For Better or Worse
Looking for the perfect business partner? Look no further. You may already have a perfect match -- your spouse.
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
Meeting someone special, falling in love, getting engaged, planning a wedding, living the everyday reality of a marriage. Millions of Americans have taken the plunge until death do us part. In fact, according to Census data, there were 57 million married couple households in 2003. These couples said vows promising to love, honor and cherish. But for some of these couples, there has been one additional wedding caveat: They've decided to start a business with their spouse.
And while it is often said that marriage is hard work, what happens when you decide to combine the work of your marriage with the work of starting a new business? First, "[Don't assume], 'Oh, we get along well in our family life, so we'll get along well in our business together,'" says Bob Murray, who, along with his wife, Alicia Fortinberry, runs Fortinberry-Murray Consulting, a coaching business that specializes in helping people build solid relationships within a business setting. "Running a business together and being a family are two different things," he says.
Adds Fortinberry, "You want to make sure that you're working together because you enjoy being together, the relationship is pleasurable for both of you, and it gives you so much that you want to extend your relationship from home to work." It can be a fun ride, if you're meant for it.
When you're starting your journey through entrepreneurship as a married couple, think of it in the same way you went from courtship to wedding to marriage in your personal life. Read on to meet three couples who have taken the path from altar to entrepreneurship.
Courtship and Engagement
Deciding if you're ready to start a business with your spouse mirrors the choices and self-examination you endure when you're first dating. Says Murray, "[Ask yourself], Do I want to be with this person 24/7?" Can you see yourself working side by side? Are your visions for the future the same?
Adds Fortinberry, "Do you share the same values and vision? That should be discussed, and if you can't come to a clear agreement, then that's a danger signal."
Entrepreneurs Todd and Jan Haedrich, founders of My Flat In London, a high-fashion design company and manufacturer of handbags, accessories, clothing, and body products like lotions and lip balm, could definitely see themselves working together all the time. Jan, 35, had a fashion-industry background and got the idea after creating a handbag for herself and getting stopped on the streets by people asking where she got it. Todd, 34, saw how hard she was working creating the bags at home, and the pair realized they had the makings of a much bigger business on their hands.
Officially founded in 2002 in Boston, the company has since moved to Frenchtown, New Jersey. Jan conceived the My Flat In London moniker after her time spent living abroad, and she still credits her design inspiration to her many travels--accompanied by her husband, Todd, of course.
Still, the key is that the Haedrichs have the same vision for My Flat In London: They see it as a luxury life-style brand. And they detailed that vision during the planning stage of the business when they consulted a third party for an objective outside opinion. "We had a number of conversations with Jan's brother [separately]," says Todd, who saw the value of feedback from an unbiased family member. "He was a person to bounce ideas off of without fighting with each other--and it helped us get started on the right foot." That good start has gotten the company's products into stores like Nordstrom, pushing yearly sales to $4 million.
If the Haedrichs' marriage and business is a good example of what other married entrepreneurs should aspire to, reverse those traits to learn what not to do, says psychologist Linda Miles, co-author with her husband, Robert Miles, of The New Marriage: Transcending the Happily Ever After Myth. Don't be critical of each other--and don't be dismissive or contemptuous of your partner. "Can you [both] attack problems and not the person so that the marriage doesn't suffer?" she asks. Miles also urges being very honest with yourself in the planning stage. Ask yourself if you'll be equal partners and if you're willing to share whatever glory and success your new entrepreneurial venture brings--you know, the "for better or worse" part of your vows.
Planning the Wedding
Once you determine that you can start a business with yourspouse, you have to go into planning mode. A business plan is vitalfor any business, and for married couples starting a businesstogether, determining what roles each of you will play in thebusiness is essential. Just like when you planned yourwedding--everything from a budget to a guest list--this is the timewhen you delineate everything from your respective roles in thebusiness to your financial plan. "Work out exactly what theroles are going to be within the business," says Murray."Most arguments are around roles and finances--you have tosort out the 'who does what' within yourbusiness."
Choosing business roles based on each partner's strengths isexactly what helped Stephanie and Mark Healy, both 36, becomesuccessful with Vente Inc., their database marketing company inOmaha, Nebraska. Started in 1999, Vente specializes in collectingopt-in market research and consumer information and selling it tomarketers. Stephanie covers the sales and marketing side, whileMark handles the technical compliance side. "We really havetwo different skill sets," says Stephanie, who recalls someadvice they received at a business event they attended: "Whencouples work together, one needs to say, 'I'm leading thisarea in the company,' or 'This is where I fall under.'So we had to make that distinction."
Communicating each person's needs and wants in the businessis another fundamental of couple entrepreneurship. "Thebackbone of any relationship is understanding what each of youneeds and being very clear on that," says Fortinberry."When [couples] are working closely together, you need toarticulate yourself to the other person." Be clear about whatyou need, and make sure it's an action your partner canactually complete. If your partner isn't wearing suitableclothes for a business meeting, for instance, communicate that yourneed for the business is to present a professional appearance, andthat your partner can do that by stepping up his or her attire.
