I’m working on a side project with my wife. Here’s what we’ve learned so far about working together.

A crash course in relationship and/or business development

My wife and I are working on a side project together (learn more and sign up at northbeachpaperco.com to follow the journey, or read our Q2 updates over here). This has always been a dream of mine, but depending on who you are, this is either an awesome or utterly atrocious idea. For most people, you’ll fall somewhere in the middle.

As a preface, I’ll just state that working on a project with your significant other isn’t for everyone. We are excited about it and have been having fun, but we will learn more as we go. My values are largely predicated on creating a life for myself where I can spend as much time as possible with my wife, my future kids and family and friends. Part of that is someday building a sustainable business. The other part of that is finding a way for my wife and I to embark on that journey together. For many couples, this just isn’t something of interest, and shouldn’t be if it’s not to your liking. It’s a potentially very treacherous path, one that we’re only in the very early stages of, but also one that teaches us just as much about our relationship as it does gain us new business skills.

Before I dive into what we’ve learned so far, I’ll drop the small spiel. We’re building a company that sells archival-quality art prints and stationary, inspired by and created in San Francisco. We’re calling it North Beach Paper Co. We’ve developed a few products and will be launching in the Fall to a small group of friends and family early adopters (send me a message if you’d be interested in providing feedback). Amanda has painted all the artwork and is developing a brand for people who have a taste for quality and whimsy. We’ve been working together to figure out the logistics (printing, vendors, wholesale, etc) and thinking about the buying experience. Other than Amanda being an incredibly talented artist, I should state that we really have no idea what the hell we are doing, and that has made it wildy fun and rewarding. Message me if you are interested in hearing more.

On to what we’ve learned in the past from trying to work on projects together. This isn’t the first time we’ve tried to do this. A few times now, one of us has come up with an idea and tried to elicit support from the other. This is really where we learned our first rule:

Don’t work on a project together unless both people are equally interested and invested

This is incredibly hard to find, but you’re almost certain not to get your project off the ground if only one person is shouldering both the effort and the passion (the latter being the most important). We tried to build an online course together to help people get jobs at startups. We tried to build a personal assistant service based on outsourced labor and texting. The ideas were interesting to one of us, but not both.

This led to arguments. Many arguments. And not the productive kind that leads to breakthroughs, but the kind that ends with one person walking out of the room while saying “this was your idea anyway, why don’t you just work on it yourself.” This is not a great conversation to have in the beginning of working on a project with your partner, so we vowed to only work together if it was something we were both excited about.

So far, we’ve found that with North Beach Paper Co. Amanda felt like she was finally ready to start selling some of her work, and I was keen on learning more about direct-to-consumer e-commerce and physical product development (and felt excited about the fact that she is able to paint some incredible stuff). Great! We had something we wanted to work on together. But how do we go about actually doing the work? This is where we learned our next lesson.

Play to your strengths, and divide the work as such

In earlier attempts to work together, we’d often spar over the best way to go about things. Amanda had strong opinions on how to build a brand. So did I. We had different ways of approaching goal setting and project tracking, and this led to its own series of scuffles. Recently we’ve changed gears, dividing up the work and ceding ownership, responsibility and opinion (really hard!) to one or the other person, based on passion for the topic and previous experience. Amanda is defining how we craft the brand. That doesn’t mean I don’t get a say, but the final word is hers, and I respect that. I’ve setup our goals and created the system to track and measure progress. Amanda has great thoughts on how we should go about reaching many of those goals, and is integral in accomplishing them (there’s no business without her paintings), but she’s respectful of how I want to track the goals, and has been sticking well to the system I’ve put together. This way of approaching a division of labor while also in a relationship has worked out quite well for us, leading to less conflict, more productivity, and a hell of a lot more fun.

Set goals, set deadlines, and meet regularly to discuss (while also going easy on yourselves)

This one is hard, and another potential source of conflict or just pure malaise. It’s hard to set deadlines for side projects when they are just your own, let alone when multiple people are affected. The benefit is that you have an opportunity for joint accountability, and this is ultimately where you want to land.

After a few months of idea banter and making limited progress, we finally sat down one day at a Starbucks and plotted how we’d go from 0 to something. Here’s what we did.

We mapped out our goals for the whole year, quarter by quarter, and stopped there.

It’s really easy to create a romanticized future of mass sales and millions of happy customers, only to find that you haven’t even started on step one. To combat this, we set quarterly goals, three for each quarter, and made sure that each goal had a strong metric attached to it. For example, this past quarter (Q2 2018) was all about product creation. We had a tough ‘art output’ goal that Amanda was in charge of, basically creating a set number of works that can we turned into prints, patterns, etc. We had another goal around creating specific product types, two to be specific, including art prints, letters and maybe wrapping paper. Finally, we had a 0 to 1 goal around creating the packaging and unboxing experience, including finding the right vendors for envelopes, shipping, etc and then packaging at least one finalized product with a great (but minimal) unboxing experience. We still dream about the future, but this is what we think about day to day (or rather, evening to evening).

We stick to loose but well-defined deadlines

As part of setting up the quarterly goals, we mapped out what we wanted to accomplish in each three month span. It’s almost certain the plans will change and the timeline will shift in unpredictable ways, but having a roadmap keeps us focused. We have a sense of what we want to accomplish by the end of June, by September and so on. We’ve been trying to go easy on ourselves- this is neither of our full-time jobs, and hating ourselves for not moving faster takes away the fun. We set ambitious but reasonable deadlines given the time constraints of doing something nights and weekends (and in reality, mostly weekends).

We set some time aside every Saturday to discuss progress and plan

This one can initially feel like a chore, as sometimes having to think on the weekend after a whole week of work is exhausting. That being said, nothing beats that sense of accomplishment after having a brainstorming and planning session, especially when nobody else told you to do it. We typically go to Starbucks, look at our quarterly goals, and figure out what pieces we need to chew off in order to hit them. We’ll oftentimes just sit for 1–2 hours and crank on tasks that we weren’t able to get to during the week. It’s fun, and doesn’t feel like work. Keeping this dedicated time and holding each other accountable to it isn’t always easy- we’ve definitely skipped before because we just weren’t in the mood- but right now the stakes are low (no employees, incredibly low financial investment), so we’re not hustling ourselves too much just yet. Overtime however, we’ve grown to enjoy the weekly syncs, and it has helped us learn how to work better together, and kept us on track.

It’s still early days for us on North Beach Paper Co, and we’re still figuring it out. Working on ideas for me has always led to something, The real value in working on this however hasn’t been the project itself. I’d love for it to take off, to gain a following, to be successful. No doubt about it. But learning how to work with my wife has forced us to constantly evaluate how we can improve our communication and ultimately strengthen our relationship. There is no complacency- we are learning how to provide constructive feedback to one another, how to respect each other’s relative expertise, and to support each other in an evolving journey. It’s fun and productive to find ways to level up your business skills, but leveling up your relationship feels meaningful in a completely different way. It’s exhilarating.

We’ve still got a lot to learn, and that’s what makes all this fun in the first place.

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Interested in what we’re making at North Beach Paper Co. and want to provide early feedback? Sign up at northbeachpaperco.com or send me an email at sebastianmdeluca [at] gmail.com.