For Better or for Worse

Starting a business with your better half isn't like buying a couch together. Before you hang your shingle, make sure you've both got what it takes.
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the June 2001 issue of . Subscribe »

She shouts out the answers to Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?; he changes the channel to the World's Strongest Man competition. She wants an SUV; he bought himself a truck. She's wrapped in terrycloth before her morning cup of coffee; he goes jogging at 5 a.m. Her politics stink; he leaves the toilet seat up. Ever wish you could fire your spouse?

Well, you can, if you go into together. Of course, it's probably not a good to start a joint venture together if you can't even reconcile things like who takes the trash out on Wednesday mornings. But if you and your significant other have a strong relationship, you might be able to make it work at the office, too. "In our case, the relationship has benefited from the business," says Robert Cota, 43, co-founder of Inc., a -based developer of a peer-to-peer for the entertainment industry. "The relationship and the business have evolved in a parallel line. Both of us are creative, and we have the same goals. That's why we're together as a couple and why we went into business together."

According to Cota's partner, co-founder Kandice Cline, 29, the business also benefits from the relationship. "Being in the relationship first helps us keep perspective," she says. "We're working all the time, but because we enjoy being around each other, we can put more energy into the business without having it feel like work."

Cline and Cota are part of a growing number of young entrepreneurial couples sharing personal and professional lives. With more women in the and less time for both sexes to develop relationships outside of their jobs, men and women are spending more time together at the office.

The trend is partly a matter of numbers, but it's also generational. Gen X women expect to be , and Gen X men are less likely to think working with women is emasculating. Moreover, many young entrepreneurial couples aren't just interested in making a buck; they also want to make a difference. By turning shared ideals into successful businesses, these couples are erasing the taboo against workplace romance.

Working Girl . . . and Guy

So what's the secret to their success? Well, for one thing, young couples are anticipating potential problems before going into together. That distinguishes them from previous generations, according to psychotherapist and business consultant Kathy Marshack, Ph.D., author of Entrepreneurial Couples: Making It Work at Work and at Home. "The under-35 group is asking questions like, 'What's it going to be like working with my spouse?' before they start their businesses," says Marshack. "Baby boomers are coming in after they start their business because they didn't realize what a strain it is on their relationship. They thought that because they love each other and have a good marriage, they'd be able to run a business together."

Checking your ego at the door is the first step toward avoiding conflicts. "You have to be willing to swallow your pride," says Cline. "Sometimes [Cota's] way is better than mine, and sometimes the reverse [is true]. Coming to a happy medium isn't always the right answer because you don't want to settle for mediocrity."

Success depends in large part on the dynamics of the relationship. Marshack fits entrepreneurial couples into three groups: copreneurs, dual entrepreneurs and solo entrepreneurs. Copreneurs are couples working full-time together on a venture, dual entrepreneurs each have a separate business, and solo entrepreneurs have one partner who owns a business while the other plays a supportive role. Most entrepreneurial couples fall into the copreneur category. "Copreneurs tend to have a more traditional marriage," says Marshack. "Even if they share ownership and management responsibilities, the wife is also taking care of the home and the family."

But Gen X couples are challenging the traditional roles of copreneur relationships. "With more women starting their own businesses, styles are changing for entrepreneurial couples," says Marshack. "Gen X women are very comfortable being leaders in their field. They don't feel they have to defer to men, and the men think, 'I follow talent-it doesn't have to be a man.'"

According to Marshack, having professional mothers as role models helped Gen X women become more confident in starting their own businesses. "Gen X women weren't only told it's OK to start a business; they had models," says Marshack. "In previous generations, you may have been told it was OK, but when you looked around, you saw moms in shirtwaists making sticky buns."

Men have changed, too. Working closely with your wife or having her as your boss doesn't seem to bother Gen X men. "I never grew up thinking women had a particular role," says Guy Wolcott, 28, president and CEO of Rocketworks LLC, a Gaithersburg, Maryland, consulting and development company that Wolcott runs with his wife. "As an entrepreneur, I think it's great to successfully integrate the two most important things in your life."

According to Cline and Cota, successful entrepreneurial couples not only bring their personal and professional lives together, but they also share decision-making roles in both spheres. "I think we [offer] input pretty equally," says Cline. "[Robert] understands some of the negative experiences I've had as a woman in a high business position."

Come Together

Consider the long hours, short vacations and diminished social lives so prevalent in today's , and it's no wonder is bringing men and women together. "I think you're going to see more couples going into together," asserts Keylan Qazzaz, 33, Wolcott's wife and vice president of Rocketworks. "There are lots of couples who don't really know what their partner does on a day-to-day basis, but we get to see each other excel every day."

Putting the soul of your marriage into a business that could very well go belly-up in six months is risky, but it can also be rewarding. "Some people think it's wrong to make the business the center of your life," says Marshack. "I don't think that's true. If this is your passion-if you love it-and it's a reflection of you and your values, why not be rewarded for your cause by sharing it with the person you love and trust the most?"


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