The Healys have gotten the communication message."You'll have disagreements over what direction to take,but there's really no one other than your spouse who you canspeak to and let know exactly how you feel," says Mark."It is an advantage, being able to speak with your spouseopenly and honestly about 'This decision needs to be made'or 'We need to go in this direction.'"
Adding to the challenge, the Healys, like all of the othermarried couples interviewed, have children. Having delivered theirsecond baby almost immediately after closing their second round offunding, Stephanie and Mark know the difficulties of raising afamily and starting a business simultaneously. "It's hardto turn [the business] off when you have to take a child to thesitter," says Mark, but they continue to juggle it all.They're managing it well, if their yearly sales of about $10million to $20 million are any indication.
Everyday Married Life
Finally, once you're well into the business, you'll findyourself dealing with all the little issues that come up daily,much like you do in your regular married life. And much like youpromise to love, honor, cherish and forsake all others in yourmarriage, Miles suggests that married entrepreneurs do that intheir businesses as well. "Are you willing to watch the otherperson's back?" asks Miles. Being loyal to your partnermeans you don't let employees pit one of you against theother--you must form a united front, she says. And that applies tovendors and clients as well. As much as you may be tempted to,don't treat others better than you treat your partner. SaysMiles, "[Some entrepreneurs] honor their customers andclients... but they growl at their partner."
Working from home can add another layer of complications when itcomes to the everyday boundaries of business life and home life.Kim and Linda O'Neill, founders of both Lone Star PC Sound, anonline computer supply retailer, and The SuppliesRoom , an online office supply retailer, know those challengeswell.
The couple wanted to get in on the dotcom boom of the late'90s, so when Kim, 49, left his job as a cable TV salesman in1999, they started Lone Star PC Sound. They set up shop in thedining room of their two-bedroom condo in Dallas, drop-shippinginventory to customers from their suppliers. Linda, 41, also quither job within their business's first year.
The challenge, on top of being together all the time, isbalancing work and home life when it all takes place from home."We adhere to habits and routines," says Linda. "Wecould work 24 hours a day, and before we had kids, we'd be upall night [working]. That's one of the areas we struggle with,and [sometimes] you have to just leave it alone and turn off thecomputer."
Balancing work and family, though, can sometimes mean combiningwork and family. The O'Neills, for example, employ Kim's20-year-old daughter part time in the business, helping her pay herway through college. The pair also employs a nanny to help with thecare of their two youngest children, ages 2 and 6. Althoughmanaging a family while running a business is tough, the rewardsfar outweigh the challenges. Linda notes, "I feel blessed[that we're both able] to be here all the time."
Adds Kim, "There's a big sense of pride that we'vebuilt it from scratch and it's been supporting us since1999." The websites, which they run through Yahoo! Stores,bring in about $2.5 million in combined annual revenue.
From running a business to starting a family, each of theseentrepreneurs has successfully navigated the waters of marriedentrepreneurship. There are challenges, but they weather themtogether. While experts note entrepreneurship is not for allmarried couples, the ones who do make it work wouldn't have itany other way. Healy sums it up this way: "In some respects,[people] say, 'I could never work with my spouse.' But inother respects, who do you trust more?"
Start at the Very Beginning
Can you start a new romance and a business with someone at thesame time?
Perhaps you're not yet married and you're interested instarting a business with your new boyfriend or girlfriend. Whileexperts are a touch wary about this--you're still just gettingto know that person, after all--they do offer some tips. "Besure to create as structured and formal arrangements as you wouldwith any business partner," says Alicia Fortinberry ofFortinberry-Murray Consulting, a coaching business that specializesin helping people build solid relationships within a businesssetting. "This is especially important because you don'tknow each other that well, and your finances are probablyseparate." She and her husband and business partner, BobMurray, point to the importance of developing trust, a clearbusiness plan and specific job descriptions.
Proceed cautiously, says Linda Miles, co-author of The NewMarriage: Transcending the Happily Ever After Myth."Consider the infatuation factor," she says. "Set upyour partnership in stages, if possible, to evolve as yourrelationship and level of commitment change." She likensstarting a business with a new romantic partner to aconnect-the-dots picture: If there are 500 dots, you might beseeing only 15 when you start, so build in safeguards. And like anygood business plan, she says, "View your business and yourrelationship as growing machines that you learn to repairefficiently. And share a sense of humor."
Keep in mind, though, that the relationship might not lastforever. "Hope for the best and plan for the worst," saysMiles. "Clearly define role expectations, as well as how apartner can opt out." Set formal, legal agreements in writingdetailing how the business will be divided if you break up or wantto opt out of the business for any reason. Also, have a contingencyplan in place in the event your new romantic partner falls short ofhis or her business obligations.