Working with your spouse

Working with your spouse

A pandemic causes chaos in some parts of an economy, as Covid-19 has demonstrated. Jobs are lost, many never to be replaced. Work patterns change and the relationships between employers and employees alter and may take time to settle down again – or, indeed, may never settle. Authority has taken harder knocks in the last two years than it did in the preceding ten. The development of the personal gig economy has leapt ahead, partly as a way to fill the jobs gap. There was, in any case, a move towards self-employment as a way to make money faster and to escape the control of bosses. Among the gig developments, couples wanting to make their married life more meaningful and shared have featured increasingly.

A little bit of most of us will, I suspect, greatly regret Melissa and Bill Gates breaking up. We do not want to shred other people’s divorces, nor try to analyse them for reason and need. However, the subject of couples working together is closely allied to marital harmony and there are enough examples of such arrangements succeeding – and failing – to make some observations relevant and timely. Interestingly, the conditions required to make a married business partnership work are remarkably similar to those involved in succeeding with any type of business partnership. The marriage knot often makes it more difficult to observe and practice them, so here is a view of how such arrangements might have the best chance of working.

Seeking a normal business partner usually starts with the ‘getting to know you’ sessions over meals, informally and then more formally. In a marriage the partnership is already established but that shouldn’t stop a somewhat similar process. The marriage was for love, for creating a family and home. A partnership in business is to develop a successful supply of, and market for, a product or service, the result of which will be profit for those who have invested money and time in bringing it to fruition. Some ‘getting to know the business you’ sessions in the early stages is important to establish a modus operandi for that part of a married couples’ lives.

Lest it be thought artificial to discuss with a spouse to see if s/he has the same business views as you, here are some of the questions that are often forgotten in the context of such a joint ownership. What is the purpose of the business and how clearly is this defined and agreed? What areas, and at what level of management, will each of you run the company and what sort of person or people will be the next level of management reporting to you? If you are to make a profit, whose profit is it? Some of it certainly belongs to the government; does some of it belong to the employees who helped to make it, and if so, how much?

What is the sensible level of liquidity for the company – how much of what you make should be retained for a pandemic (or similar) event? When hiring employees for the company do you want people who do what you ask them or people who have a point of view and express it? Do you both have to agree about every employee of the company in the early stages? These are a few of the critical questions. There are plenty more. One discussion is unlikely to be enough to cover all of them. A summary of the agreements and disagreements should be made after each session of discussing these matters. If you cannot substantially agree them, don’t start a joint business. It could lead to disharmony, separation or even divorce.

Often forgotten at this stage of starting a business is the question of success and the criteria by which it will be assessed. Increasingly, couples want to run ‘lifestyle’ businesses. These are businesses where ownership is kept within the family so there are no shareholders demanding more profit. The business will be based on an interest of the parties owning it. They may accept a relatively low level of profit in exchange for doing what they enjoy. Such lifestyle businesses are often targets of takeover offers. As long as the owners of the business are in harmony this is good. A capital sum acquired after building the business may be a very real definition of success.

It is often the case that married couples treat themselves without too much thought for the niceties of politeness. In business they should revise this behaviour. Relationships at home can be casual and temperamental; at work they should not be so. Conducting a business is hard enough without having to cope with bedroom tantrums and emotional disturbances. Good, hard-headed attention to efficiency and profit should be the order of the day for work.

The terms on which a business is going to be run should be established after these and other key questions have been decided. Partnerships are dynamic and for the first two years of a new business the terms of partnership should be seriously reviewed every three months. Later on the reviews may be relaxed to once every six months or longer.

The fundamentals when starting any project are usually the key to its success. These obvious questions are truly fundamental.

Get them right if you want your joint business to work.