Your agency vs. your marriage: Can both survive when you’re married to your business partner?

Written by: Karl Sakas

Should your life partner be your business partner in running your digital marketing agency? Maybe, but you’d better be good at dividing who’s in charge of what.

It’s easy to become married business partners… it’s harder to stay married. Learn from my experience, and from a recent New York Times article on the topic.

My experience with agency owners married to their business partner

I’ve worked with clients who were married to their business partner. Running any business is like being in college again, where you’re effectively “living at work.”

Agree to divide who’s in charge of what

In my experience, being married to your business partner only works well if you have a strong division of labor, including agreeing who has the “final say” on any topic.

It’s just like running any two-partner business—you need to divide who does what. For instance, one person handles business (client service, sales, management) and the other person handles implementation (creative or technical work).

Problems happen when people start second-guessing decisions outside their area of expertise—for instance, the business person is second-guessing the programmer’s technical decisions, or the designer is questioning the business person’s approach to sales.

And if both people are experts in the same area (both doing sales, or both doing design), the business relationship may be doomed from the start.

Find ways to unplug… temporarily or permanently

Any business partners spend a ton of time together. When you’re married to them, it’s a 24/7 kind of thing. This can be good and bad, and it’s amplified when you’re spending work and non-work time with the same person.

After a few years, one agency owner got an ultimatum: “Either we continue working together, or we stay married.” The couple chose their marriage, and one stepped down from day-to-day agency operations.

Get help separately

Agency owners occasionally ask me to do business coaching for both of them together (either in group coaching sessions or “two-on-one” one-on-one sessions). Sorry, coaching doesn’t work that way.

Even when people are married and working together, they’re still separate people—different personalities, different priorities. I need to be able to speak directly to each client, and that’s not an option when both are on the same call.

This applies even when business partners aren’t married to each other. Choose the partner who’s handling the business side of the agency, and I’ll focus on helping them.

Be honest with yourself

Working together is probably a bad match for most couples—most people don’t have the right disposition. There’s a reason many companies don’t let couples work together in the same department—most people aren’t good at separating their work and personal lives when the same person is part of both.

In cases where I see married business partners work well together, a lot of it comes down to having a sense of humor and both partners having a high level of emotional stability, to the point of other people probably thinking the relationship is kind of boring.

If you can’t agree to divide who decides about what, if you can’t communicate openly about concerns, and if you can’t find ways to unplug temporarily… this isn’t going to work out.

What the New York Times says about married business partners

The New York Times recently wrote about this topic, in “Together, at Home and at Work.” In his research over the past two decades, North Dakota State University professor Glenn Muske has found “co-preneurs” (married couples who are business partners) are running one in six companies nationwide.

Family columnist Bruce Feiler‘s four key takeaways in the Times echo many of my own observations as a consultant and coach:

1) Don’t compromise.

But not in the way you might think:

“[Psychologist Kathy] Marshack said that the biggest problem she sees is that the skills it takes to succeed in a relationship, like accommodation, are often destructive in business. … To accomplish things in the workplace, she said, someone needs to be in charge, or, even better, each person needs to have control over separate things: say, one person controls strategic decisions and the other financial ones.

2) Don’t set boundaries.

Feiler, who’s written a dozen books and who sometimes collaborates with his spouse, notes:

“One problem my wife, Linda, and I have faced is that when you’re living, working and raising children together, a disagreement about one aspect of your lives quickly descends into an excuse to bring up everything else that’s bothering you. ‘You don’t like that decision I made about that project? Yeah, but you never finished the dishes last night.’ Researchers call that phenomenon ‘spillover.'”

Rather than set boundaries that completely separate work and home life, University of Minnesota sociology professor Phyllis Moen shares this advice for married business partners:

“When issues pop up at inappropriate times, dispense with them quickly, then get back to what you’re focusing on, like negotiating your office lease or playing Monopoly with the kids.”

3) Don’t fear conflict.

The article shares lessons from author Joshua Wolf Shenk, who studied married and non-married “creative pairs” for his forthcoming book, Powers of Two:

“[Shenk] said that instead of viewing conflict as threatening, co-working spouses should view it as elemental to their success. ‘A lot of people mean conflict as bouncing up against someone in a way that is not pleasurable,’ he said. ‘But the core experience is that bouncing up against someone.’ To have chemistry, he said, you have to have rapport and a unity of vision. ‘But there have to be fundamental differences, or else the two people have nothing to add to each other,’ he said. … When the relationship works, he said, the sense of mutual commitment is strong enough that it leads to a sense of shared reward.

4) Don’t hesitate to walk away.

Accept that the working relationship may not last, and you may have to pull the plug in your business partnership to save your personal partnership:

“What happens when working and living together become unsustainable? Dr. Muske said that most people, though not all, tend to try to save the relationship first. This sometimes requires that somebody be dismissed. … He recommends being clear in advance: both spouses have the right to tell the other that he or she is holding the organization back.”

Feiler notes, “My wife, who works with entrepreneurs, calls this a ‘start-up prenup.'” He continues:

“For all the problems, most co-working couples enjoy the process. One reason may be that regardless of how well their businesses do, couples who spend that much time together tend to think more about their relationship.”

What advice would you add?

What’s been your experience working with your spouse or life partner as your business partner? Have you worked at a marketing agency where the owners were married to each other? How’d it go?

Question: What’s your advice for married business partners? 

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