This Valentine’s Day, small business owner Terry Jenson is on the hunt for the perfect card for his business partner.
It has to be funny and romantic.
Jenson’s business partner is also his wife, Juice Jenson, and they own and operate Fish Window Cleaning in Colorado Springs.
They are among the estimated 1.4 million couples across the country that own and operate their business together. That’s different from the 2.2 million who jointly own a business, but only one spouse operates it.
These couples go to work together, make business decisions together and then, they go home — together.
It takes a special commitment and friendship to run a business together, said Janna Hoiberg, Action Coach, who helps Springs business owners grow their operations. Working with couples has become a specialty for her, mainly, she said, because there are no books about how to maintain a marriage and a business.
The dynamics are so unique, she said. For example, how do you separate a work-related fight from a home-related fight? How does one spouse hold the other accountable? At the end of the day, you can’t go home and complain that your work colleague is a jerk.
“It’s difficult,” Hoiberg said. “You can’t fire the spouse.”
Small business owners usually marvel at how Kathy and Bill Brown can own and operate their business Tri Lakes Printing in Monument. They’ve been in business together for eight years and married for 21 years.
“A lot of people don’t think it’s possible to do,” Kathy said.
The Browns had a trial run at working together, when years ago, Bill went to work at the same auto dealer where Kathy worked. They knew they could handle being around each other 24/7.
“It’s different now,” she said. “In that position, I was already there and he came in as an employee. But, running this company, we both try to be in charge — it’s a different dynamic.”
Couples need to ask themselves before taking the business plunge whether they enjoy spending time together, said Katherine Speas, who jointly owns and operates Sikora Speas Living Design with her husband Andy Sikora. “Because, you will spend a lot of time together.”
They each maintain separate firms, Speas Interior Design and Sikora Creations. But, 10 years ago they also formed a joint firm to respond to clients who wanted a one-stop shop for construction, remodel and interior design. Now, 75 percent of all their business is through the joint firm. And, the joint projects are the most fun, Speas said.
“We laugh a lot and we have to, because otherwise we would cry,” Speas said. “We joke around a lot and we have a lot of fun with our clients.”
A key to working together is defining the work roles, Sikora said. They know their responsibilities and they don’t step on each other’s toes. They also subscribe to the same financial philosophy of pay as they go, not borrowing or accumulating debt, he said. And, they maintain an open business relationship.
“When things come up, don’t try to hide the issue,” he said. “If something goes wrong, we have got to fix it.”
Juice and Terry Jenson, who have been married for 10 years, had no intention of starting a business together. Terry worked for Hewlett-Packard in Colorado Springs. In 2006, the company downsized and he got a pink slip.
“It was a shock, now what am I going to do?” Terry said.
In 2007, the couple bought a Fish franchise and maintained their window washing business mostly in the northern part of the Springs. But, in recent months they bought out a second store and made a move to the southern territory.
The two rarely fight, Juice said. And, they complement each other, each picking up the tasks the other is not interested in. But, she said, the expanded business has taken a toll on the household chores.
“He stopped doing the dishes,” she joked. “He said, ‘I think we could probably get that south store, but I’m going to be busy for a while.’ “
Love and marriage,
Licensed marriage and family therapist Lynn Kennedy Baxter suggests married couples take a personality test before leaping into business together. That way, she said, they can find out, for example, which one is the planner and which one is impulsive and then learn to bridge those gaps.
“They need a coach that has the attitude of prevention,” she said. “If they can discuss those predictable problems, they can head off a lot of problems.”
Interestingly, she said, couples usually don’t show up for marriage counseling until the fighting interrupts business. The couples, it seems, are more willing to work on the business partnership than the marriage partnership.
Obviously, from her perspective, they should spend just as much time on the marriage, she said.
“Stay light hearted and keep the fun the relationship and think about special things to do,” she said. “So many couples, after they have been together for a while, lose that sense of adventure or fun — its gets lost in the day-to-day grind.”
The toughest thing for married couples running a business is keeping the business talk and marriage talk separate, Hoiberg said. She tells couples, “When you walk into the door of the business, you need to cease being husband and wife,” she said. “How would they react if their employees brought their home battles into the office?”
At the same time, couples need to set aside time to do married couple things that have nothing to do with business, she said.
“Always, from the very beginning, it is non-negotiable, they must set a regular time to spend time together where business is not allowed to be talked about,” Hoiberg said. “You’ve got to preserve that relationship — the business will put stress on it.”
This is a tough proposition for Troy and Sara DeRose, newlyweds and new business partners. They opened their own design and branding firm, Fixer Creative Co., a year ago, just seven months after getting married. And, they run their business from their home.
“The challenging thing for us is our work is the thing we both love to talk about,” Sara said.
“We spent a lot of time talking about the business,” she said. “We ended up starting to see each other like colleagues instead of spouses.”
Troy said they do spend all their time together. But, they still must be intentional about how.
“One thing we are figuring out the most is that all your time starts to feel the same,” Troy said. “Business, house chores, it all starts to morph into the same time. We are trying to discover special ways to connect as a couple and not talk about business or work.”
It might seem like the challenges of owning and operating a business together beat out the benefits. But, the marriage and business survivors say there are many benefits. They can play good cop-bad cop if they have to, Speas said. They can take off time together and one person’s career is not viewed as more important, because they are in business together.
“We just both really enjoy it,” Sikora said. “We are able to be our own boss. We have a lot of control.”
This Valentine’s Day, just for fun, married couples running their business together ought to take the day off, Hoiberg said.
“Stop and reassess, what do you love, what are you grateful for in that spouse,” she said.