- By Jeff Wuorio
Marriage can be a pressure cooker of challenges. Toss in the added strain of running a business together, and the emotional boil can prove overwhelming.
But many couples in their 50s and 60s manage to combine marriage and entrepreneurship, albeit with occasional ups and downs. There are currently more than one million husbands and wives, known as “co-preneurs,” who co-own businesses, according to the National Federation of Independent Business.
“Sometimes we’re really stressed, sometimes it’s a lot of fun, sometimes we’re beyond exhausted,” says Susan Devitt, 56. She and her husband, Tom Gallo, 52, are the co-owners of GalloLea Pizza Kits, an organic food company in Asheville, N.C.
“If Tom was working on another business 80 hours a week and I never saw him, I wouldn’t accept that as OK for our relationship,” Devitt says. “But because we’re in this together, we’re sharing the fun and the pain of building a business.”
The Appeal of Working Together
The idea of working with a spouse — perhaps someone you’ve been married to for decades — can be intriguing. You know each other’s strengths and foibles, for instance, and can probably finish each other’s sentences.
But entrepreneurship experts say that you two should think and plan carefully before hanging out a co-shingle — it’s essential if both your business and marriage are to prosper.
As Bonnie Goldstein wrote in the Next Avenue article “Survival Guide for Couples Who Are Always Together,” when couples go from spending just a few hours with each other to working side-by-side nearly the entire day, “they must improvise a fresh script.”
Advantages of Co-Preneurship
Before launching a business with your spouse, examine the pros and cons. On the plus side:
Trust Right from the start, you’ll have complete faith in your new business partner. “Hopefully, there is nobody you trust more,” says Carol Roth, author of The Entrepreneur Equation.
Compassion Since you know your partner well, you’ll be able to offer necessary support when business challenges and pitfalls arise.
Capability It’s much easier to delegate responsibilities when you’re intimately familiar with each other’s skillsets, as Devitt and Gallo are. “I’m a graphic designer,” Devitt says, “so I brought my marketing experience to the table. Tom is a materials science engineer, so he’s good with the chemistry of the kitchen and the operations of our machinery. I don’t question his role, I just follow. And when it comes to design and marketing, he has complete faith in me.”
Consider the Downside
But there are also three enormous potential drawbacks:
Personal finances Unless you have other sources of income or substantial savings, starting a business together can be financially perilous. If the business tanks, you might jeopardize your net worth and retirement plans.
“Consider your financial-risk threshold,” says Dr. Patty Ann Tublin, author of Not Tonight Dear, I’ve Got a Business to Run! If either of you won’t be comfortable with the company playing a dominant role in your financial life, don’t become co-preneurs.
Lack of parity Couples may assume there’ll be a 50-50 split of authority and decision-making, but things rarely work out that way.
“Ultimately, a hierarchy is going to rear its head,” says Meg Cadoux Hirshberg, author of For Better or For Work: A Survival Guide for Entrepreneurs and their Families, whose husband, Gary, founded Stonyfield Farm. “Sooner or later, someone will wind up being the boss. That can make things difficult for the marriage.”
Try to launch your business with clear divisions of labor, or at least a hierarchy, to avoid arguments in the future.
Painful proximity A day spent running the business together followed by an evening dissecting the workday can make your professional and personal lives feel uncomfortably intertwined. It’s a challenge many co-preneur couples admit they have a hard time overcoming.
“You should try to keep a balance between your business life and your personal and family life,” says David Shank, 62, who owns Shank Public Relations Counselors in Indianapolis with his wife, Marilyn, 62. “We’re really lousy at this. We can’t avoid dinnertime conversations about business or client issues. We haven’t found the magic bullet to know when to pull the plug.”
Try to put a moratorium on work matters during dinner, agreeing that when the workday is over, it’s really over.
If the prospect of too much contact with your husband or wife has you both yanking out your hair in clumps, consider clearly separated workspaces or distinct schedules.
More Advice For Prospective Co-Preneurs
David Shank says it’s also important for couples to go into a partnership only after they’ve agreed on a definition of success. “You should have a shared short- and long-term vision for the company,” he says. “Where do you both want the business to be in two years and in five years?”
Hirshberg cautions against overlooking the strong possibility that the business may thrive, but your professional partnership will not.
One of you may even decide to quit. If that happens, don’t let it impact your marriage. “The relationship should never be sacrificed at the altar of the business,” Hirshberg says.