Working day after day with a business partner can be stressful, but it’s all the more so when the partner is someone you spend your nights with, as well as days.
Yet some couples seem to thrive in a 24/7 environment as life and business partners. We interviewed five couples to learn their secrets. Here’s what they say:
It Starts with Defining the Relationship
Everyone we spoke to said the golden rule to success as a working couple lies in defining the ways you’ll interact on the job.
“Not only does it make the business run better, it makes the relationship work better,” says Rudy Castano, who runs A Personal Elf, a cleaning and concierge service, with his wife, Erica, the owner.
While defining can take place at many stages, ideally, it should be when you are trying to decide whether or not to go into business with each other. Mike Roth and Cindy Noel, who run D’Lites Emporium frozen desserts together, figured out their roles before they started their business by noting how well they did projects together—with Cindy starting the project and Mike there to follow through and clean up.
“There was a chemistry,” Cindy says.
On the other hand, the Castanos took about a year and a half to figure out what their individual roles should be.
“It was ugly,” Rudy admits. “We just weren’t getting along because we were stepping on each other’s toes.”
Things finally came together, Erica says, when “we clearly defined outside the business and inside the business what our strengths were,” Erica says. “Our paths still cross, but now I recognize that I’m helping him with something or he’s helping me with something, but that’s really his area.”
Now Erica focuses on business and marketing ideas behind the scenes and Rudy concentrates on day-to-day operations. And because they both have strong networking skills, they split up events they attend.
To make the separation of responsibilities even clearer, each of them has their own office so they don’t inadvertently eavesdrop and micromanage each other. If they need to speak, they call each other on the phone.
“It’s actually very simple, but people have to be very honest,” Erica says. “If we would have figured that out from the beginning, that would have made a huge difference.” Often, though, the work relationship just evolves.
“You learn as you go,” says John Farrell, president of Dacasso, a manufacturer of desk sets and conference-room accessories, who works with his wife Melinda, who is vice president.
In addition to everyday operational issues, defining each partner’s roles and responsibilities is key when major decisions have to be made.
“Melinda has her areas, and I have areas that I take charge of and handle,” John says. “When there’s crossover or a major decision about something, we ask each other’s opinions.”
The different perspectives give the company a good balance, he adds.
When they have to make major decisions at A Personal Elf, usually Rudy and Erica just offer their individual opinions and then as partners they weight the pros and cons, Rudy says. But sometimes, “getting an outside opinion” is crucial.
To that end, both the Castanos and Farrells recommend having a board of advisers or trustees you can go to for guidance.
“When it’s your company, you kind of develop tunnel vision,” Rudy says. “You need ideas from people outside the business who are not involved in the day-to-day operations.”
Staff members can also serve as sounding boards when partnering couples disagree. For example, when an issue came up about their lease and John and Melinda couldn’t agree how to proceed, John bounced ideas off the staff and their board of advisers.
“When you involve everyone’s perspective, you just get the best results,” John says. “I was wrong. She was right, by the way.”
A Good Staff Can Help
Reggae Shack Cafe owner, Omar Oselimo, says having a staff you can depend on has made a huge difference in the way he and his wife Arpita run their business.
When they first started out, Omar and Arpita had worked in the business, with Arpita handling the cash register with their baby in a sling while Omar took orders and cooked. After they renovated and expanded their restaurant in 2009, they hired more staff. “It’s much better now,” says Omar.
Now, he concentrates on strategizing and goals while she concentrates on hiring and finances. They share operational responsibilities. They’re still working on finding time for a vacation, but at least taking some time off is a feasible goal, even though they’ll be opening another restaurant next year.
“We can’t really sit still for too long,” Arpita explains.
The Farrells also depend on the support of quality staff to run the business so they can regularly take vacations. “The ship continues to go whether both of us are here or not,” John says.
Communication is Key
Carly Asse owns the Zen Fitness personal training facility. For three years he has been dating Bernadette Ray, an instructor who helps run the business. He says good communication helps them work well together.
“You can’t be afraid to talk about those difficult things that might arise—whether it’s business or personally related,” he advises. “Just know when to talk about those kinds of things.”
Bernadette adds, “If it’s a personal issue, it shouldn’t be brought up at work and vice versa.”
Initially, Carly was nervous about Bernadette coming on to help with marketing and finances. They talked at length about potential problems.
“I didn’t want it to affect our relationship,” he says. But now that they’re working together, he has discovered that the relationship on the job has provided “more common ground that we have to discuss and talk about. I think it’s even better than we could have thought,” he says.
Try to Separate Work and Home Life
When they’re together so much of the time, it’s important for partnering couples to find ways to shut down when they’re away from the business. To separate family life, romance and business life, the Castanos say they try to avoid doing anything related to the business when they’re at home. Rudy says he even puts his Wednesday night family game time on his calendar.
“It’s a matter of making a choice and just doing it,” Erica says. “The more you do it, it becomes a habit.”
“You definitely don’t want to take business home every single day with you,” Erica says. “We’re still working on that. Sometimes you just flow into work and don’t even realize.”
On the other hand, the Farells often just let that flow go until it runs its course.
“Let’s get it out,” says Melinda. “We start our evening purging that out. Then we talk as a married couple.”
“Business is part of our lives together,” John admits. Even their girls ask about sales at the dinner table. “You can’t shut it off at 5pm when you leave,” he says, adding. “We’ve had some of our best conferences in bed.”
Because they have a personal relationship on top of a business partnership, there is also a larger emotional component to running the business, the Castanos say.
For example, it was much harder to not take criticism personally when Rudy first gave her feedback on the job, Erica says. Now, to avoid a personal reaction, they try focus on the facts of any issue that’s contentious.
And if things start to get heated? “We learn to table it and say ‘We’ll come back to this tomorrow,’’ Erica says.
“You’ve got to pick your battles,” John agrees.
“In that moment you decide just how much an issue means overall—is it going to matter five years from now. If I see that it’s something John is just set on, it’s not that big of a deal,” Melinda says.
Melinda also says they have empathy for one another that other couples who don’t work together don’t have.
“I really know most everything that John is juggling,” she says. “I understand and get everything that he’s trying to do.”
After working together at D’Lites, Mike and Cindy came to the realization that you have to leave room for each person to have his or her own style. Cindy tends to look at things from a long-term perspective, while Mike likes to let things evolve.
“He thought I was very critical” initially, Cindy explains. “It’s just that I was trying to work it into our business plan.”
To keep things in perspective, Cindy says she often reminds herself “that I love Mike more than anything. If I have to give in to keep [our relationship] working, I’m not losing anything.”
Likewise, the Castanos have come up with a system to deal with problems by making sure they take extra steps to respect one another when an issue arises, Erica says. One test the Castanos employ is to ask themselves, “If this were a regular business relationship, would I feel entitled to ask or say this to the other person?”
Running a business with a spouse can be challenging, but the couples we interviewed said they also revel in the rewards like working toward common goals and creating something together.
“It’s very gratifying to know you’re building something as a family,” Arpita Oselimo says. “It’s rewarding just seeing the business improve and evolve.”
In addition, the couples get to celebrate their business victories together.
“It’s fun to celebrate together in the moment,” Melinda says, rather than waiting for an announcement around the dinner table.
“I can’t imagine working with anyone else,” she says.