8 Ways to Build a Business Without Strangling Your Spouse
“I could never work with my spouse” is a phrase I hear almost daily, and truth be told, sometimes I think the same thing. But here we are, Bryan and I, for better and worse, running a fast-growing software company together and somehow resisting the urge to strangle each other.
The problem isn’t so much that we’re married -- it’s that we’re entrepreneurs. And, by nature, entrepreneurs are typically opinionated, stubborn, smart, competitive, fast-moving adrenaline junkies who take lots of risks. Did I mention opinionated?
By definition, "opinionated" means we’re frequently going to find ourselves in a position in which we disagree -- often vehemently -- with the other person’s ideas or actions. And the fact that we’re married seems to give us license to be a little more, ahem, direct (read “rude”) in how we communicate our disapproval.
We’ve been running a business together for eight years now: We founded Sonic Boom Wellness, a software company in the corporate wellness world, in June 2007 while we were dating. That Christmas, my hubby got down on one knee in chicken poop (literally -- we were in our chicken coop) and asked me to marry him. The following September, more than a year into our fledgling business adventure, I did just that.
The early years
Marital bliss took a beating with the stresses of running a business, especially in the early years. We weren’t even three days into our honeymoon in Cancun when we watched the global economy fall apart, literally tossing us into the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. September 2008, remember? That lucrative term sheet we had waiting for us to sign upon our return got shredded. And we struggled financially, to the point that we literally had four months of savings left before homelessness was going to set in.
We lost five properties to short sales and were forced to sell our two cars and motorcycle. We were told we’d have to declare bankruptcy to emerge from the nightmare (we didn’t do it).
Like all entrepreneurs, we were wearing many hats, working 24/7 and ignoring each other’s needs. Because we were married, we had little or nothing to talk about other than the business, exacerbating the work-life unbalance. We struggled through communication blocks and misdirected anger. At times that anger boiled over into PBA (public displays of animosity) and tears. Never mind that Bryan is the love of my life.
If you’re a Rom-Com fan, don’t worry. This is a depressing story with a happy ending. Today our business is on fire; we have nearly 40 employees and are highly profitable, with $6 million in annual revenue; and it turns out we didn’t need those investors after all. Best of all, we’ve learned to work together without the temptation to smack each other up the side of the head. Here are some of the ways we've learned to co-exist, at work and at home:
1. Assume different and distinct roles.
Part of the problem Bryan and I faced was that we’re good at the same things, and found ourselves doing the same things. Being more than just a tad competitive, we’d find ourselves climbing all over each other to be “better,” or “right.” We realized, though, that we also had, and have, complementary strengths. He loves finances; I’m not a fan. I love customer service, and he isn’t exactly nurturing. So we quit competing and respected each other’s strong suits.
2. Separate yourselves -- literally.
It’s tough working out of your spare bedroom as we once did; later wasn't much better: I worked in our make-shift office, and Bryan was relegated to the kitchen. When I was annoyed (and annoying), I'd put a “No Boys Allowed” sign on the door. But that's changed: Today, we have separate offices, run different parts of the company and sometimes go an entire day without interacting face-to-face.
3. Make time for non-work discussion.
This sounds so “duh,” but it’s not as easy to do as you'd think. To this day, we often find ourselves sitting in silence, staring at our hands, trying desperately to find common ground other than the business. Tough as it is, force yourselves to talk about things other than work, even if that feels hollow at first.
4. Use your advisors.
If you don’t have any, seek them out. The two of you aren’t going to agree all the time, and it helps to have a third party who can mediate, or at least help you both to see all sides. This does not mean a mediator in the sense that one person is right and the other is wrong -- it means letting someone else share in the decision-making processes.
5. Be active -- together.
Thankfully, Bryan and I share a lot of athletic interests, so this has always been a natural escape. But making ourselves escape to do the things we love can be hard. Making time for a four-day weekend ski trip is tough as an entrepreneur. But it’s important to have the distraction of a getaway, and even better, a physically exhausting activity. Nothing bonds a couple more than generating adrenaline and endorphins together.
6. Treat each other like neighbors.
It's sad, but sometimes we treat friends and neighbors with more respect than we do our own spouse. But . . . feeling snippy? Bite your tongue. Think to yourself, “Would I treat a neighbor that way? It’s not okay to be rude, especially when the person you’re being rude to is the love of your life.
7. Don’t let people pit Mommy against Daddy.
It’s gonna happen. You’re going to react differently to situations, and people and your employees will figure out whom to hit up for what, faster than a toddler figures out that you may not really stop at “3.” But no one wins when you two are divided. As any good parenting team will tell you, a united front is best for everyone in establishing respect and boundaries.
8. Beware misdirected anger.
You have a lot riding on your shoulders as an entrepreneur, and stress levels can skyrocket. You may have payroll, with lives depending on you; business won and business lost; profits and losses; and kloptrillions of decisions to be made every day.
Moreover, you don’t just have the stress of a “job” -- you’re running a business. People can and will make you angry, frustrated and even downright nasty. It’s easy to take out that stress on your spouse, partly because it’s “safe” -- he or she isn’t going anywhere, right? And he or she makes for an easy target. So, stop. Breathe. Ask yourself, “Am I really angry at him/her, or am I taking out my stress on the person I love most in this world?”
The bottom line
The bottom line is that even a great business doesn’t say, “I love you.” And, both marriage and entrepreneurism take work. Doing the two together is exponentially more difficult.
Yet your co-founder/spouse is your leaning post and your cheerleader, and the person with whom it’s okay to feel vulnerable. I chose Bryan to be my business partner because he’s smart, ambitious and loaded with innovation. I chose him to be my partner in life because even on our toughest days at work, he helps me re-energize so I have the strength to show up tomorrow to do it all over again.
Today I’m happy to say Sonic Boom is thriving. I look at what we’ve created and feel a sense of pride. But even more than that, I’m in awe of my co-founder, who brings so much to the table that I don’t -- and I feel honored that he chose me – chicken poop and all -- to be his wife.