Forming a More Perfect Union

When your partner at home is also your partner at work, all that closeness can take its toll. How to live and work happily ever after.

On the night of their first anniversary, Nandini Mukherjee and Chetan Gandhi, both 34, were sipping sangria in a romantic restaurant in Barcelona when the conversation turned to what was going on in their New York business, Indian Bread Co. They needed to revise their cleaning schedule, increase the frequency of their financial reports, and hire another employee to make sandwiches. "The line between our personal lives and business life was very blurred," says Mukherjee.

Those conversations are hardly the stuff of fairy tales. But Cinderella and Prince Charming didn't have a small business to run. Roughly one in five small businesses is headed by a husband-wife duo, according to the National Federation of Independent Business, not least because the arrangement has many charms. Couples who run their own companies have a partner they can trust, and they share the satisfaction and excitement of creating something together. They get to be with each other all day long, too.

Yet it's easy to see how all that sweet togetherness can turn sour. Running a company together can exacerbate any tension in a relationship. Potential pitfalls are many, from power struggles to communication breakdowns. "You probably will have more arguments, for the simple reason you'll be spending more time together," says Kathy Marshack, a Vancouver (Wash.) psychologist and business consultant who specializes in entrepreneurial couples. "You have to be willing to get through the arguments." Even couples with otherwise solid relationships may struggle to keep the business from becoming their entire focus, and to keep disagreements at work from becoming disagreements at home. "Some people have this dream of working together, but they don't understand the difficulties," says Margery Miller, owner of PeopleBiz, a Dallas-based business coaching firm. "It takes daily work."

Miller knows firsthand how complex the situation can become. For 11 years, she ran a manufacturers-representative business with her now ex-husband. But when she was ready to end the marriage, their overlapping ties made the break much more difficult. "It took me a long time to figure out a way to divorce him and keep the business intact," says Miller.

With the right attitude, though, abetted by clearly defined roles and open lines of communication, both the company and the couple can thrive. Adrian Velasquez, 61, and Christine Krause, 48, founded Milwaukee-based Fi-Med Management in 1993, in part because they wanted to work together. Today, the $3 million company, which specializes in accounting and banking solutions for medical practices, has 45 employees. And Velasquez and Krause still relish being together all day, every day, and talking shop well into the evening. "I know it sounds too good to be true," says Velasquez. "But working together actually keeps our relationship fresh."

Launching a business is always chancy, and it is even more so for couples who do so together. Besides the emotional stress, a joint venture can shock a couple's finances, particularly if both people leave the relative security of a job. "There is the added risk of two breadwinners working for the same company," says Michael McGrann, assistant director of the Institute for Family Enterprising at Babson College. In 2003, shortly after marrying Gandhi, Mukherjee and a business partner opened a café serving the likes of Tandoori Chicken Naaninis and Paneer Naanwiches. But just before launch an investor pulled out, and Mukherjee scrambled to make up the $75,000 shortfall. Gandhi kept his job as a software architect. But a year later the couple took an $85,000 home equity loan to buy out Mukherjee's original partner. "It was a little scary borrowing against our home to pay for something that seemed so uncertain," says Mukherjee.

Nearly a decade after starting their Mountain View (Calif.) software company, ReadyGo, Anita Rosen, 48, and Al Moser, 42, still sometimes worry about having all their proverbial eggs in one basket. Both walked away from stable jobs, she as a consultant specializing in e-business and he as a software engineer. "On very good months I am jumping for joy," says Rosen, whose company develops tools that other companies use to make Web-training programs for employees. "On slow months, we talk about updating our résumés."

Once you decide to make the leap, keep your business from crowding you out of the house by formalizing the relationship the same way you would with any business partner. Putting your plans in writing forces both of you to think through issues that might arise later. "Some of these things may seem intuitive," says McGrann. "But you need to be very intentional about how you plan to manage the business." When the inevitable disagreements do crop up, you can diffuse arguments by going back to your plan.

