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This one couple’s secret for (successfully) starting a business together

Hint: Finding a good therapist is extremely important.

This one couple’s secret for (successfully) starting a business together
[Photo: fotografierende/Unsplash]

People ask us all the time if it’s possible to maintain a successful marriage and a successful business partnership with the same person. Our answer is yes. We think that sharing your life and work with the same person makes your marriage better. That said, it doesn’t mean it’s easy.

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As spouses and cofounders, we’ve watched ZestFinance grow from an idea we had one night in 2009 over drinks to an established enterprise software business. Along the way, we had three kids, including twins, all still under the age of 8. One thing that has made a big difference in our business and relationship is investing in a good couple’s therapist. But over the past 10 years, we’ve also learned some other valuable lessons about what it takes to manage entwined personal and professional lives.

1. Be clear about ownership at home and at work

If you’re going to make a success of working together (and maybe raising kids), then you need to define your roles and responsibilities at home and at work. That’s not always easy if your cofounder is your spouse. After all, the ups and downs of starting a business make it difficult to divide the responsibilities evenly all the time.

In the end, our approach was more art than science. We decided to divide and conquer in accordance with our skill sets, which, fortunately, are complementary. Douglas is tech, finance, and data-focused, while Sonya centers more on corporate culture, hiring, and communications. At home, it’s a similar division. Douglas is in charge of technology, helping kids with math homework, researching medical issues, paying bills, and figuring out what kind of car can seat eight people comfortably. Sonya is in charge of pretty much everything else—from housing, interfacing with the kids’ school and friends, feeding everyone, and making sure that everyone gets to where they need to be. Who runs what is important for any successful operation. It is especially critical for people who are also building a life together outside of work.

2. Avoid a total collapse of boundaries

When you’re in business with someone you have a relationship with, how you communicate with each other is different—for better or worse. It’s pretty easy to let a familiar tone creep into conversations at team meetings. That can make life uncomfortable for your colleagues.

Fortunately, our professionalism is a deep-rooted behavior rather than an act. In the 15 years since we’ve known each other (we met in the early days at Google), there’s only been one year when we didn’t work together. As a result, we have a sound system down, which we’ve been able to hone the longer we work together.

If you’re new at it, be sensitive to appearances. Address your spouse at work like you would any other colleague. We disagree on business topics pretty publicly, which makes us more like any other cofounders than a married couple. However, if we do have a serious disagreement, we make sure to take it offline. It doesn’t happen that often. When you talk to someone 24/7 about the same set of issues, aligning ourselves on significant issues becomes much more manageable.

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3. Strive for work-life integration rather than work-life balance

Everyone has issues at work and at home, and some people can compartmentalize the two.

Not us. We have almost no barriers between work and life. And as startup cofounders, there’s always something on our plate. That can result in some tough calls. When our twins were born six weeks early in 2014, Douglas was summoned to China for crucial meetings with a giant online retailer. It was a business deal we had to close. Because we had some family help, we decided Douglas should go. In hindsight, it wasn’t the right choice. That mistake was entirely on us, but we took away a lesson or two from that decision. For us, it’s been crucial to adopt the mindset of learning as we go.

Setting up a business with your spouse depends on your appetite for tackling these kinds of hard choices—and your appetite for spending twice as much time together. Here’s the truth: most of the time, we talk about work and kids. And we haven’t taken a vacation in 10+ years that wasn’t about the work or the kids. It’s not an easy road, but for us, it’s been gratifying.

4. Create a kid-friendly workplace

You don’t have to be a parent to create a kid-friendly workplace, but it obviously helps. Having children a few years into Zest led us to build a company that works for people’s real lives. We’re open about the fact that we also have children to care for. That means leaving a bit early for a school run, or parking them in a conference room to watch a movie so we can work a bit later. As a result, others feel comfortable doing the same.

Sharing the same work and life goals make us coordinate better than most couples. We both know when the kids have to be picked up from school and when the next board meeting is. We’re not living in isolation. Caveat: Investors may push back on the idea of a husband-wife team. Some of ours did. But you could argue that it’s better to have two people who already respect each other and know how to get along with each other.

About that therapist. It may seem like a luxury, but if you and your spouse do want to go into business together, we recommend enlisting their help before you start the company. The thing is, as entrepreneurs, prioritizing regular check-ins with your spouse to talk about difficult issues is a challenging feat. Every day, there are a million other things that are screaming for your attention. Committing to a regular appointment every week allows you to talk about the sticky stuff.

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Building a company with your spouse can be incredibly rewarding. The trials and triumphs can make you closer together, and you can also learn a lot about each other as you work toward a shared vision. Like with many great things, it comes with its share of challenges. But when you commit to tackling it together, you’ll be amazed at what you can achieve as a team.


Sonya and Douglas Merrill are the cofounders of ZestFinance.

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