“The main problem when working with loved ones is linked to relationship intensity,” says psychologist Dr Kathy Marshack, author of Entrepreneurial Couples: making it work at work and at home. “Since we care more about what they think of us and vice versa, the work and home environment can become ripe for conflict.”
Marshack agrees that when things go wrong, the consequences can be disastrous for the business, relationship or both. But, she adds, many married couples enjoy running a business together and there are advantages. “Working with loved ones usually means you need worry less about trust in the business relationship,” she says.
In relationships and business, open and honest communication can ensure that minor issues don’t develop into major problems
Cause and effect
But why do problems occur – is it simply because couples fail to separate ‘personal’ and ‘business’? “Drawing a convenient line between the two isn’t realistic,” Marshack says. “Couples need to be good at transitioning between the two, which they’ll need to do many times each day.”
Marshack says responsibility should be assigned according to ability, not preference nor perceived gender norms. “The result can be a much more successful business and a happier couple. Both should have agreed roles.”
And it is important that couples don’t neglect their personal relationships, Marshack says. In relationships and business, open and honest communication can ensure that minor issues don’t develop into major problems, she adds. “Neither person should compromise because they want to avoid conflict. Problems must be recognised and worked through to mutual agreement.”
Recipe for success
Claire and Andy Burnet launched their Dorset-based business, Chococo – The Purbeck Chocolate Company, in 2002. “Andy was an accountant who discovered he had a flair for working with chocolate, while I was a marketeer who loved fine chocolate,” explains Claire.
“We discussed the pros and cons of running a business together, but felt it could work because we had complementary skills. We have quite different personalities. Whereas I get excited about new ideas, Andy remains calm and makes sure they make sense.”
Andy looks after finance and operations, while Claire is responsible for new product development, marketing, design and PR. “Andy is colour blind, so I don’t ask for his feedback on our packaging,” she smiles.
Running your own business can be intense and if things are tough, they’re tough for us both
Andy says one of the main advantages is being able to share responsibility for ensuring that the business remains successful. “We have flexibility, too – we both have childcare responsibilities. Our kids, Lily  and Max [eight], see much more of me than they would if I’d stayed in my corporate career. They probably see less of Claire, because she does more visits to buyers, suppliers, food fairs and so on. We can also bounce ideas off each other and trust each other’s opinions. We also support each other when necessary, of course.”
The Burnets admit that there are times when working together isn’t ideal. “Running your own business can be intense and if things are tough, they’re tough for us both. Early on, someone advised us not to get tired at the same time, so one can always support the other. That’s easier said that done,” laughs Claire.
We don’t talk about work much at home anymore – we try to separate our home and business lives
Claire says they used to discuss business a lot at home. “I still sometimes wake up with my brain full of work stuff I want to discuss, which drives Andy potty. But we don’t talk about work much at home anymore – we try to separate our home and business lives. It can be tricky, though, when people visit our house often they want to talk about chocolate.”
The Burnets frequently work in different places. “Even when we’re both in our main office, it’s spacious, so we’re not necessarily working next to each other,” says Andy. “One of us might be at our new Winchester shop or our original shop and café in Swanage.
“I still help to make our products, while Claire leads new product development. Otherwise, our responsibilities are based on the skills we brought to the business. We share other stuff, such as health and safety, managing staff, food labelling, and so on, and that approach has worked well for us.”
The main advantage is the trust we have for each other, which is essential in business and marriage
Colin Harms and wife Eileen own Cartridge World Strood, a business they started in Kent 10 years ago when they became part of the global printer cartridge franchise. They have since opened franchise stores in Canterbury, Maidstone and Sittingbourne and now have 16 full-time employees.
“We started the business together and weren’t put off by the prospect of being with each other round the clock,” recalls Colin. “Because we now run several stores and Eileen looks after our telemarketing, we see less of each other during the day than previously.”
Colin and Eileen say theirs is an equal partnership, which helps to prevent problems. Being married offers them an advantage in business, says Eileen. “The main advantage is the trust we have for each other, which is essential in business and marriage.”
Although they don’t bring personal issues into the business, they admit to bringing work home. “Often you have to make important business decisions – we have four shops and 16 staff,” Colin explains. “Frequently we talk about business at home, but neither of us minds. The business is extremely important to us and we don’t always get the chance to talk during the day, because we’re both busy with other things.”
Having had three children together and been married for 40 years, how have the Harms managed to combine living and running a business together? “Working together has never been a problem,” says Colin, “but having separate, distinct responsibilities helps – and good communication at all times is essential. Important decisions are made together, after we’ve discussed them.”
Always put love first. Without it – who would you share your business successes with?
Follow your dream
What final advice does Marshack offer to married couples who are running or considering running a business together? “Always put love first. Without it – who would you share your business successes with? Don’t compromise to avoid conflict. And follow your dream, as long as your spouse really shares that dream.”
Running a business together may not be the best choice for some married couples, Marshack concedes. “I believe that those who have proved themselves capable as individuals before starting a business together usually do much better. Then you both know that you could do it alone, but that you’d rather run your business with your loved one. That’s a strong position to be in.”
• The feature appeared originally on the Small Business Network pages of The Guardian website.