The old Italian proverb, “He who has a partner has a master,“ seems doubly true for spouses who go into business together. The upside of such an intertwined focus can be substantial, but its downside can be shattering – to both a marriage and a business.
“The power of having someone I can trust and talk to openly about business decisions is the most valuable part of working with my husband,” said Susan Karakasevic, co-owner of the Charbay Winery & Distillery in Napa Valley.
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“After 40 years of marriage and 26 years of owning our business, we have learned when to talk business and when to turn it off,” Karakasevic said. “Since we bring such opposite vantage points – he is from Mars! – we propel the conversation forward with two minds having a go at it.”
When you do the math, you see that the Karakasevics already had been married 14 years before they went into business together, and, according to the experts, that’s a key component for success.
“I tell clients to look at the strength of their marriage,” said Dwight Bain, an Orlando-based corporate coach, small business consultant and – importantly -- certified family law mediator. “Whatever dysfunction exists in the marriage will come into the workplace. It will affect products, productivity and morale. With all the stresses of starting a small business, can the marriage survive? If as a married couple you only ‘sorta’ get along, you'd better have a marriage counselor and a business counselor on retainer.
“If your business fails and your marriage fails, the cost is too high,” he said.
Dorelly Arango Herford would agree. Five years ago, she got married and started a construction-management consulting business in Atlanta with her "soon-to-be ex-husband."
"We're in the middle of the divorce process now,” Arango Herford said. “Having a business together was not the straw that broke the "camel's" back, but it sure didn't help. “
Now their company, with $15 million in annual revenues and five other employees, is a major sticking point in the divorce settlement. She listed a host of issues that flared into toxic conflicts - office hours, responsibilities, communication, work styles, sharing an office.
“We never talked about those kinds of things. Eventually, I stopped sharing the office and started working from home. I wouldn’t ever do it again. You need to really talk about strengths, weaknesses and expectations. You need to come up with very clear, defined rules, because the lines get blurred,” she said.
A Florida real estate agent, who requested anonymity, described the outcome of helping her husband start a real-estate training company.
“We ran it for eight years and we are on the verge of divorce right now because of it, literally,” she said. “When business times are tough, often the spouse looks at the other and only sees their frustration and failures, so it alienates you from each other. You can’t have any personal or ‘down-time,’ because your business partner is your spouse, and he’s looking you in the face.”
Last year, workplace expert Eve Tahmincioglu appeared on a television show on the topic of whether a husband and wife should start a business together. Here are her five reasons she gave for why they should not:
No. 1: Marriage and business usually go belly up.
No. 2: You’ll have to kiss romance goodbye.
No. 3: The dining room eventually becomes the boardroom.
No. 4: Try telling your spouse they screwed up.
No. 5: Finally, it’s the battle of the sexes. If you've never resolved the issue of which one of you is the boss at work, get ready for all out war at home.
On the other hand, some couples in business together say they’ve been able to settle potentially divisive issues amicably. Take Dawn and Derrick Carpenter, who run a marketing company in North Bergen, N.J.
"Where we differ is in the disbursement of money,” Dawn said. “I say ‘pay the bills [first], pay yourself later.’ He's the reverse. I usually win. I wear him down and he lets me have my way to avoid controversy.”
“I come from a structured corporate background,” she added. “I came into a loosely structured business, and brought a lot of structure to it. He's more laid back. I told him, 'This can’t happen if we're going to run this effectively.’”
Derrick agrees. “My wife is ultra-organized,” he said. “I'm haphazard, but I know where everything is. To succeed you must know your strengths and weaknesses. If you compromise in your marriage, bring that spirit to work.”
“It's fun to create your own paycheck and not be beholden to anyone,” Derrick added. “Working with my wife is double fun. We have enough differences to keep things interesting, and enough similarities to make things fun. I enjoy my 30-second commute, and waking up when I’m finished sleeping. Sometimes that’s before Dawn – literally and figuratively – but most often it’s the crack of noon.”
Dawn put it this way: “We don’t need to be together, as a couple or as business partners. We choose to be.”
Frank and Amy Knight also stress the advantages of aligning marriage with business. The couple has owned a moving company in Tampa Bay, Fla., for the past five years.
“He started it, he was a mover,” Amy Knight recalled. "I was working as a teacher. Frank was getting swamped. He needed help, so I took over the marketing, accounting and sales aspects of the business. I was all for it. I was very excited and I still am.”
“I get to work with my husband every day,” Amy said. “We set our own schedules, work side by side, share in the fruits and profits of our labor and suffer the consequences together. There's nothing more fun.”
Frank said trust is their bottom line.
“One of us is always there, and we're not relying on outsiders. With us running it, we have no one else to blame and we like that," he said.
Some business owners struggle mightily with their spousal partners, fail at both marriage and business, learn from their mistakes and succeed at long last. That was the case with Barry Cohen, who now owns a media communications company in Clifton, N.J. He had started a previous business and invited his wife to quit her job and join him.
“It ended in disaster three years later, largely because I was a workaholic,” Cohen said. “I worked from home, so I never left the office. The 70-hour work weeks placed too many demands on her, and strained our marriage. We made the mistake of ending the marriage, instead of just ending the working relationship.”
Cohen’s story, however, has a happy ending.
“Seven years later, we remarried,” he said. “When I started my present business, I made a concerted effort to avoid the mistakes of the past. I located the business miles from home, forcing me to leave the office at a reasonable hour each day, and not to be in the office on weekends.”
It’s one thing for husband and wife to coexist peacefully in business, but there’s another important consideration – employees. Laney Lyons-Chavis runs a company in Tampa that offers specialized training to employees in entrepreneurial companies.
“A spouse who works in a business is a common problem,” said Lyons-Chavis. “In fact, a team of employees I am working with right now is furious.
“When a spouse works in a business, I’ve found it very common for it to cause a lot of tension with the rest of the team,” Lyons-Chavis said. “It’s hard to draw boundaries, and the rules often don’t apply to the spouse.”
Career coach and consultant Dwight Bain also shared horror stories of domestic squabbling in the workplace.
“A family I worked with recently lost everything,” he said. “Each partner was gifted in their own way, but together they exploded,” nosediving into bankruptcy, divorce and the loss of a $4 million home.
“Their 15 employees loved it when the couple fought,” Bain said. “They'd stop work, sit around, listen, drink coffee and take sides.”
The special challenges of going into business with a spouse can be daunting, even catastrophic. But its rewards can be special, enriching a personal relationship even as it eases the tribulations of the marketplace.
“It sounds wonderful, but it's really hard to do without a lot of structure, a lot of boundaries in place,” Bain said. “It's not a bad idea but it's not necessarily the best idea.”
“People need to think about how terrible it would be if both the business and the marriage tank,” he said. “Wouldn't they be better off saying, 'Hey, I’ll work at a job I enjoy. You work at a job you enjoy, and we'll meet for dinner every night.’”