Are you thinking of asking your spouse to help you run your business? Wondering what you should know before you take the leap? Husband-and-wife team Miriam Hawley and Jeffrey McIntyre, co-authors of You and Your Partner, Inc., believe they’ve found several components to marital business bliss.
“The couples we interviewed loved being together, talked all the time, were able to give each other breaks so they could take care of their own personal self-interests, and the success of the businesses really hinged on each other’s strengths,” Hawley says.
Even if your marriage doesn’t perfectly match the list above, you and your spouse could still be quite compatible in the office. Here’s how you can find out.
Seek Outside Input
Tara Tiger Brown, co-founder of LA Makerspace and a Forbes magazine contributor, thinks getting advice from other married business partners can be hugely beneficial as a first step.
“When my husband and I were mentioning to some people that we were thinking about going into business together, we got lots of great insight from couples that were in business or people who work with couples,” she says. “I felt that was probably the most helpful information I was going to get because they brought up points I hadn’t thought of before. I would probably recommend anybody thinking about going into business with their spouse to get some sort of third-party opinion.”
Do a Trial Run
While you and your spouse may know each other better than anyone else does, Brown says a business relationship is always going to have a different dynamic from a personal one.
“I think it’s almost like you have to date your spouse over again to see if you want to go into business with them,” she says. “I think there are a lot of things you learn about your spouse when you’re actually working in a business together that you don’t know from just having a normal marriage partnership-type of relationship.”
For example, experts say, you might not fully understand your spouse’s work style or engagement level with others. It can be especially difficult to know just how well you and your spouse will communicate with each other at work.
“One of the strengths of a lot of the couples we interviewed is people cleared the decks with any kind of arguments, or potential arguments got taken care of much more quickly, because if your income is dependent on you working, you get off it quickly,” Hawley says. “A lot of people we interviewed were experienced in being really good listeners and listening to one another’s point of view.”
In order to determine whether you and your spouse will make for a good business team, Brown suggests trying a small joint venture. “It could even be something simple like putting on a garage sale together and seeing how you manage collecting things in the house and organizing them, deciding how to price things and engaging customers,” she says. “With something like that, you learn a lot about each other, how you manage stress and what your level of professionalism is.”
Collaborating on this kind of project will also allow you and your spouse to gauge just how well – or how poorly – you communicate. “If you’re already struggling at communicating with each other, that’s not necessarily going to be any different in a business setting,” Brown says. “If it’s more than just the two of you, then you’re dragging in your communication problems in your marriage. So you really need to be pretty clear on how to resolve issues.”
Separate Business from Pleasure
If and when you decide to start a company with your spouse, Hawley recommends coming up with clear-cut rules for when it’s OK and not OK to talk business. “We keep it out of the bedroom, and any important discussions end at 9 o’clock at night,” she says. “I think that was the case for a lot of couples we interviewed for the book. People had set some clear boundaries and rules and regulations for themselves.”
Of course, Hawley admits some couples thrive on being in business mode more often. “Other couples we interviewed talked about business all the time, and for some few couples, that works. For me, that doesn’t work, but the important thing is you agree on and know what works and what doesn’t.”
Brown says she and her husband always set aside personal time for each other and their child. “Over dinner, we try to just really focus on our son, what his day was like at school, and what we’re going to do for the rest of the evening. We just try to make that family time,” she says.
Outside of work, living in the moment helps Hawley and McIntyre, too. “When we go out for family activities – because we do have a lot of overlap in our work already and we tend to talk about work a lot – we just try to focus on what we’re doing. We go to Disneyland a lot, and since it’s all about going on the rides and having fun, it’s a stress release, and we love that and try not to use our phones or check e-mail – that sort of thing.”
Many people, though, use their phones for leisure as well as for work. Still, Brown and her husband try to hold each other accountable to ensure that, during leisure time, the phone isn’t used for business.
“Sometimes we’re using our phone to take pictures or to tweet something,” she says. “You really never know what the other person is doing, but I feel like we try to remind each other that while we’re having family time, we put the phone down. It’s something that’s helpful to remind each other about.”
Protect Personal Relationships
Along those lines, Hawley’s research has shown that most successful husband-and-wife business teams are those that place an equal emphasis on work and home life.
“One of the things all 50 couples we interviewed did is that, obviously the business had to be first and profitable, but they equally attended to their relationships – to take care of themselves, to their being engaged with children as the children were growing up. They didn’t want to wait until the children left home to have time to spend with them,” she says.
Whenever Hawley and her husband have a disagreement as to which direction to take their business, they have a simple way to break the deadlock. “Our approach is that my husband gets a vote, I get a vote, and the relationship gets a vote,” she says. “When I mean by that is, if one direction is going to serve the relationship better, then we go in that direction. The fact of the matter is that at the core of the business is the relationship, and it needs to be very well-cared for.”