of our home, we had to work around their schedules."

Homan has found her assistance needn't be nearby. Though her office is in Dobbs Ferry, New York, her business's chief organizer and administrator, who sets up appointments and sends out her newsletters, works in Dallas. "My virtual assistant is wonderful," says Homan. "We communicate by e-mail and phone, and she's a real pro at what she does."

*Limiting interruptions. It's tempting to drop in on your spouse at times. It's also destructive to each other's business. So one of the things couples have to get straight when they run separate businesses out of the same home is how to differentiate between an emergency situation and one that can wait until the other person has some free time. "When we both need uninterrupted blocks of time," says Jim Carter, "we tell each other that in the morning." The Carters also note it on their master wall calendar.

To avoid disturbing each other, the Patricks send each other messages through an interoffice e-mail network. "We don't forget what we want to tell each other," says Tom, "and we don't interrupt each other either."

House Rules

There are plenty of ways to avoid headaches when sharing office space in your home. Here are a few:

1. Use any available technology--virtual assistants, e-mail, cordless headsets, voice mail and the like--to help solve problems of privacy and professionalism.

2. When setting up your offices, delineate your own separate spaces, build partitions or soundproof your offices.

3. Take advantage of economies of scale. Share conference rooms, fax machines, printers--everything except phones.

4. Don't expect your fellow entrepreneur to set aside business commitments to fix your computer, lend a hand with a mailing, type your invoices or discuss a business problem.

5. Communicate with each other regularly about business and personal schedules--and do it both verbally and in writing. A calendar should reflect what you've already discussed: who's picking up the kids from school, when you're having a meeting in the home or office, or when you can schedule a round of golf together.

A Separate Peace

The airwaves reverberate when Madeleine Homan and John Hickok get on their phones. Madeleine, a career and personal coach for creative people, was once an actor, so she can project her voice. John, an actor, director and professor, has the same ability. Considering they sit 10 feet from one another in their Dobbs Ferry, New York, home offices, they could get on each other's nerves. But they don't even hear each other.

At one time, Homan says, when she was on the phone with clients and Hickok was negotiating a screenplay deal, her clients could hear him. "It was hard to convince them I wasn't listening to him or that he wasn't in some way monitoring our phone conversation."

One solution to the problem was to get a cordless headset. When Hickok's voice is booming, Homan dons the headset and moves into the hallway. Another is communication. "If I'm going to be on a conference call or being interviewed for television, for example, I tell John and he makes himself scarce." Resonant voices aside, Homan and Hickok have an extraordinary ability to tune each other out, so much so that it's not unusual for them to ask each other at dinner "So how was your day?"

Contact Sources

Carter & Carter Enterprises, 720 Turkey Oak Ln., Naples, FL 34108, (800) 566-6155

The Communicators, (800) 324-9044,

John Hickok, (914) 693-5474

Levy & Associates, (202) 364-6456,

WindStar Wildlife Institute, (301) 834-9238,


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