What It’s Like to Run A Business With Your Spouse, Your Best Friend and, Yes, Your Ex
They say a business partnership is like a marriage. Most people spend a lot of time dating and getting to know their spouse before entering into a life partnership, so why wouldn’t you put the same time, money, and effort into a business partnership?
Do you know if your business partner has the same life goals as you? What kind of reputation do they have in your industry and beyond? Will your personality complement one another in stressful situations? Are they willing to evolve and grow during the head-down, busy years? If things don’t work out the way you envision, what choices will you make? Have you discussed this beforehand?
When it comes to starting a business with someone you know personally, you may think you already know the answers to the questions above. But, if the answers end up being different than expected, your business could be in trouble.
Below, we’ve delved into making the business partnership work with your spouse, your best friend, and, yes, your ex:
1. The business partner who is also your spouse.
According to the 2007 Census estimate, 3.7 million businesses are owned by people who are also married to one another.
When it works, it works really well for both the business and the relationship. Just take a look at Eventbrite’s Julia and Kevin Hartz who started their business in 2006, had their first child together in 2008, and processed more than $1.5 billion in gross ticket sales to 1.7 million events last year.
Or take a look at Adi Tatarko’s billion-dollar company with her husband Alon Cohen, Houzz, which was started in 2009 and has since grown to attract more than 25 million monthly unique visitors and over 600,000 active home professionals. Tatarko told us that the husband-wife team includes their kids in their business’s daily on-goings because that’s the only way they can “balance” the two.
But at one point, these businesses started out small. In those early days, there’s a lot of working side-by-side and dealing with challenges head-on while finances are limited and risks are always ahead.
If it sounds like a stressful situation that really tests a marriage, it is.
After both losing their corporate finance jobs during the recession in 2009, Julie Ganong and her husband, Alan Mons, started Chococoa Baking Co. & Café, a sort of gourmet version of the traditional whoopie pie treats popular in New England where Ganong grew up.
The business quickly took off. Today, the couple enjoys double digit growth every year—up 15% since last year—making around 8,000 whoopie pies every week with the help of 18 employees. During this holiday season, Ganong predicts the business will sell around 12,000 whoopie pies weekly.
Even after 20 years of marriage, Ganong says making their business partnership work means that it always comes second to their marriage. However, if both people aren’t extremely passionate about the business, it’s best to not start one, says Ganong, because it basically runs your entire life.
The secret to making the partnership work:
In any partnership, it all comes down to respect and trusting that your partner has what it takes to make it work.
“It’s really about respecting what the other brings to the table,” advises Ganong. “He is operations, inspections, quality control, productions level, equipment…that’s his expertise and I always value what he does there.”
She adds: “Mine is more the marketing, the PR, the outreach on the community. I think it’s respecting those lines even though we often give input.”
Additionally, Ganong says the two never bring frustrations into their workplace. If one person is upset, they will leave to discuss the matter at hand somewhere else.
“We try to never be upset in front of customers or employees,” says Ganong.
When you’re in a business with someone, you get to share the highs and the lows, meaning the bad days are really bad, but the good days are really good.
“It’s like a child, it’s always your focus,” says Ganong. “Even though we do have different aspects that we work with, it’s still working in the same company. We both can put in very, very long days. If he’s had a hard day, I’ve probably had a hard day, too so there’s none of that ‘someone’s had a hard day and you’ve had a good day where you are.’ You’re in this together.”
2. The business partner who is also your best friend.
Since the age of nine, Lenore Estrada and Anna Derivi-Castellanos have been friends and dreaming of owning a business together. They got their chance two decades later with their local, organic—not to mention, delicious—pie shop, Three Babes Bakeshop, in San Francisco’s Bay Area.
After college, the two friends stayed in touch while Derivi-Castellanos went to culinary school and later worked at a natural foods store and Estrada worked in the corporate world at Google and hedge funds. Around five years ago, Estrada underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatment after being diagnosed with cancer while, at the same time, her marriage falling apart. The idea for a pie shop—revisiting their childhood dreams—was thrown out by Derivi-Castellanos and shop opened up in 2011.
Since then, their business has received a tremendous amount of success with reviews like this one in SF Weekly calling their pies “the most perfect in the city (possibly the world)” followed by the glowing statement, “you’ve never tasted anything like this before.”
How does a close friendship survive the stressful nature of entrepreneurship?
The secret to making the partnership work:
- Treat your relationship the way you would a marriage and prioritize it above most anything else in your life.
- Keep each other accountable—this also means making sure your partner gets some much-needed downtime and create weekly check-ins with peers outside the business to re-charge.
- Make sure you’re working toward the same goal. Like any relationship, if you’re not going in the same direction, you’ll find yourself in different places.
- Have the money talk early and do it often. For example, how will you tackle daily decisions dealing with money?
- Respect your partner’s role. Like Ganong mentioned above, respect what your partner brings to the table and trust that they’ll take care of their responsibilities. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t collaborate and have input on the other’s job, but just appreciate and trust that the other will do what needs to be done.
3. The business partner who is also your ex.
Laura O’Neill, Ben Van Leeuwen, and Pete Van Leeuwen are good business partners. All in their early-to-mid 30s, the three own: six ice cream trucks (four in NYC, two in L.A.), and four brick and mortar storefronts in the East Village, Greenpoint, Boerum Hill, and the West Village. They have three operations opening soon: one in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood and two shops in L.A.
If all of the above achievements haven’t impress you, maybe knowing this might: O’Neill and the younger of the Van Leeuwen brothers were once married, then separated, yet decided to stay in their business together—and have experienced massive success since their separation. In fact, Selamat Pagi opened after O’Neill moved out in 2012.
O’Neill says the trio make “a great team” and describes them as sort of a “modern family.”
The secret to making the partnership work:
After the breakup, no one wanted to walk away from the business so the trio decided to keep on going.
“Generally when a couple who works together breaks-up, they would part ways,” says O’Neill. “Our business and situation was unique and we were both so integral to the growth and success of it, so making it work was imperative. We are happy to have taken the road less travelled and remain close friends and a great team.”
To make it work, O’Neill says the two always communicate openly and respectfully, which keeps away “any dispute lasting more than a couple of hours.” She advises waiting 24 hours before responding to conflicts in order to manage your own feelings and prevent anything said that might be regretted later.
For others in a similar situation, O’Neill also advises eventually spending time with your ex outside of work to rebuild your bond and relationship. After all, even if your romantic relationship didn’t work out, you still have your business partnership to think about. How do you grow and evolve in that relationship?
The bottom line: All relationships take a lot of understanding, growth, and respect. Once your business takes up all your time, money, and energy, it’s easy to forget that you have something else that needs tending to if you’re going to make the business work: your partnership. Is your partnership growing alongside your business? Do you still have the same goals and want the same things? These are important questions to ask each other early and often when building something together.
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