Starting A Business With Your Significant Other: Yes, It Can Work

Living and working together presents an array of challenges for couples that choose to do it, but it does not mean they can’t be successful. People in this …

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Living and working together presents an array of challenges for couples that choose to do it, but it does not mean they can’t be successful. People in this work and living arrangement say that honesty is a critical factor in their success, as is respecting boundaries and personal areas of expertise. The Street takes a look at an office cleaning company, a management consulting firm and four other businesses that are operated successfully by couples around the U.S. to find out their secrets and how they manage to leave work at work when it’s time to head home at the end of the day. For more on this continue reading the following article from TheStreet.

 

How do couples manage to work side by side and shift into family mode at the end of the workday? We talked to six couples who admit its difficult but find a way to do it anyway.

They say it’s important is to make sure each partner is upfront about their strengths — and weaknesses — ambition levels and comfort with money before going into business together. And, as one business owner put it, there is little place for giant egos when working with your spouse.

Not every couple is able to work together, but here are the couples we found who are doing it right: 

1. Misti and Rob Reed
PuroClean
Van Alstyne, Texas
Misti and Rob Reed started a PuroClean franchise in September 2009 after Misti had been laid off for the third time in a year while working in marketing and sales.

The Reeds wanted to open a franchise together that could be Misti’s full-time position but flexible enough to work with Rob’s firefighter hours. PuroClean fit the bill. Its technicians provide emergency services to restore properties damaged by water, fire, smoke, mold and biohazard events. The company says it has 300 units.

Misti says when they started she and Rob were doing all the cleaning and administrative work themselves — on top of Rob’s firefighting schedule. They quickly learned they needed to hire help and have added five staff employees.

These days Misti typically deals with the marketing, administrative and office management, while Rob manages operations and goes on calls when his schedule allows. "They only overlap if he needs my assistance," she says of the partners’ roles.

The Reeds appreciate the flexibility of owning their own business and the fact they get to spend more time together. Misti attributes their strengthening marriage to the fact that they spend more time together at work, as well as the accomplishment of starting up and running a successful business.

Still, the couple makes it a priority to have a "date night" once a week when they do their best not to talk about business, she says. It is challenging at times to turn off business mode at the end of the day, but "we really understand that our marriage comes first, before the business."

On the other hand, "you are married to your boss," she says. There are conversations she doesn’t like having with Rob, especially when disagreements pop up.

"It causes frustration like you would have with a co-worker or boss … but it carries over into your personal life," Misti says. She’s learned to voice her opinion and respect the decision Rob makes. "We’re always able to work through things."

Soon they’ll have another priority — the couple is expecting their first child in May.

Their lesson for other couples: Evaluate each other’s strengths and weaknesses before going into business, and be completely honest about where those lie to establish work roles based on those strengths. 

2. Doug and Polly White
Whitestone Partners
Richmond, Va.
Doug and Polly White own management consulting firm Whitestone Partners. The couple has also been getting a bit of attention lately because of their book about how to grow a business: Let Go to Grow: Why Some Businesses Thrive and Others Fail to Reach Their Potential (Palari Publishing, 2011). The two are partners in every sense of the word — they even built a custom desk in which the two can sit together but still have their own space.

"It’s been so nice to be able to work together," Polly says, which denotes how difficult it was when they weren’t working together.

During the first few years of their marriage, while Polly was already running a human resources consulting business out of their home, Doug was traveling far too much during the week, she says. Given their complementary skill sets and familiarity in dealing with small and midsize firms, they decided to expand Polly’s business in 2009 to include Doug’s strengths in strategy, operations and finance. They now offer small- and midsize business clients consulting in a variety of areas.

The business has "really has taken off from there," especially as their book has received national and industry attention, Polly says.

The downside: there have been times Polly has woken Doug up at 3 a.m. to discuss something work related, he says.

"We blend our business life and our personal life," Doug says. "It’s almost a seamless transition. We may talk about business at any hour, but we may also be talking about personal things [such as] what’s going on at church, the kids. We don’t have hard rules that say at 7 p.m. business is off and now it’s personal."

