In Profit and In Loss: When your spouse is your business partner

For the last 12 years, our main income has come from being ‘self-employed, together’. Legally we are company directors with a family trust. Without any other staff, I feel less like a business owner and more like a sole trader, except someone else does have an impact on my venture. And that person is my husband.

Prior to leaving the corporate world, we worked for the same organisation for a while, in complementary departments. He left his previous career to come and join my organisation for an I.T. project. After the project finished, he ended up in Service Delivery Management while I was in third level support. Despite how stressful I.T. can be at times, we co-existed happily when we were employees.

Being a small business owner is a different game and a different kind of stress. Being responsible for multiple clients’ I.T. systems is stressful. Knowing all of that is producing the income for your entire family is stressful. The only stress we don’t have is staff, but a lack of staff creates stress for its own reasons.

So, many people ask me how we cope with working & living together. Since leaving corporate employment, we’ve fallen into such natural routines that it’s hard to quantify. But a revelation about one of the challenges of this arrangement made me start to examine how it works and when it doesn’t work.

With both of us being technical, we have a shared empathy. He already ‘gets it’ when my upgrade isn’t going right or when I have to work late to meet a deadline. I get it when he’s still onsite with a customer and won’t be home in time for dinner.

If you have a partner in the same field, you’ll be nodding your head in agreement.

A la ‘The E-Myth’ we decided early on which hats we would wear in the business. I’m officially the CFO and he’s the CEO. If we disagree, he gets to pull rank and have the final say. I’m ok with that. Sometimes it does come down to one person making the call and at the end of the day, he has the front-facing relationship with our customers.

We don’t work normal hours and we enjoy watching one of our favourite Netflix shows during our lunch break, if the day’s workload allows.

Sometimes part or all of the weekend is committed to work. With two kids, we try to make that the exception and not the rule but the kind of systems work we do sometimes makes it easier for us and more convenient for our clients. When this happens, sometimes we can tag team the parenting and sometimes we call in the babysitters.

When after-hours work isn’t scheduled, we make a conscious effort to avoid shop talk. If something pops into my head on a Saturday afternoon, I’ll set a reminder in my phone to ask him about it on Monday morning. If I think it’s urgent or if it’s really worrying me, I may say “hey, can I ask you a work question?” before I spit out what’s on my mind. He gives me the same courtesy so we can both get some down time, as much as we both love our jobs.

When things go wrong (and I say when not if, because we’ve been in this business for 12 years!), we try not to get personal. In the heat of an argument, it’s easy to get frustrated and lash out because you have such a close relationship.

It’s worth reviewing whether you’d talked to an employee or co-worker like that. If you wouldn’t, then don’t.

This one takes practice and I’m still practicing!

Emotionally, there are times when one or both of you ‘doesn’t want to come to the office’. This is when you have to be each other’s cheer squad or at least a comfort. It’s rare that we both feel like this at the same time, but it’s important to go extra-easy on each other. Making an extra effort outside the office helps too, like organising a family day trip or planning a special meal at home. We’ll also support each other to get in some more exercise time as we both know that has a positive impact on our mental health.

Don’t restrict acts of encouragement to your work day.

It’s also easy to fall into a pattern of familiarity at work. In someone else’s business, you know your colleagues and supporting departments are there because they’re being paid to be. When it’s your own business, it’s easy to focus on your own role and work efforts and miss the rest of the stuff that is being done by your partner. Yes, it’s to ensure that you both get paid but it still needs to be acknowledged and appreciated every once in a while.

By far the most challenging aspect though (which was my revelation and inspiration for this article) is the lack of a supportive, non-involved partner. As an employee, if I couldn’t sleep at night I could chat to my husband about my concerns, get his support or advice, then get some sleep. With our arrangement, if I shared my concerns he’d now be thinking about it too and both of us wouldn’t be sleeping!

It’s hard (impossible) to share those work doubts because they reflect on him too, making him mentally relive his day or worry about his tomorrow.

I’ve found the only cure for that is the support of some amazing girlfriends, who I can message on Facebook. Not only do they left me up, they sometimes keep my husband from being dragged down too!

The next challenge in our business & personal relationships is a growing need for me to travel for work, which I love. Every time, my husband steps up to the plate and manages the kids and our business while I am away. I’m extremely grateful for that — while he takes it in his stride, encouraging me to be massively successful so he can retire and be a kept man!

I’m sure there are many couples working together who could share their tips for success as well as their horror stories. I’m also sure there are couples who would never want to try it.

When people ask how I can do it, I answer “He’s the love of my life, why wouldn’t I want to spend my day with him?”

-Mrs SCuff

(after celebrating our 17th wedding anniversary)