Successful marriages can often lead to successful business ventures. Take Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford, who turned Clif Bar & Company into a $235 million empire. Turns out, the skills required to make a life partnership work also apply to a business partnership.
But even the best marriages can be tested when the bedroom turns into the boardroom. Money always complicates things, and the everyday stresses of starting a business can be that much tougher when you bring them home with you.
Want to start a business with your spouse -- and not kill each other? Here are five things you need to know.
1. You are co-founders, co-bosses, partners.
Not just on paper, but in practice. "Nobody should be subservient to the other. I'm not Bethany's boss, and she's not mine. It's a 50/50 partnership," says Scott Palmer, who has been working with his wife, Bethany, for 15 years, as founders of Envoy Financial, a financial-planning firm specializing in retirement plans. They also have a website, The Money Couple, a platform for their speaking engagements and books, including "First Comes Love, Then Comes Money: A Couple's Guide to Financial Communication."
Being partners also ensures something very important -- transparency. "You can't have anyone who designates himself as the CFO and doesn't let his partner in on the financials," Scott says. "We've seen businesses and relationships end over this. If you're going to have a viable business, you have to have those biweekly board meetings where you both look at the finances and how they're coming and going. Trust me, if you don't do this, one of you will have the opportunity to run your business into the ground.
2. Write a business plan.
Most businesses need one, of course, but along with your company's goals and strategy for achieving its mission, it's important for a couple to really understand what their roles are going to be in the company. This is a good place to establish that you're both partners and one of you isn't the other's boss.
That's how Pam Lontos and Rick Dudnick operate. They've owned PR/PR, an Orlando, Fla.-based public relations firm, for 23 years. While Pam has the title of president, and Rick vice president, Pam says that on the big issues that affect both of them, they work things out until they can agree on a result. And in the areas where they're rulers of their kingdoms, they each call the shots.
"Rick handles all of the IT and administrative issues, while I like the sales part, calling people up and negotiating," Lontos says. "So we really separate who does what, according to our ability."
Scott Palmer agrees. "We have very defined rules on what our roles are," he says.
3. Keep work at work.
"Scott and I do 'date night' each week, and we have a pretty hard-core rule that we don't talk about work during that time," Bethany says. "When you work together in a business, all of the lines become blurred, and if you aren't careful, the business will win, because the discussions are exciting and fun and different, but you want the relationship to be your number-one issue."
Another time the Palmers never discuss work? At dinner, when they eat with their two young children. "You have to have clear boundaries, and in the beginning, we didn't," Bethany stresses. "We kind of learned this the hard way."
You also need to be careful about working when you're at home, adds Lontos, who says that becomes even more difficult if your business starts out in your house, as theirs did. "You need to allocate your hours," she says. "You don't want one person at the computer working, and the other is sitting on the couch, fuming."
4. Stay professional.
Especially in front of the employees. Sounds simple enough, but it's easy to forget, especially if you've both been working together for a while and have your banter and a rhythm going.
"Don't argue in front of them," Lontos says. "Sometimes, when you're in your own home and you're married, you might snap at each other. Well, you can't do that, whether you're in your house or in an office. You'll make your employees miserable."
5. Don't even think about divorce.
Down the road, your lawyer might insist you craft something like a business prenuptial agreement when you're both in charge of a multimillion-dollar conglomerate. But when the idea of drawing up a divorce contingency plan came up early on, Lontos, Dudnick and the Palmers all bristled.
How can you blame them? Just as you don't start a business with the idea of someday failing, you certainly don't plan for a marriage to end in rubble and ashes. And to actually strategize for that day can almost make it seem like you're lighting the fuse on a self-fulfilling prophecy. For those who have already signed prenuptial agreements and are perfectly comfortable with them, then go ahead -- have a field day and add what you want to it.
But if that type of contract is a concept that makes the incurable romantic in you uneasy, then relax -- do what feels right and just make sure when incorporating your company, or forming a LLC, that you both own it from the beginning. Because, for better or worse, the hardest part of your business likely won't be the beginning or the ending, but all of that middle part, where you get to see if you both can transform your wisp of an idea into a full-fledged, moneymaking enterprise.
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 8/13/10.
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