Keeping It In The Family : Challenges of Starting a Small Family Business
© 2000-2017 Elena Fawkner
I'm sure you've heard this dreaded statistic before: the failure
rate of all start-up businesses is around the 90% mark. Add
to that the further distinctly unpleasant fact that roughly 50%
of all marriages end in divorce and you can quickly see that
the odds of your new small business succeeding, already
slim, become positively anorexic if you run your business in
partnership with your spouse.
So, what are some of the key challenges faced by newly
entrepreneurial couples and what can YOU do to reduce
the chances of becoming a statistic?
A structure is only as strong as the foundation upon which
it's built. If you're in business with your spouse, the
foundation of your building is the relationship. That needs
to be like bedrock before you even *contemplate* starting
a business together.
Make sure you honestly assess your commitment to the
business and to each other up front. Do you share the same
family values and desires? Do you plan to have (more)
children? If so, how do you accommodate family
responsibilities and build a business at the same time?
Discuss these issues before they arise. The last thing you,
your business, your relationship or your family needs are
nasty surprises. If you simply assume your spouse will cut
back on the business and assume the lion's share of the
parenting responsibilities, think again. Your spouse may
be making the same assumption ... about you!
Preserve and nurture what's led you to where you are
today: your relationship with each other. And that may not
be as easy as it sounds.
At least in the early days of the business, your relationship
will need to thrive on a lack of quality 'couple' time or, indeed,
any time at all! It is by no means unusual for new business
owners to be working 16 hours a day, 7 days a week to get
their businesses off the ground. That's one very important
reason why your relationship needs to be in good shape
before you go into business together. You don't want to
be subjecting a relationship in trouble to that sort of
Look for ways to retain romantic intimacy. When you're
working 16/7 that won't happen by itself. One good idea is
to schedule 'dates' on a regular basis. Even once a week
can make all the difference. Just make sure you don't
use the time to talk shop. This is supposed to be romantic
time for the two of you as a couple. Tomorrow's the time to
discuss business and it will be here soon enough!
You can, I'm sure, think of many other ways to keep romance
alive. Start little rituals, such as candlelight dinner breaks,
for example. The important thing is to always stay aware of
this area of your relationship and don't let it slide, no matter
how absorbed you both become in your new business.
You'll probably find you take it in turns being vigilant in this
DIVISION OF RESPONSIBILITY
It is absolutely crucial that each of you has your own clearly
defined areas of sole responsibility. Any business needs one
and only one person to make a final decision. This
doesn't mean that one person makes all the decisions, it
just means that one person makes the final decision in his
or her area of sole responsibility.
Start by allocating business responsibilities between you and
having a very clear understanding that each of you has final
decision-making authority in your respective areas. Under no
circumstances should you encroach on your partner's area
of responsibility and/or override his or her decisions. Start
doing that and the cracks WILL begin to appear, I kid you not!
Sure, consult each other when making decisions. That's
what business partners do, after all. But the ultimate
decision-making authority must rest with the one who has
overall responsibility for the relevant area of the business.
The business is not the only area where responsibility
needs to be divided. Don't forget to allocate responsibility
for household chores and parenting responsibilities. Who is
to do the grocery shopping, the laundry, the cleaning and
Each of you should treat the other just as you would a
respected colleague outside the business. So show each
other the same respect, courtesy, appreciation and
gratitude that you would show any valued co-worker.
No matter how well people get along, disagreements about
certain aspects of the business are inevitable. And just as
in any other business, what is important is how those
disagreements are resolved.
A clear agreement on division of responsibility is a very good
start and having already agreed that one of you has final
decision-making authority in your respective areas means
that there is always a means for resolution of the
disagreement - a final decision. Otherwise you'd find
yourselves going around in circles, unable to agree, until
finally one of you would take matters into your own hands
out of frustration or you'd simply do nothing. And that's
bad for the business and bad for your relationship.
