Confessions of Dynamic Duos: Running a business with your spouse

by Deena Waisberg 
National Post 
Monday, January 15, 2007 

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 Many couples fantasize about working together. But only about 5% of those that go into business together can make the venture work, according to Azriela Jaffe, author of Honey, I Want to Start My Own Business, A Planning Guide for Couples. Four couples who have tied a double knot share their secrets to success, including "dos" and "don'ts" for coentrepreneurship.

 A common thread among the couples was that co-entrepreneurs are more likely to be successful if they have complementary skills because a business requires different talents. Linda Lundstrom had a background in fashion design, while her husband Joel Halbert, who joined clothing design and manufacturing company Linda Lundstrom Inc. in 1987, is an accountant. Farah Perelmuter did public relations for an advertising agency before starting Speakers' Spotlight in 1995 with her husband Martin, who is a lawyer.

Different talents also make it easier to establish different business roles, which is critical to avoid stepping on each other's toes, according to Mr. Halbert, who admits that he and his wife have nevertheless "done some stepping" in the past. Ms. Lundstrom oversees clothing design as well as manufacturing and operations, while Mr. Halbert looks after the financials. Mr. Perelmuter builds client relationships and handles the operations while Mrs. Perelmuter does all the marketing for their company and manages staff.

Even so, couples are bound to disagree about some business decisions and therefore the couples underline that communication is key while silence is deadly. Calgary-based husband and wife team Liette Tousignant and Kelly Krake, who invented the Hang and Level picture-hanging tool, are committed to talking through differences of opinion. "In the past, there were times I didn't communicate my concern and a decision didn't turn out well. Now we speak our minds and we don't take disagreements personally," Ms. Tousignant says.

Still, Mr. Halbert and Ms. Lundstrom emphasize it is important to present a united front to employees. "If we have a disagreement, we iron it out behind closed doors because if your staff see you disagreeing on major issues, it causes uncertainty," Ms. Lundstrom says. Also it prevents staff running from one owner to the next, if they don't get an answer they want, which used to happen at Lundstrom, she adds.

Additionally, while at work, professional behaviour is necessary. "We're not holding hands or lovely dove y," says Mr. Perelmuter. Furthermore, all the couples say they avoid dragging personal issues into work. "I used to work at one company where a couple who worked together would get into domestic quarrels at the office. It was uncomfortable to watch," Mr. Halbert recalls.

Then there are the benefits, such as more flexibility in work hours, which successful couples use to enhance their home life. Ms. Tousignant and Mr. Krake have both taken time off in the middle of the day to attend one of their daughter's concerts. Lindsay and Moira Merrithew, who own Stott Pilates, a company that sells Pilates equipment and exercise videos, have also taken advantage of this flexibility. "When the kids were younger, Moira was able to take time off and still be able to contribute to success of the business," Mr. Merrithew says.

However, co-entrepreneurs also end up working longer hours than couples who are salaried employees - 87 combined hours a week compared with 74, according to a 1999 Statistics Canada survey called "Working Together -- Self Employed Couples." Relationships can suffer, if couples aren't careful, the Perlmuters warn. They use the drive home to switch gears and focus on home and the children. Most of the couples recommend dividing home and work life. But this is sometimes easier said than done. "We love our work and it can be difficult to turn it off at the end of the day. Too often our discussions morph into business discussions," Mr. Krake admits.

Because Mr. Krake and Ms. Tousignant are living together and working together -- at home no less -- they make it a priority to carve out some "me" time. Mr. Krake and Ms. Tousignant work out separately in the morning-- she uses the home gymin their basement and he goes to a local fitness facility.

Finally, co-entrepreneurs must be committed to the business and each other for better or worse. As they draw their income from the same source, there will be greater pressure if the business runs into trouble. Although Linda Lundstrom Inc. is now a healthy $10.5- million business, there was a time when the company was in serious financial trouble. "Our relationship actually got stronger because of it, but it was a test that could have torn us apart," Ms. Lundstrom says.

But if there's more risk, there is also more reward. "Many couples don't understand each other's work. We share that and we've had a great adventure together," Mrs. Perlmuter says.