Unlimited partnership: Couples in business
Why are more and more couples risking romance to launch a business together - and how do the successful ones make it work?
(FSB Magazine) -- Some men and women are meant to be just friends; others inexplicably click, fall in love, and become couples for life..
Among those, a rare few know where their other half is at all times, they're as likely to have lunch together as dinner, and they shamelessly poke their noses into each other's business, literally: They're entrepreneurial couples - partners who share a home and also a company- and they make up one of the most dynamic and unexpected forces in small business today.
While couples have launched businesses together since before the first pioneers peddled farming implements from their wagons, today's mom and pop shops are different. More often than before, they're professional instead of retail, global rather than local, and "mom" is likelier to have birthed the business and own most of it.
Gwen Martin at the Center for Women's Business Research, in Washington, D.C., counts 10.4 million woman-owned companies (defined as at least 50 percent owned by a woman) in 2006; 74 percent of those are majority-owned by women. Of the 26 percent that are equal partnerships, it's unclear how many are owned by spouses, but related statistics suggest an uptick in couple-run firms.
According to the American Family Business Survey conducted by the MassMutual Financial Group and the Raymond Institute, husband-and-wife CEOs of family businesses increased from 8 percent in 1997 to 14 percent in 2002.
Glenn Muske, an Oklahoma State University professor who has spent the past six years studying the topic, estimates that 3 million of the 22 million U.S. small businesses in 2000 were couple-owned. He doesn't expect updated figures until late spring, but he and other experts believe that further growth has occured in the past half-decade.
What has triggered this transformation? Turns out that mom and pop shops have changed in large part because Mom now often has as much education as Pop (if not more), and she's determined to use it.
Women now hold 59 percent of all college degrees, and are moving rapidly into traditionally male-dominated fields, such as engineering and computer science, that prepare them to launch scalable companies, as opposed to the stereotypical home-based catering business.
Another common arrangement - say, where the man starts a construction business and brings his wife in to run the office and billing - is also being turned on its head. These days it's often the woman who founds a company, then brings in her husband.
When Cynthia Moxley, 52, and Alan Carmichael, 60, married, she was a reporter for the Knoxville Journal (a daily then), and he was senior vice president of public relations for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Eight years later she wanted to try something new, so Moxley launched a PR shop in the room above her garage.
Soon she landed some big clients, including Clayton Homes (now a unit of Berkshire Hathaway Co. (BRK-A)), the largest manufactured-housing company in America. Her business was growing so rapidly that she needed help. At the same time, her husband decided he could use a change of pace after 18 years with the same employer. Joining forces seemed logical.
"We get to help each other out," says Carmichael. "Plus, it's fun."
Fun? Working with your spouse all day and then going home to wrangle over the kids' schedules and the mortgage refi? Don't these couples get sick of each other?
Yes, that can happen, and then at least one spouse might quit the business to save the relationship. In the case of Yvette Betancourt, 39, and Martyn Verster, 53, they got divorced - only to start another business together.
Most entrepreneurial couples say they work out strategies to separate home from office and to divide labor in both places. And they treasure the advantages of their arrangement. When you have to explain to your business partner that you need to reschedule a meeting because your child is in a play, it's a lot easier when that child is also your partner's.
What's more, running a business adds another dimension to the relationship and deepens it. Many couples say it's like raising a child of a different sort.
"I love sharing our firsts," says Robert LePera, 50, who launched Acorn Food Services in Philadelphia with his wife, Deborah, 47. "Our first-ever client, our first really large contract - it's all about the shared memories, when you can sit with your spouse and say, 'Hey, remember when we did this?"
"Running a business together is partly a savvy economic move and partly a lifestyle one," says Gwen Martin.
Men and women are seeking work-family balance, and they have more control of their time as owners. Who better to join forces with, they say, than someone you trust professionally and personally - someone you've been bouncing ideas off anyway? The potentially favored status of majority-woman-owned businesses by government and corporations assigning contracts is an additional incentive.
Many clients of entrepreneurial couples don't realize the romantic connection at first.
"When we hired Kerrie [Paige] and Jaret [Hauge], we weren't aware they were a couple," says Mark Chase, project director at Vancouver Coastal Health and a client of Paige and Hauge's simulation software company, NovaSim. "But after about a month I realized they'd be talking about doing something on vacation, and it sounded like they were on the same vacation - or each would mention the kids, and they sounded like the same kids! Finally, I just asked them directly! I knew they had a great dynamic, but knowing that they were a couple made things feel even more comfortable on a personal and professional level."
While innovation in information technology has helped propel growth in small business as a whole, it has especially encouraged couple-owned firms to grow more distinctive and competitive. And it has opened opportunities in a stunning variety of new fields that engage the interest of curious, educated, well-traveled married entrepreneurs.
"The e-commerce technology developed in the past ten years has enabled us to grow, because small companies like ours can actually afford it," says Jessica Kogan, 34, who with her husband launched Cameron Hughes Wine, a San Francisco-based discounter of high-quality surplus vintages. "It's allowed us to build a customer base outside California."
Technology has also encouraged couples to outsource many of their manufacturing and back-office functions, create complex products and services, and adopt a global perspective.
Kathy Marshack, author of Entrepreneurial Couples: Making It Work at Work and at Home, says, "Husband and wife teams are investigating different markets all over the world."
In other words, they're not simply serving pinot noir in a restaurant or selling it in a wine shop, but importing barrels of it from France, outsourcing the bottling, and selling it to retailers such as Costco. Which is precisely what Kogan and her husband, Cameron Hughes, 36, have done.
Sophisticated businesses and lofty goals can, of course, bring high stress levels - and in a husband-and-wife-owned business, you can't come home and complain about your business partner.
How do today's successful entrepreneurial couples make their partnerships work at the office and at home? How do they prevent constant contact from breeding contempt? How do they keep their romance alive?
In the following profiles, we visit five couples - and one ex-couple - to hear their stories and strategies. - Phaedra Hise