Do Life Partners Make Good Business Partners?
If the marriage of true minds is free from impediments, as Shakespeare almost said, it doesn’t necessarily follow that a strong and enduring personal relationship will translate into a long-lasting and profitable business partnership. And yet, many life partners do bond happily in business as well. So, is there a formula for success and a set of personality traits and behavior patterns that are good for business? Is there such a thing as commercial chemistry? The answer is yes and no.
First, the fortunes of any business will depend on a host of internal and external factors, no matter who is at the helm and how devoted they are to each other and to their business. Moreover, if you don’t have a good idea to start with, and a sound plan to make it work, all the love and commitment in the world will not build a viable enterprise.
Being a copreneur– the pluses and minuses of partnership
Nearly every plus in a partnership can also turn into a minus, or at least carry risks, depending on the couple’s individual characters and qualities. So, let’s take a closer look at the strengths and weaknesses of mixing business with pleasure, and then examine some couples for whom it has brought wealth and fame, and some who have struggled despite starting with the best of intentions.
The advantages of becoming a ‘copreneur’ –a phrase increasingly used to describe entrepreneur couples– seem compelling on face value. If you have two people who are totally in sync, with complementary skills and identical work ethics, and who trust and support each other at all times, then you have a management team that is primed to do well. Working together is an asset for those who truly enjoy their partner’s company and can play to each other’s strengths. It can bring an added resilience and drive to the business, one not matched by partners without the same emotional attachment and understanding. Those who share lives inside and outside of work may strengthen their own relationships by having a common purpose and vision, and may find it easier to manage responsibilities such as bringing up children, caring for aging parents, or simply balancing everyday needs. In other words, they have more flexibility and can cover for each other and compensate better because they have a natural rapport and support mechanism.
That said, being so close can become a negative force for some couples. The wrong combination of people will work against each other, and will undermine the business rather than enhance it. In particular, individuals with ‘type A’ personalities, who have a strong competitive and stubborn streak, may clash more than they gel. Togetherness at all times is not good for everyone, and has been described as ‘painful proximity’, while tensions will inevitably surface if one partner tries to impose their will and dominate the business. As in any marriage, equality is the basis for fruitful co-existence.
Remember that you will increase your financial risk if you start a business with your partner. Just as the basic rule of investing is diversification, when two people form a business, they are jeopardizing their combined assets; their fortunes and their futures are entwined, and they will either jointly succeed or jointly fail. When the business isn’t doing well, it will place tremendous pressure on the marriage or partnership. Equally, when things aren’t going well on the personal front, it may damage the business. A further consideration is that it’s often difficult for married business partners to raise capital, because many investors consider it high risk.
Finally, role and responsibility issues may arise when you build a wider team. Many employees, particularly senior managers, find it difficult to work for two bosses who are in a relationship. Decision-making and autonomy will be affected by personal politics, an experience that will be familiar to anyone who has worked for a family-run business.
Related: Wissam Al Mana: The Family Biz, the Limelight, and the Unbearable Lightness of Being the Brand
Couples who click in business
One of the best examples of a husband-wife business partnership is Julia and Kevin Hartz. The couple founded online ticketing platform Eventbrite in 2006 and have built a global company in little over a decade. Eventbrite processes tickets in more than 180 countries, supports more than two million events per year, and delivers two million tickets per week. So, what’s the secret of their success? First, they had a good idea. They identified a versatile technology and a gap in the market, and focused on creating a platform that was right for every type and size of event, whether music, sports, or conferences. Both have complementary business skills (Kevin in engineering; Julia in media and marketing), they are highly educated, and they possess strong personal drives and ambitions that gel rather than conflict. And, crucially, both have said they enjoy the closeness, which strengthens their marriage and creates a virtuous circle.
Julia Hartz has often discussed their work strategies and ground rules for business. In an interview in 2013 she underlined the importance of dividing and conquering: "We work on completely separate parts of the business. Basically, we never overlap so we’re optimizing our complementary skills, getting from point A to point B two times faster … I think that’s what sustains our working relationship as well as our marriage."
Ensuring the right hand knows what the left hand is doing
Petplan founders Chris and Natasha Ashton are another example of partners who have successfully combined marriage with business. Like the Hartzes, they are both highly educated, having met at Oxford where they obtained undergraduate and postgraduate degrees, and they gained useful career experience before going into business together. Again, like the Hartzes, they spotted a gap in the market, when they saw the need for pet insurance after being landed with a huge vet’s bill. A perceived business opportunity was reinforced by their shared passion for pets, which meant they had a very personal commitment and interest in their business. What’s more, they share one other trait with the Hartzes: division of labour. The couple like to call themselves the ‘left paw’ and the ‘right paw’ of the company, with Chris focusing on business development while Natasha handles marketing.
Couples who fail to find the magic
When it comes to business failures, we find that personal conflicts and incompatibilities often play a major role. If the partnership is working well, that positivity can be transferred to the business. And when it’s not working well, it can drive a wedge through the business. For example, take the well-documented split between Cisco founders Sandy Lerner and Leonard Bosack. Once husband and wife, they ended up leaving their own company, divorcing and becoming rivals. Both have commented about the pressures of working together, of not being in alignment on fundamental points, and the need for continuous emotional commitment. In a speech in 2013, Lerner lamented that Cisco broke both her marriage and her health, and said that it’s vital to keep a sense of perspective: "You are not the company, and the company is not you," she warned would-be entrepreneurs.
For Terry Neil and Soraya Henderson, another divorce casualty, the personal split has proved disastrous. A bitter dispute over misappropriation of funds plunged their GBP 18 million security business into administration and led to a court battle over control of the company. The fallout highlights what can happen when trust disappears and partners become enemies.
Naturally, trust is fundamental in any business partnership, but there’s so much more at stake when a personal relationship is involved. Keeping it grounded as well as personal No one should start a business with their life partner unless they have realistic expectations and a solid foundation to build on. As with any marriage, that also means seeking the right counselling so you avoid mistakes and can negotiate any challenges. Yes, you are more likely to succeed in business with the help of a kindred spirit: someone who shares your life and your dreams. But business is a different kind of partnership and has special needs, and success involves far more than simply a close personal relationship. As well as chemistry, you need a good idea, sound judgment, clear commercial vision, and a reliable support network.