Getting Started

So, you want to work with your spouse/partner in your business. You’re not alone. Over half of Canadian businesses that earn over $30,000 per year are family-owned or -controlled. That means it must be easy, right?

You couldn’t be more wrong.

Working with your significant other brings with it the stress of both entrepreneurship and a relationship. In many ways, you just can’t get away from the business or each other. That can make or break both the company and the relationship unless you start out properly.

Note: If you are already in a couple-owned business, it’s never too late to stop and evaluate how things are going. Maybe you need an old fashioned meeting around a table to hash out where you’ve gotten off track. Use our “Getting Started” tips to reset and refresh both your relationship and your business.

Ground Rules

When you start to play a game, be it a complex board game, a sports competition, or solitaire with a deck of cards, you need to know the rules. It’s annoying when you are learning a game and someone keeps popping up saying, “Oh, I forgot to tell you about this rule….” The play is much more enjoyable if everybody knows what is expected and possible within the rules.

Working together in a couple-owned business is just the same.

It’s assumed you have already begun your relationship together, so you know each other well. That means you know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. A strong relationship takes those into account, and each partner steps in where the other might need help.

Being business partners means putting the emphasis on the business side of the equation during the workday. To do that, you have to have ground rules going in and adhere to them.

  • Who is in charge of what? Keeping your partner from expressing his/her best skills because you want to be in charge is a recipe for disaster. If your partner is the people-person, then customer service and employee relations should fall on that side of the scale. If you are the mechanically-minded one, or the financial wizard, that’s you’re niche. But you should both keep the other up to speed on the challenges you face and how you are handling them. Input from both sides makes things better.
  • Who has the final approval? Do you delegate authority to each other on a project basis, or is one of you where the buck will stop every time? You both need to agree on this, or agree to renegotiate it on a case-by-case situation.
  • Your employees will have job descriptions. You both should, too. And no, it can’t just say, “I’m the boss… and so is she.” Clarity in the beginning will take anxiety out of lots of aspects of day-to-day business.
  • Be business-like when it comes to business decisions. Don’t run on emotion. For instance, would you hire your spouse/partner if he or she was not your partner? (Would he or she hire you?) If not, then you really need to rethink the whole idea of being in business together.

Work/Life Balance

When you decide to expand from just a couple to being couple-owners, excitement will be high. You’ll want to talk about the business all the time. Ideas will come while doing the laundry or out running errands or falling asleep at night. It will be difficult to talk about anything else. This can kill your relationship, and doom your company as collateral damage.

  • Strive to keep work and non-work life separate. If you get a great idea at dinner time, just jot in a little notebook or on your phone memo program. Then put it aside to discuss during work. Plan times when you are doing nothing work-related. That was what brought you together in the first place! Don’t lose that special spark; it adds a delightful dimension to your company as well as your home.
  • Just as you divided up the responsibilities at work, be sure to do the same at home. Division of labour in both the plant and house will mean nobody feels like they are left pulling a heavier load. Resentment can set in quickly if you aren’t organized.
  • It may help to write out the expectations you have for work and home. That way, you can negotiate a clear agreement and agree before things get lopsided.

A Great Idea? Or a Really Bad One?

Working in the business together is not a way to save on paying someone. Both of you need to feel compensated properly for the work you do, and take pride in the company. You don’t expect someone you bring in to work for free or for below-average wages. Why would you want to treat your beloved that way, of all people?

You both need a passion for the company. If one has passion and the other is just along for the ride, or perhaps comes in kicking and screaming, it’s not going to work. Owning a company is not always fun. It is mutual passion for what you’re doing that will carry you through the tough days and make them feel worthwhile.

Working with the person you love and live with will add stress to both your work and home life. Full stop. At times, you might feel you can’t get away from each other and begin to sabotage the company subconsciously in order to deal with that trapped sensation. That’s not why you went into business together. Give yourself room to re-evaluate from time to time.

Being life and business partners can enhance both relationships. You’ll have total understanding of the stresses of your work and home issues. You don’t have to come home every day and then relive the whole experience in order to bring your partner up to speed. He or she was there. They get it. That saves a lot of time and frustration. Just remember to ask your partner’s take on the day you just had. You may have had totally different reactions and ideas for solving problems.

Get Outside Perspectives

A business mentor can help you both sort out issues and set boundaries to keep both your personal and company life going smoothly. It’s also a must that you consult an attorney regarding the ownership of the business, and an accountant to discuss the tax ramifications of your venture. They may be able to point you to a mentor to pick up where their expertise ends.

Since so many couples own businesses together, seek them out. Find couples that are willing to share the good and bad sides of working together. Join the Chamber of Commerce or other local business organizations to seek out other couple-owners. You’ll be able to support each other in the unique things that you’ll face by joining your work and private life together.

Couple of the Week

Gianni and Rosina Gallotta
Westpoint Cleaners, Calgary, AB

Gianni and Rosina Gallotta

Gianni and Rosina are truly making it work for the long haul. They’ve been in business together since 1989. Running a dry cleaners was always something they envisioned doing. They committed themselves to having a boutique, or high-end, cleaner in Calgary. “We pride ourselves on providing a quality product,” they said.

Who runs the show? “We truly are equal when it comes to making decisions,” they said. “There are debates, of course (some long, some short) but we always come to a solution.”

They divide up their roles in the company according to their personal strengths.

“There are certain things Rosie does better than I do,” Gianni said. “And I do some things better than her. We compliment each other by identifying each other’s weaknesses and strengths. We are both the boss!”

Juggling business and private life can be a challenge, they admit.

“You never really separate from the business,” they said. “We don’t think any small business owner out there, regardless of industry, truly can. However, over time you do grow to understand that it is important to break off for a little while and enjoy the things you love in life.”

Their advice to others thinking of taking the plunge? “Couples looking to get into business together need to understand that, like relationships, there are ups and downs to business. Strong communication and honesty will always prevail in any relationship or business.”

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