Married To The Business

Many couples can't handle the pressures of partnership. This pair has learned how to finesse the stress

When Shannon and Paul Entin walked down the aisle six years ago, they expected, along with all the loving and honoring, the occasional spat. But until they tied a new knot last year as business partners, they had no idea just how many things they could argue about. Such discord goes with the territory, say family-business experts, but that doesn't make it any easier on the couple. Which brings me to the story of The Desk and the Entins' inaugural fight as partners in FitnessLink Inc., a health and fitness Web site they run from Lambertville, N.J.

Shannon and Paul, both 31, met on their first day of college in Oswego, N.Y., and became friends long before romance bloomed. In 1996, Shannon, a business journalist and part-time fitness instructor, began FitnessLink as a moonlight venture from her kitchen table. Eventually she quit her day job to focus on it full-time.

The gamble paid off. By last fall, advertising revenues and Web-site traffic were growing vigorously. So was their new baby boy, Logan. Shannon couldn't manage the site alone, so Paul agreed to quit his job as an advertising executive and join FitnessLink.

The first thing he needed was a desk. So, one Saturday, with Logan in tow, they drove to their local Staples Inc. store. Paul found a model he liked--a big sprawling number, where he could spread out his papers and wallow in creative chaos. But Shannon hated it. A compulsive stacker and organizer, she had managed all those years at her own compact, "cardboard-looking" desk. "I just kind of had a little fit in the store," she recalls. "I said, `I can't believe you need a desk this big! You don't need all this space.' It was five times the size of my desk."

Shannon huffed off with Logan in her shopping cart. Calm, mild-mannered Paul thought Shannon, the emotional half of the pair, was just being unreasonable. Finally, they drove home, angry and deskless.

As you might suspect, they weren't just arguing about furniture. "I think I still had that feeling: `This is my business,"' says Shannon. Indeed, when they went to sign their incorporation papers, she just assumed they'd structure a 60%-40% equity split in her favor. But that upset Paul, who felt she was downplaying his contributions as family provider while she tried her wings on the startup. (They settled on 51%-49% to preserve its status as a woman-owned business).

"You're going to argue more when you work with your spouse," says Kathy Marshack, a Vancouver (Wash.) psychologist and author of Entrepreneurial Couples: Making It Work at Work and at Home (Davies-Black Publishing, 1998). "You have to toughen up your skin and not be afraid of conflict and confrontation. It's not just the business that's at stake, it's the personal relationship." In fact, says Marshack, many such couples she has studied say it's just too stressful. Often, they opt out of the business to save the marriage.

That's not the case here. Shannon and Paul say they love working together. She focuses on editorial content and design, he on bringing in new accounts and other business matters Still, they often don't see eye-to-eye. For instance, Paul thought Shannon's recent $1,200 expenditure to build an animated tour on the Web site was excessive. And she didn't see the point of spending $550 on a direct-mail card campaign. "There definitely have been times when I've had to physically leave the house and go drive because I can't listen to him any more," says Shannon. Adds Paul: "And I'd be grateful for when she left." Most of the time, though, their blowups are quick, and soon forgotten.

Meanwhile, Logan has become an active toddler, and FitnessLink is profitable, with monthly ad revenues of about $12,000. Shannon now sees Paul as her full partner. To keep some distance between work and family, Shannon and Paul often send each other e-mail to discuss business. No matter their desks are within spitting distance.

About that desk. Paul finally got what he wanted. Shannon still thinks it's too big, but, she has realized, it's not too big a deal.

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