Successful Entrepreneur Couples

The morning routine for most of us in the coupled world goes like this: Kiss the spouse, get in the car, and head off in separate directions. Maybe we’re both going to different offices, or maybe one of us is a stay-at-home parent keeping the kids wrangled and the home fires burning. We each spend eight-to-ten hours doing our own thing, then come back together in the evening to tell battle stories.

Then there are the few, the proud, the coupled coworkers. Couples who work together have unique challenges, both in the workplace and in their personal lives. They may have to work harder to make things work in the relationship, but the rewards they reap can be great.

Creating a business with your spouse can be especially rewarding. In an email interview with The FruitGuys Magazine, Kathy Marshack, a Portland-based psychologist and the author of Entrepreneurial Couples: Making it Work at Work and at Home, urged us to “Remember that romantic partners have been working together since time immemorial. This is not a new style. Think of the farm families. Think of the small villages where the bakery and the blacksmith shops were family concerns. [Even in our technology-oriented age,] romantic partners and families still find that working with the ones you love creates the most reward.”

But getting to that reward can require some careful moves. Chris Mittelstaedt and Pia Hinckle started The FruitGuys together 17 years ago and have watched over its growth ever since. Chris says that while for many people there is an unrealistic expectation that marriage is always going to be easy, entrepreneurial couples get over that notion quickly. “Running a business and being married is really about exploring and testing the resilience of your marriage. It takes two people who are honest with each other and not afraid to tell each other when to back off, and who realize that the business is in service to the family. Expect the messiness, and work within it.”

Teri Mammini, who runs a tourist-based business in the Tuscan mountains of Italy with her husband, says it even more succinctly: “Honestly, the first year I thought we were going to kill each other, but we have figured out how to make it work.”

Marshack agrees that resilience is the key to a happy partnership, noting that successful couples avoid taking things personally. “Defensiveness is the death knell. Expect more conflict and confrontation with your romantic partner when you work together. Plus you care more about them and what they think of you than you do other people. What this means is that you will be more sensitive to criticism. Get over it and work toward solutions instead of defending your ego.”

Role With It

Part of succeeding as a couple in business is in creating roles. Marshack advises against taking the antiquated, 1950s-style approach in which one partner is the decision-maker and the other is the office helper, but instead, she believes successful couples can “design the business around what they need as two independent adults who also happen to love and live together. When you get past your ego, you actually get the chance to grow as individuals beyond what others can do. Whenever we are challenged in life, and we face the challenges, we have the opportunity to grow in wisdom and serenity.”

Pia Hinckle notes that, for her and Chris Mittelstaedt, their roles within the company (publisher and CEO, respectively) were created to take advantage of their differing skill sets, viewpoints, and personalities. “When those characteristics are complementary, bringing them together can strengthen the whole enterprise,” she notes.

Teri Mammini and her spouse work on keeping those kinds of different points of view different: “Even though we have most of the same friends, we do try to do things separately a lot of the time. I’ll go out with the girls and he, the boys.”

Shari and Jack (not their real names), an entrepreneurial couple that runs a small business in Portland, have also created a workable separation in their roles; Jack is outgoing and has an MBA, which makes him the natural salesman of the couple, while Shari manages the fulfillment end of the business and keeps the clients satisfied.

Jack and Shari asked to remain anonymous in this story for a reason that may resonate with other spouses who own a business—as small business holders, they don’t want to necessarily publicize that they are married to each other. “Shari has kept her maiden name for a reason,” Jack says. “We don’t want our clients to think of us as just a mom-and-pop shop.”

Which brings us to the question: Never mind whether it’s good for a couple’s relationship to own a business together—is it good for their bottom line? Danish researchers set out to discover just that. Last year, the Institute for the Study of Labor, based in Bonn, Germany, published the results. The researchers concluded that the financial benefits in spouse co-owned businesses exceeded those in other types of businesses, especially for the females in the couple. The study went so far as to say that businesses owned by couples can help contribute to the eradication of income inequality.

Besides love and money, there is another reason to share a business with your spouse: values. Of The FruitGuys, Chris Mittelstaedt says, “It really reflected who we are as people. It reflects the lens through which we see the world. I would encourage couples thinking of going into business together to think about what brings meaning to their lives and how to express that in a positive way. [Owning a business] is really a slog at some point, so you have to create something that is meaningful and interesting to you and your partner to carry you through.”

Miriam Wolf is the editor of The FruitGuys Magazine newsletter.

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