It seemed like the perfect answer to a manpower shortage.
When Cynthia Bowman, then 27, founded her California-based home furnishings retail business, she quickly realized she needed extra help, so she brought her husband on board.
"Retail is a seven-day week job with long hours," said Bowman, now 43. "It wasn't easy, and I would tell him often that if we weren't married, I'd have fired him."
Still, they successfully ran the business together for 13 years before selling it in 2013, retiring and moving to Spain. Bowman has since started working part-time as a freelance writer and a blogger at joyjournist.com.
One secret to their success: arranging for one day a week when each partner was in the office alone, allowing each one to have space at work while the other had time off or worked remotely. And, Bowman said, choose your battles. "Bickering about everything, even if small, is damaging to a relationship," she said.
She wouldn't do anything differently, but she also won't work with her husband again. "Our personalities and work ethic are too different," Bowman said.
The numbers are scarce on how many spouses successfully hang a shingle together, but plenty of romantic duos have made a fruitful go of it.
Boll & Branch, an organic bedding company in the US, was co-founded by spouses Missy and Scott Tannen in 2014 and earned almost $1.75m in its first year. In the UK, Helen and Simon Pattinson left jobs as lawyers to start Montezuma's, a luxury chocolate retailer that now has six locations. In Melbourne, Australia, husband and wife team Ted Tolfree and Shey Newitt founded Crisp, a salad store that now has three shops. The co-chief executive officers of California-based organic food and drinks company Clif Bar & Company are married to each other, as are the owners of Los Angeles-based bottled water brand Fiji Water.
But it's also a gamble. Only half of all small businesses are around after five years, according to the US Small Business Administration. And failing at a start up with your romantic partner can be even dicier. Here's how to work it out.
What it will take: You'll need complementary business skills, the ability to separate your work and personal life, and the capacity to spend a lot of time with your significant other. "Your relationship should be on good footing," said Hilary Hendershott, a financial planner in California. "It takes a healthy level of respect and trust to be in business with anyone, let alone a spouse."
You might also be more successful if you've been with your partner for a while. "Couples who've been married for a long time sometimes manage to handle this better, because they're used to ups and downs and good years and bad years," said Shannon Lee Simmons, a financial planner with Simmons Financial Planning in Toronto. "New couples might still be in that honeymoon phase where everything is wonderful, but you don't really know how that other person handles bad times and financial stress."
How long you need to prepare: Allow time to write a solid business plan, draw up any necessary contracts or legal partnerships, and really think through the logistics. "If you can't write a business plan together and you can't agree on what's happening, then that might be a clear signal that it's not going to work out," Simmons said.
Do it now: Plan it out. "If you listened to your financial, legal and psychological advisors, they would recommend that you sit down and outline how this is going to work, how much it's going to cost you," said Kathy Marshack, PhD, a psychologist in Oregon in the US and author of Entrepreneurial Couples. If you're a young couple that doesn't have children yet, do you plan on having them? And how would that fit into the mix?
Have an exit strategy. An exit plan is important professionally. "This is something that couples don't talk about at the beginning because you're excited," said Simmons. "But if there's a break up or a divorce, who gets to keep the business? Do you keep it running together? What happens?" Similarly, what if the business doesn't perform well? This should be settled in writing so there's no question of how to proceed if things head south, whether it's the business or the relationship.
Make it official. Treat the business arrangement seriously. "If you sit down and say, 'Hey, let's write this up into a business contract,' it tricks the brain into thinking about what could happen that you should plan for," Marshack said. "It saves anguish later on."
Examine your own business savvy. Couples sometimes jump into a business because they love both an idea and each other and they're enthusiastic about making it work—but they haven't thought it through. "They think, ‘Wouldn't it be fun to work together?'" Marshack said. "I know small business owners who can't read a profit-and-loss statement, and that's just not good. You need business skills."
Divide responsibilities. "Clearly designate roles that don't overlap each other, according to strengths and weaknesses," said Bowman. For instance, one of you might handle the company's accounting while the other one designs the product. You'll be more successful and happier if you aren't competing for the same tasks.
Leave work at work. Separate your work and personal lives. At home, make sure you're treating each other as romantic partners instead of colleagues. "I can get pretty intense," said Hendershott, who works with her husband. "We do this thing where we give each other a big hug, and now we're husband and wife again. I consciously switch that role."
Do it later: Hire tax help. There are a variety of ways your business can be structured — a partnership, a corporation, a joint venture, or even a sole proprietor and employee, among others. Make sure you understand all the tax implications and talk to a professional about the setup that makes the most sense for you.
Make sure both people handle the money. You probably trust your partner implicitly — but you need to make sure you both have a hand in the business's finances. "I had a client who found out that she was being audited for unpaid taxes from four years ago from a business she used to be in with an ex-partner," Simmons said. Both parties should know where the money is going and whether you're taking proper care of your debt and tax obligations.
Do it smarter: Don't neglect the rest of your life. "Couples plunge into the business and forget that they should also make time for themselves as a couple, as a family, as individuals," Marshack said. "There are things they put on hold until the business gets off the ground and five years later there are a lot of things in their personal life that aren't working." Be stringent about scheduling time away from your business and with your loved ones — in a non-business capacity — to keep relationships healthy.