This summer, we have decided on an early holiday, and it’s already come and gone. We’ve had a fabulous week sailing in the Ionian Islands, which have already become a second home to us. We made some new friends, and visited those we’ve known for years. Many of them, like us, are couples that have decided to start a business together.
If you have ever been in a relationship where you worked together with your partner, you probably know the questions come up every time you mention it to a person who never had this experience. Isn’t it difficult? Isn’t it wonderful? How do you manage it? Well, the truth is, it is both wonderful and difficult, and everything in between, and requires quite a bit of managerial skill.
Many couples that start a family business do so after years of having separate careers and not having enough time to spend with each other, following a romanticised notion that “now we will get to be together all the time, and that will benefit our relationship so much”. Well, careful what you wish for, guys. Being together all the time may be a blessing, but how about being at work all the time?
When you have separate careers, you can leave your overwhelming project, your grumpy boss, and your annoying colleagues behind the office doors in the evening, and turn to your partner for consolation. Now, you may suddenly find your overwhelming project sharing your bed, and your partner actually is your annoying colleague. Ouch!
In addition to an apparent loss of personal space, other pitfalls of working together with your significant other include responsibility sharing and money issues. It’s actually a bit like figuring out who does the dishes and who pays the gas bill when you first start living together. Only now, you are bound together by a business venture that you have both invested time and money in, possibly abandoning previous careers. Causing a scene and slamming the door is not an option. So, how do you figure it out?
We’ve actually been lucky. We started working together when we were both very young, and had the opportunity to grow professionally side by side. We discovered pretty quickly that we could build on each other’s strengths, and we were much more efficient working as a team. We even applied to our first post-university advertising internship as a designer-writer tandem, and turned down a job offer from a very prominent, award-winning agency that wanted to split us between different creative teams. Granted, it was probably not the smartest career move for a couple of twenty-year-olds, but we sensed back then that working and creating together was a very important dimension of our relationship.
Two years later, we founded our first publishing company. Here is what we learned about working together as a couple, keeping it professional, and maximising the benefits for our business and our personal life:
- Manage the cuteness. People in business have very different reactions to couples working together, and we have learned to tread cautiously in this respect. Simply put, it’s enough that we know we live together, and we don’t advertise that fact to strangers in the business environment. When we go to meetings together, we never introduce ourselves as a married couple (that’s where having different last names comes in handy ;)), and we never refer to each other as “my husband” or “my wife”. We use the magic words “colleague” and “partner”. And then we can be as cute as we like, hold hands, and cuddle on our own time.
- Manage the responsibilities. Doing everything together may be nice at first, but it is a highway to hell. Before you know it, two grown-up professionals can barely achieve the productivity of one person if they are doing the same thing. We no longer go to the same meetings or deal with the same aspects of the business. And, remember the dishes and the gas bill? Being very clear on what we expect from each other is actually easy. The harder part is learning to hold each other accountable with no hurt feelings. We have recently devised a method where we assign each other tasks based on our respective strengths, and then track their progress. That works much better than missing deadlines hand-in-hand.
- Mix business and pleasure – carefully! When you work on a new business venture, you think about ways of improving what you are doing all the time. So does your partner. Then you talk about it. Then you work some more. Then you become obsessed. Over the years, we have learned to plan our “off days” or “off hours”, when we might be doing work, but also taking time to enjoy ourselves. It works well with business travel, when we have meetings during the week, and then extend our trip by a day or two to relax together. We have to be careful though, as we are quick to forget we are not actually on holiday.
- Have your story straight. This is a straightforward, but important one. All too often, we meet couples that work together, and yet the partners have very different perspectives on what they are doing. They even might be quick to question each other’s decisions or accuse each other of mismanagement, to business partners, clients, or complete strangers. This is not the way to go. If we have decided to work together on something, we are very clear about our goals, about the nature of our partnership, and absolute support for each other. This includes having ready-made answers to weird questions that keep coming up, such as “so, who is the boss?” and “whose idea was it?”
- Lead by example. Once you get more familiar with the people you do business with, being a strong professional couple has its own benefits. Employees and partners like to hear our stories, which are often met with admiration, and yes, hearing that this is not our first business venture, or our first decade together, makes us look like good, reliable partners.
Following these simple steps has led us to some exciting projects in the past, and helped us balance our professional and personal lives. It is not always as easy as it sounds, but us and many of our friends who work together are living proof it’s doable. We will share some of their stories on this blog soon. Stay tuned for more of our adventures!