Couples who are married to the business

Couples who run a company need complementary skills - and a shared vision, says Zenab Eve Short
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The Independent Online

Going into business with your partner is like having a baby - it will either cement the relationship, or finish it off." That's the warning that Sherridan Hughes, a psychologist with Career Analysts, gives to couples she sees that are looking for advice on starting up a business. In her view, only truly compatible couples should contemplate such a venture. Suzy Thomas, mother of a three-year-old boy and one-year-old twins, runs Wicked Tickles, selling bedroom "accoutrements" online, with husband Greg. She agrees wholeheartedly. "Luckily, we can't get enough of each other, because running a business is a full-on, massive amount of work, and we spend almost every hour of the day and night together as a result. In our personal life and professionally, I'm the right foot, he's the left - and we share the same vision of where we're heading."

They are part of a growing trend of couples who aspire to set up a business together. "It's that whole 'walk away from civvy street, from the nine-to-five commuting' thing", says Stephen Alambritis of the Federation of Small Businesses. "With the internet, it's feasible to run a start-up from your front room, which may explain why most are now initiated by women aged 35-plus."

Typically, her partner would join in later, once they can afford the risk of losing a regular salary. Antony Fernandez did it the other way around. He set up Techademic first, offering computer training for the over-50s, and his partner Naomi then joined him as co-director. What they share in common with successful couples who work together is complementary skills. "I'm strong technically and a good teacher. Naomi has commercial savvy and is great at sales. You have to know what your strengths are and have clearly defined separate roles".

Couples also need to share entrepreneurial attributes. "You may call it push, being daring... what it boils down to is passion," says Sherridan Hughes. "Running your own business is all-consuming; both partners need to be driven by the same goal."

"It's certainly not for everyone," warns Samuel Sweet, co-director of Designer Nails (the nail "enhancements" people), with wife Samantha. "Your relationship has to be watertight or the pressure of running your own business will destroy it. We live, eat, breathe what we do 24/7. Our work is our passion, and we can't, and don't want to, separate it from who we are as a couple."

Suzy Thomas describes the business she and her husband run as a "marriage within a marriage". But some marriages end up in divorce. You have to be a pragmatist about what would happen if the business failed. "We've invested so much money, as well as blood, sweat and tears that we've had to have that conversation."

Successful working couples close the door on their own domestic world when they walk into the board room. "I don't advertise the fact that my co-founder is my husband, because it's not professional to flag it up unless it's relevant," says Rita Rowe, who has run Mason Williams PR with husband John for 20 years. "We know that co-directors could be wary of husband and wife teams bringing their strops and sulks into work". So there has to be clear blue water between home and work. "And it's not fair for the couple to make decisions in a cliquey way," comments Mary Perkins, founder of Specsavers Opticians. "I've known husbands and wives deciding staff issues behind closed doors when they're at home together, which isn't business-like."

Professionalism is key, agrees University of Plymouth entrepreneurship expert Dr Susan Boulton, who advises couples to put job descriptions in writing, as well as what the share of profits should be, what the pay and benefits are, and what will happen if the business fails. Stephen Alambritis says: "Be official about it, get the lawyers in - always keep your commercial and emotional concerns separate".

Some 300,000 of the 500,000 start-ups which get going annually go belly-up within three years; couples-run businesses are no less likely to fail than others. If that were to happen, at least a partner should provide a shoulder to cry on.