Still the couple makes sure to find time individually. "As wonderful as it is to be together all the time, occasionally you need to be able to get away and when you are running especially a small business, you hardly ever get away. It’s not like we have a storefront. We are basically one all the time. Sometimes, I need to just go in the other room and watch a movie," Polly says.

Making their business set-up function made it important to set rules with each other at the beginning, Polly adds. For instance, if Polly needs an opinion on something, she has learned to make sure she doesn’t interrupt Doug when he is in the "work zone."

"It really is just about being considerate of the other," Doug says.

Their lesson for other couples: Make sure both people have the same level of ambition to make the business successful.

"It’s not important that both people be hugely ambitious," Polly says. "What’s important is that their levels are the same."

If one partner is not working as hard, "the other partner who is working hard starts to lose respect and become frustrated," Doug adds. 

3. Nigel and Ayo Hart
Dolphin Organics
Pound Ridge, N.Y.
Dolphin Organics, a creator and seller of organic baby products such as soaps, lotions and shampoos, was started only seven months ago by Nigel Hart, with his wife Ayo getting involved sort of on the fly. But they soon realized they had a very complementary partnership.

"It’s a culmination of our passion to develop better natural, more organic products specifically for children and babies. It stems from us being parents of young children — we couldn’t find the products which we wanted in the marketplace," Nigel says.

The Harts admit they’re still finding the right balance for running a business and working together.

Nigel, since the business was his brainchild, crafts the company’s overall vision and strategy. Ayo has found that she is very good at staying behind the scenes and "doing the grunt work," she says.

Balancing work and home life is a challenge, since the business is run out of the Harts’ home. It gives them flexibility to shut off work for a few hours when their twin daughters come home from kindergarten, but it also means there is a part of them that’s always working.

"Working out of the home is what is makes it most difficult, [especially] now with laptops and Apple(AAPL) iPads and smartphones. We are an e-commerce small family business. Customers expect round-the-clock attention," Ayo says.

They already employ five people, but Ayo says they will have to bring on more people eventually for customer service so she’s not doing it all.

Still, the Harts wouldn’t trade in their business.

"I get to spend time at home and be with my family as well as run a business," Nigel says.

Ayo likes that her business partner is someone she can trust and be completely honest with about decisions that need to be made. It’s also refreshing to know her business partner cares about the company as much as she does.

"At the end of the day we know that really no one cares about the company as much as we do," she says. "We’re going to take that extra step. We want to deliver to the consumer a high-quality, as-perfect-as-possible product. We’re in this together. It’s our passion; it’s not just a job."

Their lesson for other couples: The kind of relationship a couple has in life will extend to their business relationship. The Harts agree it takes respect, trust and patience to run a business together and the ability to support each other through its highs and lows. 

4. Kevin and Laurel Wilkerson
Marco’s Pizza
Edmond, Okla.
Kevin and Laurel Wilkerson are doing pretty well for themselves by owning a franchise territory in Oklahoma for Marco’s Pizza. The couple, originally from Georgia, bought the territory looking for a fresh start: Kevin spent 24 years as an Army infantry officer and retired in 2005 as a full colonel; Laurel served on active duty with the Army as an attorney for more than 20 years, retiring in 2008.

Before buying the franchise in 2009, the Wilkersons actually had a business in Georgia: Kevin owned a mergers and acquisition firm helping small-business owners buy and sell businesses — Laurel’s idea, actually, and she eventually joined the firm, then found she didn’t like what she was doing. They decided to buy the Marco’s Pizza territory and relocate after eating the product and liking it.

Although they did not set out to own a franchise, particularly one in the restaurant business, Kevin liked the similarities between running a franchise and the military.

"It’s a very scalable business. We own three stores and we have managers helping us, so I don’t have to be in any one store" all the time, Kevin says. "We like the fact that it has recurring revenue and the scalability to it. You’re building a system, and that is a company you can grow with."

The Wilkersons own three of the seven franchises — their most recent store opening was last month — in a territory that can hold up to 40.

They enjoy being able to spend time together, they say.

"In the military, we spent a great deal of time apart. It’s great to work in a business that we enjoy and product we’re proud of and [still] get to see each other at the end of the day," Laurel says.

