Building a Business with Your Significant Other: The Dos and Don’ts

A successful brand, company or organization is only as successful as the team behind it— in rare cases, the leaders of these teams may just so happen to be married. While many couples may attempt to go into business together, it’s not easy. This is because, when building a business with your spouse, the lines between personal and business can easily become blurred.

Take it from me: my husband, Martin Rawls-Meehan, founded a company in the sleep technology space of which I am now chief marketing officer. Our company, Reverie, helps people live better lives through the power of sleep. We design, manufacture and sell customized and customizable mattresses and adjustable power bases and provide a Sleep Coach service that helps people improve their sleep habits for better health, happiness and overall wellbeing.

I sat down with Martin to discuss the key guidelines we’ve established that have allowed us to build a family and business simultaneously over the last six years. Below I’ve outlined 5 basic rules for working with your spouse that have helped us succeed, interspersing some snippets of our conversation.

1. Set rules of engagement

It’s important to lay out rules of engagement when we communicate. Whether we talk business, schedules (work and family) or travel coordination, we make sure we set expectations up front. For example, this is a key preface to many of our conversations:

Me:  I just need to vent for awhile. Please don’t try to help me solve this right now.

Martin: So you just want me to listen? Got it.

Another example is phone etiquette, and I know this isn’t limited to couples that work together.

Me: Just because I know you’re on a call talking about an impending deal doesn’t make it okay to be using the phone at the dinner table.

Martin: Yeah, okay. Well, same goes for you checking your emails.

Me: Touché.

Lastly, we define roles in our family relationship rather than trying to take turns for equality’s sake. I own the family schedule and I’m the default parent for our kids’ pick ups and drop offs. Although Martin is very active in our kids’ schedules, having a default ensures we never leave the kids stranded due to our miscommunications.

2. Mind reading isn’t a thing

Guess what? Just because we work and live together doesn’t mean we’re always on the same wavelength. Martin and I know this, but many of our colleagues assume different. We do not share a brain. We have very different opinions and approaches to issues, not to mention we barely see each other during the day and we don’t download our brains to each other at night. When there are strategic, major issues, we do make sure to discuss them and align before stepping in front of a big audience. And when we are expected to speak for each other (e.g., in a meeting or to the meeting), we work through talking points in advance.

3. Welcome to Camp Reverie

A major benefit of working together at our own company is that we’re able to involve our family in the business. Bringing our girls to work sometimes on school holidays and in the summer can create a happy, and much needed, distraction in the office. It’s also a great opportunity to model positive home and working relationships to our children while allowing us to showcase the importance of a family-first business to our team members. I’m not going to pretend having the kids in the office maximizes productivity, but they do create awesome artwork for our office and create a good excuse to store fun snacks in my desk drawers – bunny crackers, anyone?

4. It’s not personal

We’ve only had one instance of note over the past six years where I let personal feelings get in the way of a business discussion and we learned from it. We’ve never had a repeat situation. We have mastered compartmentalization and don’t bring an undercurrent of home conversations to the board room table. If we can’t focus on work issues, we reschedule the meeting.

On the other end of the spectrum, we make every attempt to keep our standing 1:1 each week. It’s really tempting and easy to say “oh, go ahead and push my meeting for such-and-such. We’ll catch up later.” But from experience, we know that means we either miss out on needed work issues or end up having the conversation while sitting in bed at 10:45 pm. Which makes both of us grumpy.

Delineating work from personal discussions by staying in an office context also ensures we don’t treat work decision making like personal decision making. We use a professional lens before personal lens when evaluating how to approach a situation. I may take the lead on decision making for household-related items and all work-related items in the sales, marketing and customer experience realm, but I am still going to run big decisions, updates and budget-related items by our CEO, who just happens to be my husband. No matter what, we’re open to learning from each other and delegating to each other based on strengths vs. role definitions. We don’t try to compete with each other.

Lastly, being clued in to professional stressors and the office climate also helps each of us navigate our personal relationships and feelings. We’re more in tune with when to press, when to give space and when to give support during difficult times than we might be if our working knowledge wasn’t so deep.

5. I never knew…

It’s amazing to see a side of my spouse that doesn’t necessarily present outside of a working environment. Martin can go from laissez faire about laundry on the floor at home to hyper-focused on detail and precision about a contract or ops process. It’s amazing to see him shift gears like that. And I have so much additional respect for him as a professional after seeing what an inspirational leader he is.

A key learning we took away from our discussion is that while a major goal of our company may be to inspire wellness, Martin and I know it’s important to also focus on our well-being as a couple. We agree that a strong relationship between romantic partners requires patience, communication, planning and willingness to adapt. These behaviors aren’t any different than those needed to run a successful business with a close-knit leadership team. The challenges can be immense at times but by following an outline of best practices in terms of communication and leadership strategies, the rewards can be even sweeter.

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