In Love and In Business
Why starting a business as a couple could be a minefield or a gold mine.
Some couples would never in their wildest dreams want to own a business together. Others might think the idea is a dream come true.
At a time when the economy is shaky and you may not want to depend on someone else for your livelihood, starting a business together could be an attractive alternative. If you have even the slightest interest, I’m going to discuss the relationship side, not the business side, of owning a business as a couple. I’ll lay it all out for you: Why working together could be a minefield or a gold mine.
What makes me such an expert? My wife Sharon and I started and ran a service business together. We left our professional careers in our mid-fifties, relocated from the northeast to the southeast, and opened a mobile dog grooming business. Sharon was the groomer and I handled the marketing and financial details. Little did I know I would also have to service the grooming van!
We built the business from scratch and ran it for seven years. We made a profit from the business every year and then we sold it. We could have kept going — we even thought about franchising — but we wanted to slow down and transition to a less work/more play phase of our lives.
When it came to working together, we had something going for us. We had both been employed at a database marketing firm; in fact, that’s where we met. After that, we worked together in a direct marketing agency I had started. Still, this was different — we launched our own business as a couple.
Was it easy working together? Not always. Did it teach us more about our relationship? You bet. Are we happy we did it? Absolutely. Based on our experience, here are some of the things you should be prepared for.
Loving each other and living together are very different from working together.
You’ve developed a loving relationship and you’ve learned how to navigate life together. You’ve gone through challenges — even crises — and you’ve worked through them together and, hopefully, overcome them.
All the life decisions you’ve made collaboratively don’t always translate into co-owning and operating a business. There will be questions that have no easy answers, such as: Should you risk your own money to start your business? How will you feel about having both of your incomes depend on the same business? What skills do you have that will make you good business owners? Are you both ready and willing to do whatever it takes to make your business successful?
Minefield: The day-to-day stress and strain of running a business is undeniable. Working together in a high energy environment can take its toll on a personal relationship. Disagreements can occur, mistakes can be made. Sometimes couples carry issues from their home into the business without even realizing it.
Here’s an example: Suppose you are both in the midst of a fairly serious discussion about your personal finances. Let’s say you haven’t exactly been seeing eye-to-eye with your partner. Unconsciously, this discussion may rise to the surface during business hours and manifest itself in an unintentional way. Don’t be surprised, for example, if your partner suddenly reacts emotionally to a business decision. What probably happened is that the business decision itself wasn’t the real problem, it was the underlying discussion that reared its ugly head at the wrong time. This could lead to an even bigger business conflict if the personal disagreement isn’t resolved.
Gold mine: With mutual trust and respect as your foundation, the business you operate as a team will enhance rather than detract from your personal lives. Leave personal issues where they belong — at home. Don’t let personal disagreements flare up and turn into arguments, accusations or attacks when you are working together. Forgive and forget. Support one another, especially if things don’t go as you planned. Put your faith in your partner and trust that the decisions you make together will be stronger than the disagreements you may have.
Running a business together accentuates personality differences.
That wonderful truism, “opposites attract,” is the bedrock of many marriages. It also works in running a business together, but only up to a point. In our case, Sharon was cool, methodical and pragmatic while I could be hot, visionary and emotional. Still, as a couple, we complemented each other well. While we had completely different ways of working, our compatibility as a couple contributed to our compatibility as business partners.
Minefield: Things that bug you about your partner in your personal life could easily be magnified in a business setting. Maybe you are deadline-oriented and like to get to the finish line early while your partner is more lackadaisical and waits until the last moment. Such a difference can lead to irritation and on-the-job friction. A more serious conflict can arise if you have a divergent viewpoint when it comes to business dealings; for instance, you may be a full-disclosure person in negotiating a business deal while your partner plays his or her hand close to the vest.
Don’t make assumptions because you think you know your partner well. “I just assumed you…” is the start of a sentence that might have serious implications and lead both of you down a very rocky path. False assumptions in business have the real potential to spill over into nasty arguments that could get out of control, damage your personal relationship, upset employees and maybe even undermine your business.