The bad times come when there is a breakdown in communication, they say.

"The business relationship is much like the marriage. You have to communicate," Kevin says.

Their lesson for other couples: Make sure financial goals are discussed well ahead of time.

"I have a tendency to want to expand and own more stores. That means more risk and more debt, and if you’re partner is uncomfortable with that, it becomes a large stress in business" and in the relationship, Kevin says. 

5. Brant and Amy McMullan
Ocean Isle Fishing Center
Ocean Isle Beach, N.C.
Brant and Amy McMullan have taken their passion for fishing and made it a career. The couple owns the Ocean Isle Fishing Center at Ocean Isle Beach, N.C., just north of the coastal South Carolina border. But the entrepreneurialism doesn’t stop there. Brant also owns Capt. Brant’s Fishing Adventures, a charter fishing boat that was the predecessor to the fishing center. Ocean Isle also offers water sport rentals and a retail store and has an attached restaurant.

"We have a very large tourist business at Ocean Isle and we’re servicing the fisherman as well as the general folks that come down that like to see the fishing boats and be around them," Brant says.

In November, the McMullans, along with another couple, Ashley and Steele Park, opened a BrightStar Care franchise in Leland, N.C. But in that business the McMullans serve more as investors and have less to do with daily, hands-on operations.

Brant and Amy have their respective duties at Ocean Isle, but there is always overlap when extra hands are needed. Brant says it’s not uncommon for him to ring up purchases in the store, while Amy helps on the fishing charters when needed.

Most importantly, "we’re the firefighters of the business — that is, if there are any problems, we are the end answer if they can’t get resolved before they reach us," he says.

Needless to say, the McMullans are busy people. With so many business ventures, the two admit it’s difficult to carve out time away. But they are avid sport fishers (Amy has set world records), and this interview took place while the couple and their two young children were on vacation in the Florida Keys; the respect the McMullans have in the fishing world has helped the credibility of their business.

"It’s not like we separate out our personal life from the work," Brant says. "The work almost is the life."

Especially if it’s just an extension of what you love to do, Amy says. "If you make a living at what you love doing, how can you be unhappy with that life?"

Their lesson for other couples: "Keep things in perspective. [The business] it is not the most important thing. There will be small battles. As long as you don’t turn them into wars, you can get through it," Brant say. 

6. Kelly and Kit Conklin
Foley-Waite Associates
Bloomfield, N.J.
Kelly Conklin and his wife, Kit, have been running Foley-Waite Associates, a custom woodworking shop, since 1978. The business, named after their maternal grandparents, caters primarily to the New York City business community, providing everything from molding and trim to custom cabinetry and bookcases.

The Conklins have been working together for a long time, growing the business to include another nine employees. Kelly tends to handle more administrative duties, while his wife handles project management.

Working together is the best and worst thing about being in business together.

"There is not another human being on the planet that knows me better than Kit," Kelly says, and in business that comes in handy when there is a disagreement — they are able to reason with each other during arguments and "have enough belief in each other to recognize when we should work to each other’s strengths."

It’s also important to "put aside your ego and own personal issues and recognize [the business] is a cooperative effort," Kelly says.

"There have been disagreements where we’ve both thrown up our hands in exasperation and say ‘OK, we’ll see how this works.’ It has to do with how much confidence you have in your partner. If your ego is so wrapped up in what you’re doing that you can’t afford on a personal level to compromise and occasionally even give up a big one, then it’s not going to work," he says.

But it was having their daughter that made the Conklins realize it was important to leave the business at the business. "We both consciously put it aside at the end of the day. When we first started out, we lived over our shop. It was very hard to separate it," Kelly says.

Their lesson for other couples: "Whatever your wedding vows and relationship is, it has to be reinforced by a factor of 10 [in business]. We’ve been at the brink of insolvency a few times, and when you have a kid and house and dog and cat and you’re not sure whether you’re going to have a place to stay, that will create some stress and a real test of loyalty. And if you’re not prepared for that, that can be your undoing," Kelly says.

This article was republished with permission from TheStreet.

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