Are You The Entrepreneur Or Supportive Spouse?

By Kathy J. Marshack, Ph.D., P.S.

If you have read my columns in the past, you are aware that I frequently refer to couples in business as entrepreneurial couples. Now that I have bandied the term around for several years, it is probably time to formally define just what I mean. In fact there couldn’t be a better time to present my definition, since entrepreneurial couples are at the crest of the enormous wave of business startups in America right now. Some of you may not even recognize yourselves as entrepreneurial couples because you have always been entrepreneurial, or come from entrepreneurial families, or the style is so common (especially here in the Northwest) that you never considered a definition important. However, defining the type of entrepreneurship that you and your spouse share can be very enlightening. Knowing who you are and why you are that way will assist in problem solving and future planning, as the following case examples will show. Even though there are always exceptions to the rule and entrepreneurs being what they are (e.g., extreme individualists) there are three basic entrepreneurial couple styles to start with. You may be a blend of two or even three and you may have changed your style over time. However, I am sure you will find your bedrock image in one of these styles. They include the solo-entrepreneur with a supportive spouse, the dual-entrepreneurial couple, and the copreneurial couple.

Bob and Carol used to work together in their successful nursery and garden supply business, but Bob has since returned to his old employer leaving Carol to manage the business on her own, as a solo-entrepreneur. Bob has become the supportive spouse. He is employed elsewhere, providing emotional support to his wife’s business, but not really involved in the day-to-day management and headaches of running it. Carol, on the other hand, recognizes her talent as an entrepreneur and is much better suited to running the operation on her own as a sole proprietor. Larry and Dorothy, who for 15 years have worked side by side building their farming enterprises, are a copreneurial couple. Copreneurs share ownership, management and responsibility for their business as full-time partners. The term copreneur comes from the blending of the words couple and entrepreneur and was first coined by the husband -and-wife team of Barnett and Barnett in 1988. Copreneurs are different from dual-entrepreneurs in that they operate a joint venture. One partner may have more of the entrepreneurial spirit than the other partner, but they both are equally committed to the enterprise as owners and managers.

Still another style involves dual-entrepreneurs like Sharon and Dave, who each run separately their respective businesses. Sharon is a realtor and Dave runs several successful small businesses. Dual-entrepreneurs are like solo-entrepreneurs in that each spouse is an entrepreneurial spirit tending to their own sole-proprietorship (or even partnership with a non-family member).

They also may function as a support person to their entrepreneurial spouse. What distinguishes dual-entrepreneurial couples from the others is that they each have the entrepreneurial spirit yet they are not in business partnership with their spouses. There are few couples who fit neatly into one category or another. Jonathan, for example, owned a multi-million dollar national advertising company 10 years ago when he met Brooke, whom he later married. Now Brooke heads up a major division of Jonathan’s company. Jonathan and Brooke are copreneurs but often operate as dual-entrepreneurs because of the size of their international business. Anton and Carrie were each solo-entrepreneurs before they married and merged their respective businesses to become copreneurs. Ross and Nalani over the years have experimented with all types of entrepreneurship. In some ventures they are copreneurs. Still in others, each operates as an independent dual-entrepreneur. All the while they consider themselves supportive spouses.

So what is the real value of knowing your style and that of your partner? Stan and Rhonda didn’t evaluate their entrepreneurial style before they launched their successful retail chain, but they could have avoided many painful bumps in the road if they had taken the time to really talk and learn about each other. For years Stan had worked as a controller, transferring to a new company when he needed another challenge. He was good at his chosen career so his moves always bettered his situation. Still he was restless and at mid-life, tired of helping others make their businesses more successful. He wanted to try his hand at running his own successful business.

Rhonda had married Stan after his divorce from Pat, with whom he had three children. She had no children of her own, nor had she been married before. However, Rhonda was well established in her career when she met Stan at work. As an accountant, Rhonda had always found excellent jobs and was quickly promoted. When Stan began talking about starting his own business, Rhonda agreed that they made an excellent team not only because of their love for each other, but because of their combination of professional skills. She was excited to get started on the venture.

Clearly though, this was Stan’s adventure. True to his organizer style, he researched the marketplace to discover the most advantageous industry and location for his new business. He was not so concerned with the type of business, but whether it would be profitable. He was willing to move to a new town where there was a need for his business. Unlike the entrepreneur who pursues a business because they have a passion for a particular industry or product, Stan is the type of entrepreneur who can take any good idea and make it into a profitable venture.

When Stan discovered the right business for him, a store that specializes in a variety of environmentally friendly products for the home remodeler, the couple began the second phase of development. The plan was for Rhonda to keep her job for the steady income and benefits. Stan quit his job and threw himself into the work of getting the business funded and off the ground. Rhonda helped in the evenings and on weekends with whatever odd jobs Stan could not get to.

In this manner the business grew from one retail outlet to two within three years. At this stage the couple needed to reassess Rhonda’s role. Stan could no longer manage alone and still achieve his dream of building a franchise business. Although Rhonda was ready to quit her job and come to work full time with her husband, Stan had other ideas. He was not emotionally ready to share entrepreneurship with Rhonda. Their relationship worked fine when Rhonda was a supportive spouse, but when she left her job, Stan felt that she was usurping his territory. After a tumultuous year of trying to work together as copreneurs, Stan and Rhonda realized that Stan needed to hire professional management and that Rhonda would continue working in corporate America. They just were not cut out for the challenges of running a family business. What best suited this couple is the model of solo-entrepreneur with a supportive spouse.

Speaking of supportive spouses, he or she is often the “unsung hero.” As one wife put it, “My mission is to showcase my husband’s talents.” This wife works side-side-side with her husband in their chain of hardware stores. Her daughter and two sons-in-law are also in the business. While she is vital to the welfare of the business in many ways, her husband operates as the solitary leader of the business. He consults her and the children, but as the founder he has the veto power in all decisions.

Not everyone is cut out to be a supportive spouse…at least not all of the time. Most of us think of marriage as a partnership with give and take, where sometimes we are the leader and sometimes our spouse is the leader. In an entrepreneurial venture, however, this may not always be the case. Entrepreneurs are driven people who can become so consumed with their businesses that they ignore their families. A supportive spouse must do more than stand by and watch. They are often the one holding the entire marriage and family together, so the entrepreneurial spouse can devote his or her undivided attention to the business venture’s success.

Regardless of your style of couple entrepreneurship, all partners eventually must play the part of the supportive spouse. After all, that’s what marriage is about. And the role of supportive spouse is much less complicated if you, as a couple, clearly define the type of entrepreneurship that suits your personalities best. If you are a hard driven, competitive type, probably you will do best as a solo-entrepreneur. If both of you are this type, try dual-entrepreneurship. If you are team players and enjoy sharing the spotlight with the one you love, copreneuring is for you. And if you are the quintessential woman/man-behind-the-scenes, and you don’t really want to be too involved in the daily managing of your partner’s venture, you are well suited to be the supportive spouse.

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