You got into a business together with high hopes and endless dreams. You worked together for years and made a go of it. And then… things changed. How do you know when it’s time to stop being a couple-business? How do you dismantle a dream? Or can the dream go on?
As you go through life, you move through stages. Relationships begin, children come along, parents age and need care, one partner (or both) may go through medical crises. It’s called “life” and it sometimes calls for changes in what you thought was a forever business partnership.
Though the changes that happen in your life tend to come on gradually, the actual breaking point will probably happen suddenly. One day one partner just stands up and says, “I can’t do this anymore!” And often, the other partner is blindsided. If you sense your life is moving in a new direction, the time to discuss it is not when you are at the end of your rope; start talking as the changes come along, and prepare for contingencies like getting outside help at home, or possibly having one partner leave the active work of the company.
If your company is successful, that’s great. But as your family grows or outside situations pose a drain on your finances, you may find that having both of you working for a company with finite resources is not feasible. One reason people leave a couple-owned business is to have another revenue stream. It doesn’t mean the dream of the business is over—it just means one of you is doing something else (either permanently or just for now) to make sure it continues.
Whose passion is this, anyway?
One of you is probably more passionate about the company than the other. Sometimes, a spouse will get into the business in order to support the other spouse. But over time, living someone else’s dream can really wear on you. Suddenly you wake up one day and wonder, “What about my passions? What about my life?”
If one partner begins to look around for new opportunities, it can be stressful. Most likely, it’s done without notifying the other partner, because the conflict and stress that would bring is too much. That’s just sticking a cork in the fizzing bottle, though. It will blow eventually.
Taking time to properly discuss both the company and your individual professional desires is a way to keep the fizz from exploding. If you are both aware that one or the other of you is not in this company permanently, you can take steps to ease the transition, rather than cringe away from the impending crisis.
Have a heart-to-heart talk about what you both want in life.
If one has a different dream, begin building a timeline to making that happen.
Plan the steps that need to occur in order to make the transition to a new phase of your lives work for both of you and the company.
Which way is forward?
Oxen can’t pull a plow if they are both pulling in different directions. All you get is furrows that zigzag all over the field and can’t properly channel water or make crops easy to harvest. In a couple-owned business, if one of you has a yen for taking the company up-scale and the other is focused on keeping prices rock-bottom, there’s not a lot of common ground.
If you disagree too fundamentally, it’s time to reevaluate the partnership. It doesn’t mean either of you is wrong; you just have different goals. Not only does the company suffer while you haggle about it, the employees are both confused and uneasy while you do.
Take a deep breath, recognize what’s going on, and do what’s right for the company. If it were any other kind of partnership than one with your life partner, you’d know what to do.
End of the line
The most tragic reason to break up a couple-owned business is if the couple is no longer together. Having said that, there are successful companies where the power couple got a divorce, but both went on working for the company. It can be done if both parties are mature. But, let’s face it, there’s a lot of baggage that gets slung around during a break-up, and often one casualty is the business.
If one or both of you are depending on the business for your livelihood, a break-up must be handled very carefully. Just as you are concerned for any children in your home during a divorce, you have to be concerned for your company. After all, you have employees, customers and suppliers who are all depending on what you have built, as well. It truly is not just about you.
“Breaking up” can be done well
Whether it’s one part of the couple leaving the business to pursue other opportunities or an actual break-up of the relationship, keep some guidelines in mind.
Expect emotion and difficulty in the process. But the business must go on. Make decisions accordingly, and keep communication to your employees open.
The partner leaving the business should do it gracefully, with as much professionalism as you would in leaving a non-family company.
Help train the person(s) who will replace you, and do it maturely and with enthusiasm. Use this as an opportunity to build the business, not tear it down.
The person who stays should be the biggest cheerleader for the one who has left the company. This will ease the transition and minimize any guilt feelings.
Put it in writing. Make it legal and binding. Treat it as you would if a non-partner were leaving the company.
Counseling for both of you will ease the transition and maintain the relationship and the company after the change has occurred.
When you fell in love, you assumed it would be forever. When you started a company together, you thought the same thing. But just as with any other job, things change. You move on. You grow and develop professionally.
You haven’t failed; embrace reality and make the most of it.
Becca Anderson spent 17 years in public relations, advertising and corporate PR before joining Fabricare Canada in 2000. She was named editor in 2013, and welcomes feedback about the magazine via the contact form on this site.