Business and Life Partnership: Making It All Work

Successfully running a company with your significant other can seem like an insurmountable balancing act, but if it's approached honestly and realistically early on, you can head off potential problems before they have a chance to take hold.
06/07/2012 11:20 am ET Updated Aug 06, 2012

We've all heard the sayings. "When you walk through the office door in the morning, leave your personal life outside." Or "I just do this from 9 to 5. Then I get on with my real life." And we can't forget all the advice about maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

But what happens when your "personal life" has its own company ID tag and access card? When the lines between your 9-to-5 and Real Life become hopelessly blurred? Or when it becomes glaringly clear that the term "work-life balance" was coined by some well-meaning but inexperienced individual who has clearly never partnered in business with his or her partner in life?

Marriages and careers can run the gamut between extremely fulfilling and extremely challenging when tackled separately, but when the two are combined, the challenge aspect can increase exponentially. Depending on the dynamics of your relationship (and everyone's is a little different), spending all of your waking hours, and collaborating on a business, with a spouse can either be the experience of a lifetime or the downfall of what would otherwise be a harmonious marriage.

With this in mind, remember that you don't have to sacrifice one for the other. Successfully running a company with your significant other can seem like an insurmountable balancing act, but if it's approached honestly and realistically early on, you can head off potential problems before they have a chance to take hold. How would I know? My husband Paul and I have become experts through real-life trial and error.

Ten years ago when we founded, I was pregnant with our first daughter, and the plan was that that I would run the business, solo, from our home garage. Fast forward a decade to our current lives: we've doubled the child count to two, long ago moved the business out of our garage, and now have 40+ employees. It's no longer a one-woman show: Paul is COO, I'm CEO, and we're running a company (and still married) despite the obvious differences in our personalities, temperaments and working styles.

In the process, we've learned to approach things honestly, and we've set rules and expectations prior to engaging in the business as a couple -- it's kind of like setting KPIs (key performance indicators) and keeping each other accountable for what we set out to do (we keep track and discuss each other's progress on projects, just as we would any other employee). That said, there are two things that have helped us attain our mutual goals of a successful business and marriage: boundaries and commitment. Here's how they play out in our day-to-day rules for making it all work:

1. He does his job, and I do mine. Period. While we share a strong work ethic, Paul tends to be regimented and analytical, while I'm more creative and flexible with my work style. Based on our respective strengths and personality traits, we've clearly divided our tasks, and make it a point not to cross lines. I oversee Marketing, Web Design, New Products and Business Development, and Paul handles Logistics, IT and Accounting. We're both in the loop concerning what's going on in each other's departments, but we don't step in and manage each other's teams unless the other person is out of town or otherwise unavailable.

2. We put a healthy amount of space between our offices. There was a time when our offices were side by side, and we found that it created problems if were close enough to hear each others' phone calls and conversations. When we were planning out work areas shortly after purchasing our current facility, we modified the layout so that there's now a bathroom separating our offices, and took the added precaution of soundproofing the walls and ceilings of our respective workspaces. Now we can concentrate on our individual duties without nitpicking how the other person is handling theirs.

3. We (do our best to) leave our personal life at home. Nothing is more awkward, or causes an employee to lose respect faster, than being trapped between bickering husband and wife bosses. I'm not saying that we're perfect at it, but my husband and I make every effort to leave our squabbles at home and present a harmonious and unified front at work. We pride ourselves on having an upbeat and relaxed company culture, and don't want to jeopardize that for everyone else.

4. We have a standing weekly date night -- no excuses. When you're running a business that consumes a great deal of your time and energy, it can get to the point where you have to schedule couple and family time just like you would a meeting, and that's okay. It may feel strange to pencil in time with your loved ones, but what's important is that it happens. Paul and I have a standing date night every week, and for that short amount of time, we're not business partners or parents -- we're a couple. Sure, conversation inevitably rolls around to work or the kids, but what's really important is that we take time each week to relax and reconnect alone, away from all of life's other demands.

As I mentioned before, every couple and company is different, so there's room for interpretation, but one thing is universal: mutual respect, boundaries and commitment are vital to both marriages and business partnerships. Whether you're just starting out or trying to realign, be open to each other's needs and opinions, remember that nothing rewarding comes without challenges, and get down to living and working together in the collaboration of a lifetime.

Valerie Holstein is the co-founder and CEO of -- a leading eTailer of electrical, telecom/datacom, home theater, cable and wire management solutions. She may be reached through the company's Web site located at