Last Update: January 3, 2017
Starting a business is risky. Starting one with your spouse is outright nutty. You’re gambling your finances, your mental health, your retirement funds, your personal happiness — and the most important relationship of your adult life.
As the daughter of an entrepreneur, I’m aware of how easy it is to blur boundaries in the great work-life divide. But when I co-founded a business with my husband in late 2009, less than a year after tying the knot, I was sure I knew what I was getting into.
The reason my husband and I work together is the same reason we married: we’re different but complimentary partners, with a shared vision but opposite strengths. I’m a classic Type A with a yen for perfectly-balanced check registers; he’s a big picture thinker who takes stress in stride. Within weeks of dating, we were collaborating on art projects and talking about opening a gallery.
But the deepened loyalty and satisfaction we get from running a real business together — mostly from a home office, sitting within feet of each other — is tempered by the ever-present possibility of abject failure. Every part of our relationship is compounded by the fact that we live and work together: the pleasure and the pain.
So before you risk everything by combining two of life’s most unstable propositions — a happy marriage and a successful business — ask yourself these five questions. The answers may provide you with the insight you need to achieve both.
1. Who owns the business, who’s the boss, and who does what job?
From a technical standpoint, you may indeed be co-founders, co-owners and co-sharers of profit and loss responsibility. (Although data suggests husband-and-wife businesses are more successful when one spouse just “helps” and total equity is a moot point.)
But from an emotional standpoint, if you work together well, it’s probably because you have different strengths. Play them up, not down. I worked for a co-founder couple who would angrily contradict each others’ instructions when our team was on a deadline (I was a middle manager). This is business suicide. Make a plan — get your job descriptions down on paper.
2. Are you really prepared to work together?
Successful businesses, generally speaking, don’t start with good intentions — they start with a great idea and a smart business plan. If it turns out your spouse or life partner is perfect for a key executive role that needs to be filled in your company, great. But review how you both respond to personal crises.
If you have had major blowouts over important issues such as risk management and budgeting, it’s safe to assume these will become major issues in your business. And when they do, you won’t have a spouse to confide in privately about it.
3. Can you live, day-to-day, with a shared burden that never really goes away?
I mean never. You wake up, roll over, and there’s your partner. Intimacy spills over into work disputes. Boundaries need to be drawn. Tempers get stirred up. And at day’s end, you still go to bed together. Come again? Saying you’ll have date nights and “no business talk at dinner” is great. Following through is harder.
Half the couples I know today don’t even share bank accounts or contribute equally to household finances, let alone invest all of their assets in a single business venture. Entrepreneurship is isolating with or without the romantic element.
4. What financial risks are you willing to take?
If you go into business full-time together, you could also go broke together. What about your kids, or your future kids? What about your nest egg or aging parents? From special tax concerns to funding your Social Security to the possibility that your marriage, the business, or both will fail, your entire financial future is at stake.
Creating a plan can be uncomfortable, like talking about a prenup. Can you define each partner’s equity in terms of actual dollars? What will you do if one partner wants to quit? You’ll have to make these decisions in administrative ways (from payroll to stock certificates to insurance) anyway. While you’re at it, firm up an exit strategy.
5. Which really comes first: relationship or business?
Hint: the answer is not, “It would never come down to that.” It could, and it very well might. When the going gets tough — you’re facing a lawsuit, or considering bankruptcy — which relationship goes on the chopping block first? We decided recently that if we needed to shut our doors to regain our sanity and keep our relationship safe, we would.
Other couples, particularly those with very separate roles in growing businesses, may choose otherwise, or find out that a business can continue when a marriage ends. If that business is your only source of income, you might not have a choice. Can you handle that possibility?
As for us, even though we’ve decided our marriage comes first, what that really means is we’re willing to shut down one business if we have to… And then, of course, start all over again.
You know. Together.
Lindsey Donner is a copywriter, editor and the co-founder of Well Versed Creative, a consultancy that partners with bloggers, authors and small business owners to produce best-in-class copy, design and front-end WordPress web development–without agency overhead, attitude, or pablum.