Although you may consider yourselves equal partners, it is crucial to the smooth operation of any business that one person has the final say on important issues. "You need to determine who is the most qualified person to run the company," says McGrann. "It is unusual that two people will have equal backgrounds and equal leadership abilities." Often, the person who had the idea for the company becomes the boss. At Fi-Med, Krause decided her husband should be president. "I thought it would be a better position for us as a company, in part because there is still discrimination against women at the top," she says. What if you can't agree on who will be CEO? That may be a flashing warning sign that you should reconsider the business altogether.

The happiest working couples may be those that have complementary strengths. "We're yin and yang," says Kris Wittenberg, 40, of her relationship with her husband, Augie, 36. "I'm the burst of energy and he's the calm." That combination works well when it comes to running SayNoMore! Promotions, an Eagle (Colo.) company that creates customer promotions for such companies as Ritz-Carlton Clubs and American Express. When the Wittenbergs met in 2000, he was trading equity options and she was already one year into the business. Augie's company closed the San Francisco division where he was working, and the couple moved to Colorado, taking the business with them. Augie began helping with accounting, then finances, then technology. He oversees those parts of the business today, reporting to Kris, who is president and CEO of the seven-employee, $1 million company. Augie also takes the lead in child care. "I don't think things would be as good as they are if both of us had similar personalities or skill sets," says Wittenberg. And until they spelled out who would be responsible for what, Mukherjee and Gandhi bickered about everything from publicity ideas to the company's Web site. "We realized we were wasting so much energy arguing about things that weren't even related to the core business," says Gandhi. Today, their roles in running the $250,000, three-employee company are clear: Mukherjee, who is president, is in charge of the staff, food, and marketing. Gandhi handles all aspects of the finances and technology. "Now I know what I manage and she knows what she manages, and unless we drastically disagree, we let the other person run with it," says Gandhi.

To keep problems from escalating, says Marshack, talk about them as they arise. But don't let your domestic gripes intrude. Mukherjee says before she and Gandhi made a conscious decision to separate work and personal matters, "I would find myself saying things like, 'I didn't have a chance to look at the financials because you didn't do the dishes.'" Now they are both careful not to confuse the two. And rather than spoil their dinner—or anniversary—with talk of work, they block out specific times to discuss business.

No matter how good your intentions, sometimes you simply won't agree. Compromise if you can. Mukherjee and Gandhi recently wrangled about donating food to a high-profile event. Mukherjee thought it would be good publicity; Gandhi thought it wouldn't target the right demographic. "We decided to meet midway and donate only a portion of the food," says Mukherjee. But stand your ground when it's appropriate. "Don't compromise on something that is important just because you're trying to avoid a fight at home," says Marshack. Earlier this year, Velasquez and Krause of Fi-Med were thinking about buying a medical billing company. Velasquez was sold on the idea, but Krause was not. "The numbers all looked O.K., but I had a nagging feeling that the business was not right for us," she says. "Much to Adrian's disappointment, we did not buy the business. If we don't agree, we don't do it."

For many, in fact, the danger of being in business with a spouse isn't that they don't communicate well or make a dynamic team; it is that being with any person all day, every day is untenable. Though some couples have no qualms about spending every second together, most people need time alone. At the very least, advises Marshack, you should have separate offices and make lunch dates with others. "I even recommend to clients that they drive to work in separate cars," she says. By the same token, you'll want to set aside time when you can be together without business encroaching. Schedule regular date nights, work-free evenings at home, and vacations that aren't tied to trade shows or sales calls.

Working with a spouse can bring complications you'd never know existed if you kissed each other goodbye in the morning. Yet most entrepreneurial couples wouldn't have things any other way. "I have worked for other startups, and one of the biggest problems I saw was the inability of people to trust their business partner or their executives," says Rosen of ReadyGo. "We don't have any of those issues." Rosen and Moser understand each other's daily ups and downs far better than they would working solo. "When Al tells me about his day at the office," says Rosen, "I truly am interested."

By Sarah Max

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