In theory, the idea of owning and operating a small business with your spouse has a lot going for it. Many of the same qualities that make for a strong marriage translate well into running a business—good communication, mutual trust, the ability to compromise, a shared dedication to a common goal. And there are practical benefits as well. A married couple who own a business can save money in benefits, child care expenses and benefits.
But as many married business owners can tell you, there are plenty of risks as well. Most small business owners work around-the-clock and money is always tight. Without a clear-cut business plan and the willingness to share responsibilities, the enterprise can sink under the weight of two people who love each other but aren’t built for running a business together.
If you’re thinking about embarking on this path, be sure you’ve answered questions like these to your mutual satisfaction:
- Which business roles and responsibilities will each of us take on?
- Which one of us will be “in charge”?
- Are we up to working side-by-side every hour of the day?
- How will we handle conflicting opinions and ideas?
- Can we keep our business and our marriage separate (and healthy)?
It’s also important to acknowledge your individual strengths and weaknesses. One of you may be more of a “people person,” while the other spouse enjoys working behind the scenes. One person might be more inclined to see the big picture and let his or her spouse attend to the nuts-and-bolts stuff. As part of your due diligence, think about how you best complement one another and divide responsibilities based on this understanding.
Other key areas of agreement include:
A joint commitment. The only way running a business together will work is if both of you are equally dedicated to the enterprise. You’ll each be doing different things but there has to be a joint commitment to putting in all the time and effort needed to succeed.
A shared vision. If one spouse wants to operate a bricks-and-mortar business and the other sees the future only in terms of online sales, there’s going to be trouble. Your vision has to be in sync or it won’t work.
50/50 partnership. There are situations where one spouse works for the other one, but when a business is jointly owned and operated, there should a 50/50 partnership with each person having an equal say in decision-making. Put this in writing to avoid conflict down the road.
Agreed division of duties and resolution of conflict. The same principle applies to the division of labor. Based on your personality, skills and experience, determine who will take on the key responsibilities and get it down on paper. While you’re at it, work out a method for resolving disagreements and agree in writing to make use of that method when a dispute (inevitably) arises. Finally, establish a contingency plan in case one partner wants out of the business later on, or in the event of death or disability.
One valuable tip for handling decisions and disputes: Consider asking a trusted third-party to evaluate the situation and offer guidance. This individual can be a financial advisor, an attorney or accountant, even your smartest and most capable employee. A fresh perspective can keep things running smoothly.
Keep work and home life separate. This is most likely the biggest challenge you’ll face. Particularly in the early stages, you’ll be together a lot. It’s no fun toiling away at the business all day and then coming home and rehashing it all over again at night. Conversely, getting embroiled in personal or relationship issues in front of customers or employees is hugely counter-productive.
Make time to do non-work-related things together. Also schedule time apart to pursue other activities or hobbies. Without this kind of work/life balance, you can strain an otherwise healthy relationship to the breaking point.
Advance planning and a commitment to always respect each other will pave the way toward successfully running a business together. Look before you leap and then enjoy the next great adventure in your marriage!