Working with a Spouse: What Small Business Owners Need to Know

Photo: diego_cervo

It's easy to say that you'd like to work with your spouse — that you'd like to spend more time with someone who is such an important part of your life — but the reality of spending both your time working and your time away from your business with the same person may be very different. There is no consistent best way to build a business that both you and your spouse will enjoy working in, but there are some common threads you might notice when talking to couples who have successfully built businesses together.

Should You Separate the Personal and Professional?

When Jonathan Mead's coaching business, Illuminated Mind, grew to the point where the responsibilities became too stressful, his wife, Ev'Yan, got involved. "We really started working together because I was stressed out with the amount of responsibilities I was taking on and couldn't focus on the work that made a difference in our business. Ev'Yan had been working in the background on various things for a while, but it was at this crossroads that she took on an official role to relieve me of some of the operations of Illuminated Mind."

While some couples have found that they need to set up their work so that there's a separation between their working relationship and their personal relationship, the Meads have taken a different approach: "We deliberately choose to not separate the two relationships; we actually don't see them as separate at all. We talked about this a lot when we made the decision to join forces officially and found that it would get in the way if we tried to create specific roles and boundaries. The more we moved in that direction the more our lives felt compartmentalized and stifled. We'd rather not be able to tell the difference and leave praying to the gods of balance for others to worry about," says Jonathan. "It means that we get to spend a lot more time together! We both love that. More than anything we cherish the intimacy we experience from being deeply embedded in the dreams and creations we dedicate ourselves to. The intertwining of our lives in this way helps us stay close to each other."

How Should You Handle Potential Problems?

Managing dual personal and professional relationships is not always a perfect process. Jonathan points out, "Occasionally we have different visions for the way a project should be developed, and sometimes we have miscommunications about the way a certain situation should be handled. In those times it can be hard not to blame the other person or try to impose your view. So we take a step back and look at where the misunderstanding happened and how we can make things clearer. Sometimes it's just a matter of voicing our concerns; other times we find that the processes we outline need to be defined more clearly."

Communication is one of the keys to being able to work with your spouse or significant other. Starting a business is not a simple proposition, and adding the question of personal relationships to the matter can create complexities. Different couples handle the process differently — sometimes clearly outlining duties and responsibilities, sometimes taking a more holistic view. For some couples, one person has to be in charge in the office, but for others, each person has to have a fair say in each decision. To avoid problems, it's important to hash these matters out before an issue can rear its head. Don't be surprised if you have to keep revisiting your approach, either: Businesses and families both may grow, requiring shifts in how you handle things.

How Do You Balance Your Interests?

Just because one member of a couple has an interest in something is no guarantee that the other half will be quite so thrilled. With good working partnerships, there may or may not be overlap between your interests, and setting up businesses together may not be as simple as you'd hoped. But there are other options for launching a joint project. Hope Katz Gibbs runs a public relations company, Inkandescent PR, while Michael Gibbs, her husband, is an illustrator. The two businesses often work jointly, but they are clearly separate. "Over the years we've collaborated on dozens of projects, and it's always fun to explore the creative aspects of our personalities through our work. When I launched Inkandescent Public Relations in 2008, there was no one else I trusted more to create the logo and design for my website — and that of my clients," says Hope. "We have separate offices, separate phone lines, and separate checking accounts; and we pay each other for the work we do for the other's company. And while we discuss finances, budgets, and business issues together — we leave it to the other person to make all final decisions. These business boundaries are mission critical, for they show a mutual respect."

Just like any other arrangement there are potential issues, as Hope points out. "We struggle most when we've got competing deadlines. And being that we're both in deadline-driven businesses, it happens all the time. The good news is that having been married — and working together from home — for nearly 16 years, we now see it coming. Instead of it becoming a situation of 'my deadline is more important than yours, and if you love me you'll let me work,' he'll make me laugh when he announces that he has a deadline at five on the same day I have an important client meeting, and Dylan has an orchestra concert and needs to stay after school, and Anna forgot her homework that she needs delivered now and then needs a ride to yoga class at four, and oh, there's nothing left in the refrigerator for dinner."

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