Married to the business: What to watch out for

Husband-and-wife enterprises are common in the small business sector, with one-third of young Australian firms made up of spousal or de facto couples. But doing business with your spouse or partner inevitably spawns a set of problems different to ones faced by sole traders or parent-children family businesses, particularly when the pressures of running a business collide with marital stresses such as managing mortgages and bringing up the kids.

So what are the most common problems faced by spousal businesses and what are the secrets to succeeding? Read on to find out.

Set rules at the start

Love can be blind, but when it comes to starting a business together you should have both eyes wide open. Ensure you discuss and decide on your business structure together as well as ownership issues, day-to-day responsibilities, decision-making and how to finance your start-up. By being clear upfront you'll minimise confusion and unnecessary arguments down the track.

Recognise different strengths

When dividing the core responsibilities between yourself and your spouse, don't try to compete for the most powerful or more exciting role as this can lead to tension and job dissatisfaction. While both of you can be co-CEOs of the business and make the most important decisions together (such as strategy and future acquisitions), you should also recognise each other's strengths and integrate these into day-to-day responsibilities.

For example, if your partner has a head for numbers, he/she may enjoy balancing the books, administrative tasks or sales forecasting. If you have a creative streak, you might be better off handling product design. By working on different areas of the business, you're minimising opportunities for conflict and playing to separate strengths.

Maintain work-life balance

Working alongside your loved one can have its benefits, for instance, the ability to work towards a common goal, easy communication and the ability to capitalise on trust that's already built into the relationship. However, the lines between your personal and business relationship can be blurred, particularly if you're running a home-based business. It's not ideal to talk shop during dinner or when spending time alone together, but couples in business together can often find it hard to maintain a work-life balance.

Laura Huang, professor at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, calls this the"painful proximity" phenomenon, where an "annoying sense of closeness" can prevent couples from taking alone time to reflect on issues or decompress. A tip to maintain a work-life balance is to set aside time for both of you where talking about business is prohibited, such as allocating a date night each week or banning phones/laptops from the dinner table.

Find a third party

Husband-and-wife teams often take things personally when business disagreements arise, so it can often be helpful to call in an independent third party as a mediator. This can range from bouncing ideas or solutions off a non-family employee during meetings, to getting a fresh perspective from your business advisor, mentors or fellow business owners. According to Wharton School of Business' professor Stewart Friedman, a counsellor or advisor usually helps couples prioritise business and family goals and roles. A qualified third party can also help split the business in the case of divorce, and although it may not be something you want to consider at the start, running a business together can often lead to irreparable breakdown of a marriage.

Nevertheless, if you are in sync with your partner, personally and business-wise, and an emphasis is placed on clear communications and maintaining a work-life balance, you're well on your way to running a successful business together.

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