Here's everything you need to know before you jump out of bed and into business with your spouse.
When business partners Rachel Segal and Scott Harmer needed to hash out a plan for scheduling important project work, it wasn’t in their company’s boardroom.
“It was usually in the middle of the night, whispering over sleeping babies when we sorted out our schedule,” Segal confessed.
The married couple and former owners of a web design and development small business would typically discuss work between chores on the small farm they own off the coast of Vancouver Island, B.C. Occasionally, they got together in the office space they rented in a nearby town. But mostly they took advantage of any quiet moment they could.
Juggling marriage, family, and business was tough, but altogether worth it for Segal and Harmer. Even though they decided to shut down their successful business to pursue new opportunities, the couple looks back happily on the period when they were working together.
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Starting a Business With Your Spouse: Is It a Good Idea?
It’s definitely not for everyone. The main pitfall to working together is the extremely blurred line between work and home life. If something goes wrong in either category, it could have a huge effect on the other. One minute you’re discussing the marketing budget and the next you’re arguing about who picks up around the house more.
But if you can manage to capture the alchemy that makes your personal relationship work and transfer it to a business, the results could be magical. Think of Bill and Melinda Gates, who run the largest private foundation in the world together; Beyoncé and Jay-Z, who own music streaming service Tidal; and Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, who jointly run a successful film production company. When couples that work together figure out a formula that works, it really works.
For the right kind of couple, running a business with your spouse can be a fulfilling way to build a career.
Running a Business With Your Spouse: How to Make It Work
With non-stop work and life happening in all directions at all times, how do marriages and businesses stay intact? Here are nine strategies that can help you thrive as a business owner and a spouse.
1. Assess Your Compatibility
Your first step is to determine how compatible you are working together as a couple. How do you and your spouse handle working together on everyday projects like cooking a meal, cleaning the house, planning a trip or organizing the basement? How’s the vibe when you spend 24-7 together during vacations? Are you more in love than ever or are you desperate for a break?
If you don’t have a great track record with collaboration, it’s important to understand the triggers that lead to problems and think about how you would overcome them if you were running a business together.
2. Make Sure You Have the Same Goals
The possible outcomes of entrepreneurship are endless. Do you want to build an empire with an office in every major city? Would you be content running a modest-sized business with a handful of employees in an office close to home? Or are you looking at more of a home-based business that allows you to make a living while enjoying a more low-key life?
Whether you’re doing it with your spouse or not, it’s helpful to create a business plan that forecasts the future and outlines the company’s vision. It’s critical to have the same goals and a clear pathway to reach them together.
3. Define Your Roles
When it comes to accomplishing goals, David and Carrie McKeegan, co-founders of Greenback Expat Tax Services, are very clear on who does what in their business so there’s no confusion, inefficiency or hard feelings.
“As owners and spouses, you must be steadfast when you divide the duties and then hold each other accountable. In our particular case, we each own a specific KPI (key performance indicator) for the business. David staffs our accountant team and ensures each one is performing at the highest level while Carrie focuses on new customer acquisition numbers. While either person can and should input on approach and strategy, there is no question on who makes the final call,” they wrote in Entrepreneur.
4. Set Regular Work Hours
When you’re passionate about your business it’s easy to let it take over your lives. That late-night murmuring in bed can be exciting at first but draining in the long run. Successful couples who work together set strict limits on working hours, especially if they have children. That means no hijacking family dinners and vacations with shop talk.
You can avoid burnout by being clear about when it’s time to talk about the business and when you want to spend quality time with your spouse.
5. Create Your Own Space
For many couples, starting a small business together feels exciting, ambitious, and even romantic—until the day-to-day reality of being around your beloved for up to 18 hours a day sets in. The best antidote to all aspects of your life blending together is to find ways to pull them apart where you can:
- Even if you’re working at home, find different parts of the house to work in
- If one of you is a morning person and the other a night owl, stagger your working hours to accommodate your differing styles
- Maintain relationships and hobbies—together and apart—spend time with family and friends (and alone) so that you’re not everything to one another
- Consider your individual strengths when defining your roles so you each have a niche part of the business that’s “yours”
6. Assess Your Commitment to the Business Regularly
Just like any career, running a business can start to feel stale or unappealing after a while. Many entrepreneurial couples may choose to ignore signs that they’re disengaging because they feel a commitment to each other. What a spouse wants may not be obvious if you’re their business partner.
To avoid the feeling of being trapped, set aside time annually or bi-annually to discuss how committed you are to the business. If one partner is dissatisfied, give them the opportunity to discuss what’s unfulfilling and whether there are changes that can be made to improve it—or if it’s best they move on. Couples working together on a business can’t be afraid of difficult conversations.
7. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Communication is critical and arguably the number one strategy for any relationship—business or personal. When you’re a couple it can be easy to assume that you know how your spouse feels about most things, especially since you’re around them every day. That’s a fallacy. Good communication requires you to constantly, well, communicate. About everything.
Just like you would with employees, hold regular meetings with agendas to discuss various facets of the business, like prospecting, finances, human resources, etc. This ensures that you’re keeping business topics to business hours and it creates the structure you need to cover everything regularly.
8. Express Appreciation
Segal stresses that regularly acknowledging what your spouse brings to the business is key to maintaining positive feelings all around. “Both of us were really good about making sure that we took the time to say thank you and express appreciation for each other’s strengths. We can read each other well and know what the other needs.”
Even though she and Harmer have a different outlook on projects, their knowledge of one another meant that it was easier and more intuitive to make decisions than with business associates.
9. Take Time Out for the Relationship
Perhaps the most important tip Segal offers is to take time away from the business as a couple. Transport yourself away from your home and office for getaways and take time for work-free dates, walks, or dinners out to tend to your relationship and strengthen your connection.
“Sometimes instead of running to the office right away we would make space to spend a bit of time together, just us. We both knew it was important for our sanity to connect outside of work as much as possible,” said Segal.
Your Partnership Can Succeed—at Home and in Business
If you’re considering jumping out of bed and into business with your spouse, it’s important to talk through absolutely every aspect, from the excruciatingly small details to the grand vision you have for your company. Like anything else, the more prepared you are, the more likely you’ll succeed—at home and in business.
This post was updated in August, 2020.