A good way of communicating about business issues is
to hold regular business meetings together. Perhaps a
Monday morning partners' meeting would work well for
you, or lunch on Wednesdays, perhaps. Although the
idea of a meeting may seem a little formal at first given
your relationship outside of the business, keep in mind
that the disciplines you find in an external business are
there for a reason. They keep the business on track and
keep everyone focused on the task at hand. So take
time on a regular basis to regroup, take stock, stay up
to date with where the business is, where it's headed and
what each of you is working on and planning.
By holding meetings like this you also avoid 'spillover' of
the business into your personal time of which there is
precious little to begin with. Which brings us to the
KEEP BUSINESS AND HOME SEPARATE
The ultimate success of your business depends upon both
of you making decisions based on what's best for the
business. If you are not prepared to do this, then your
business is doomed to failure. Really think about what
this means before you start out. Do you - BOTH of you -
have what it takes to do that? When the time comes will
you forego that vacation to Hawaii to plough the money
back into the business? Will you? Are you sure? What
if the relationship's starting to get a bit shaky? Will you
still do it?
It follows from what was said above that the business is
something separate from the relationship/home. This is
necessary for the survival of the business. Equally, it is
necessary for the survival of your relationship.
What are some of the things you can do to keep business
and home separate?
=> Set Business Hours
Set regular business hours and stick to them. Except
in an emergency, what doesn't get done in business
hours doesn't get done until the next day.
=> Don't Let Business Intrude on Personal Time
Personal time is all that time outside of regular
business hours. Jealously protect it from encroachment
by the business. If the business line rings at 7:30 pm
and business hours ended at 6:30 pm, let the answering
machine pick it up. In other words, shut the door on
the business at the end of the day.
=> Don't Let Home Intrude on Business
Just as you must jealously guard your personal time,
so too you must insulate the business from intrusions
on the home front. So, when friends who know you
work from home suggest you play hookey to hang out
with them during business hours, say no. Schedule
hanging out with friends for your personal time.
If you're at odds with each other about something to do
with your personal lives, don't let it affect how you work
together in the business. Focus on the task at hand,
not your feelings about the personal issue. If it's getting
in the way, resolve it. Don't let resentment undermine
your working effectiveness.
Finally, there's a myriad of issues that are deserving of
whole articles in themselves. They're listed here just as
=> Family Demands
If you have children, there may be times when family
demands can shift the commitment to the business of
one or either of you. During such times, make sure it's
only one of you whose commitment has shifted. Plan for
what you will do if, for example, a child gets sick.
=> Outside Interests
To keep your relationship fresh and interesting, you should
both pursue interests that are independent of the business
and each other.
=> Separate Space
You live and work together. That's a LOT of togetherness.
Everyone needs personal space. If possible, have separate
work areas so you're not under each other's feet ALL the
=> Capital Sufficiency
Make sure you have sufficient capital to sustain you through
the start-up phase of your business.
=> Where Did They Get the Money for That?
Has your business capital come from family sources? If so,
beware scrutiny of your expenditure from family members. It is
common for entrepreneurial couples with family finance backing
them to feel like they have to justify the necessity for a particular
item of expenditure, particularly if unrelated to the business.
=> What if the Relationship Ends?
Particularly if the business is your sole means of livelihood,
think about having a plan for what happens to the business if
the relationship ends. While no-one likes contemplating such
an eventuality, the fact that is half of all marriages end
in divorce. Those are pretty high odds. You may agree
that you will both continue with the business; one of you may
buy the other out; or the business may be sold in toto with
the profits being divided evenly between you.
=> Succession Planning
If your business is successful, what will you do when you
exit the business?
=> Business Failure
Finally, consider your financial position if the business fails.
Not only are you out of work but so is your partner. This is
a very different proposition from a business being run by
only one spouse. At least then the other spouse is still
bringing a paycheck home. Think about how quickly you
will both be able to return to paid employment if the
The prospect of running a successful business with our mate
is the dream of many of us. It is natural to want to share as
much as possible with our spouse. But it is not for the faint-
hearted and there are many issues to take into account.
Don't make your decision based on visions of romantic
togetherness. The reality will be altogether very different.
But if, with eyes wide open and having taken all of the above
factors into account, you believe you can be successful in
business together, by all means go for it!
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Saturday, 17-Feb-2018 18:55:15 CST