When I first approached my wife, Laura, with a business idea, she said, “there’s no way in hell I’ll work with you.” But after a little persuasion, she agreed to help me get the company up off the ground. We launched our startup from our guest bedroom in Chicago, and things went smoothly for the first few years.
Then in 2003, we decided to move our headquarters to Ketchum, Idaho, because we wanted to retire here. The move, combined with years of constantly working together, started to put a strain on our business, which inevitably put pressure on our marriage, too.
Getting everything back on track was hard work. It meant setting new ground rules and expectations—not just between the two of us but in terms of how our team and business partners understood our relationship. These are five of the toughest things we’ve had to learn how to manage.
It’s pretty easy to pinpoint prospective hires’ strengths and weaknesses, then funnel them into a role that suits them well. With your spouse it can be a bit harder. One surefire way to end up on the couch is to say, “honey, you suck at [insert business role here], let’s have you do something else.”
Laura and I found that taking personality tests like the DiSC helped us understand each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and gaps in between—something marriage alone may not have exposed. The process of determining roles and focusing on what you and your spouse excel at can be difficult, but it’s crucial. We’d assumed this would come naturally since we already knew each other so well, but were surprised to find it was harder than we’d expected.
Once you and your partner divide the main responsibilities according to your strengths, you’ll still have gaps to fill in. Laura and I quickly learned that neither of us is particularly good at managing people. As our team grew, finding someone to fill a managerial role became priority #1.
We lucked out and trained a COO internally, but not every business will get that break. Trying to handle all business functions between you and your spouse is a recipe for disaster. In our experience, the talk about needing to shift responsibilities can get emotional. But it’s ultimately a practical consideration, not a personal one. A family business doesn’t necessarily mean that business operations need to stay between you and your partner alone.
It goes without saying that separating work life from home life is the most important—and difficult—factor when running a business with your partner. But knowing just where to draw a line in the sand is really tough. It’s absolutely necessary, though.
We agreed long ago that once we’re at home, we can no longer talk about any work whatsoever. Seeing as we live in an apartment above our headquarters, this isn’t always easy to do. By working with a marriage counselor to help us learn how to keep things separated, we found that we spent way too much time together. Respecting each other’s alone time is important so we can maintain our own sense of self, allowing us to keep a clear head and value the time spent together even more.
This is my favorite part of running a business with my wife. Knowing your business partner is as invested as you are (and not going anywhere) brings incredible stability, which can be enormously powerful for employees, vendors, and the business itself. But it means treating one another as a high-level confidant—someone who can be a reliable sounding board for hard decisions and left-field ideas.
There can be pitfalls here, too, though. Sharing too many inside jokes within earshot of employees can be awkward, and a temper-fueled spat can be much worse. It’s important to keep interactions in front of others as professional as possible and instead think of your strong relationship as an asset strictly for business-related purposes.
In relationships, many onlookers will always try to determine “who wears the pants.” And in our experience, people will judge your business relationship by thinking that one of you is more important than the other. Unfortunately, sexism tends to play a role here. Many people seemed to think Laura’s title of “president” was just for show, but that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Our business would’ve failed without her guidance and leadership.
It’s important to anticipate these biased assumptions ahead of time—and to remember that in business, there are no “pants.” Not only will that let you brush off people who don’t understand how your co-leadership works, it can also help you split responsibilities effectively. With your egos out of the equation, you’re better equipped to simply do your job and let your spouse do theirs—everyone else’s opinion doesn’t matter.
Balancing marriage and business is a constant struggle, but when it works, it’s magical. Our business has succeeded thanks to the mixture of creativity (me) and practicality (Laura). Too much of either and our company probably would’ve failed. Doing something you both love and having a trusted business partner is priceless.