Gold mine: Remember what endeared you to your partner in the first place and celebrate the differences between you. Learn to accept that your partner may approach things very differently — be okay with that as long as you both reach the same endpoint. Be completely transparent in the way you handle business details and decisions. Ask questions and really listen to what your partner has to say. Read and interpret verbal and non-verbal signals. Probe when necessary and make sure you both fully understand each other’s position before you walk away from a conversation.
It’s essential to work out who is responsible for what in the business. In our business, for example, I had to come to terms with the fact that the face of the business was Sharon; she was the person who was providing the service to our clients. Even though I ran my own agency in the past, my role in the business we owned together was secondary. If our little business was a larger organization, Sharon would be the head of the company (CEO) and I would be the operational lead (COO). The CEO and COO can’t function properly without collaboration, cooperation and camaraderie. You will be far more successful if you can delineate your business responsibilities when you work together.
Your past experience will really come in handy.
The many facets of your life, both business and personal, need to converge so you can put your life skills, business skills, talents and energy to work in your own business. Take everything you learned from your past work experience — both the failures and successes — and apply it. Put that intelligence to good use in your new business.
Minefield: While you may have had plenty of experience, don’t make the mistake of thinking you know how to run a business if you’ve never done it before. When you run a business together, you quickly learn there are things you know and things you don’t know. You also don’t know what you don’t know. Experience has a funny way of teaching you that the more you think you know, the more you still have to learn. Proficiency isn’t an innate talent. You and your partner need to be able to lean on outside experts who have expertise in areas you do not.
Gold mine: Learning what you don’t know and then figuring out how to make up for that lack of knowledge is actually part of the joy of running a business together. There is nothing wrong with having a deficiency if your partner compensates for it. In the best possible scenario, your experience and skills perfectly complement those of your partner.
Maintain a positive attitude toward learning something new, even if it can be frustrating to learn on the job. It means you will be that much better at servicing your clients and growing your business. Having a desire to gain knowledge, and being unafraid to ask questions when you don’t know something, is crucial to business success.
A shared passion is essential.
Whatever you decide to do together, it’s a lot more enjoyable if you share a passion. In our case, Sharon and I shared a passion for animals. Sharon’s love for dogs led to her changing her career and becoming a professional dog groomer. My love for dogs led to my starting a dog blog. Our shared passion was the basis for the business we started.
Minefield: You need to have a love for what you are doing, but there is a downside to shared passion: It has the potential to blind you to reality. A shared passion doesn’t necessarily mean you have a viable business idea. That passion must be applied to products or a service that people want. Identifying a suitable audience that desires what you have to sell is crucial.
If you don’t develop a business plan to work through the viability of your business, you could join the scrap heap of small business failures. Bear in mind the sobering statistics of starting a new business: About 20 percent of new businesses fail in the first two years, about 45 percent fail within the first five years, and 65 percent of new businesses fail during the first ten years.
Gold mine: In our case, we were very fortunate that we shared a passion that could be turned into a viable business. We carefully researched the market to determine if it could support a business like ours.
Our shared passion for marketing also helped. In our previous professional lives, we had been steeped in the principles of direct marketing, a discipline whose singular focus is the customer. We had first-hand knowledge of what it meant to provide superior client service through our experience in a direct marketing agency, which is a high touch business. Putting the customer first and offering outstanding client service became core principles of the business we operated.
We both got a kick out of making dogs feel and look good. We also decided to make giving back to our community part of our business goal. We both devoted some of our time to a local humane society, supporting the organization through donations and fostering animals. In addition, Sharon reserved one day a week to work as a volunteer groomer for the humane society. This combination of serving clients and serving the community made us feel as if the business we ran was really making a difference.
You can find lots of information about starting and running a business. You can also get plenty of help from state and federal governments and at local colleges that run small business programs and offer continuing education courses. That’s the easy part.
Starting a business can be tough — and harder still as a couple. If you and your partner decide to start and run a business together, I hope what I’ve covered here will help you be ready for the challenges you’ll face. Being in love and being in business can be a rewarding experience in many ways — if you avoid the minefield.