The four secrets to running a profitable family business

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

Learn From Those Who Know

One of the most challenging of lifestyles is working with your spouse in a thriving business. Most entrepreneurial couples would have it no other way. They love the opportunity to be independent, in charge of their own destinies, and to work along side the one they love and trust most. Maggie and Paul are such a couple. Maggie is a veterinarian with two clinics. Her husband Paul is an assistant district attorney. Although Paul does not work full time in the clinics, he is always a support. Paul is frequently seen at the clinics on his days off, in the evenings and weekends, where he helps Maggie build shelves, organize supplies, care for the boarded animals and so on. And when Maggie brings her “work” home with her, Paul and the children get a chance to be foster family to yet another animal friend.

It hasn’t always been easy for Maggie and Paul, however. Like any other entrepreneurial couple, they have had crises in their marriage and crises in the business that seriously rocked their security. Somehow they pulled through these crises, however, and have come out the other side in superior shape. So the question is . . . how? What do successful entrepreneurial couples know about keeping a marriage and a business on track? And can other couples learn from them? Whether in business or marriage, problem solving requires gathering information. It just makes common sense to find out what successful entrepreneurial couples know and do that works for them. Out of these strategies, you may find a nugget that applies to you and your spouse.

100% – 100% Rule

Over the years I have had the opportunity to meet many entrepreneurial couples and there is a pattern among those who have long-term happy marriages interwoven with a prosperous business life. First and foremost they follow the 100% – 100% Rule. That is, each partner considers her or himself 100% responsible for the quality of her or his individual life as well as their joint ventures (i.e., parenting, household duties, managing and promoting a business). While most couples follow a 50% – 50% Rule, meeting each other half way, by following the 100% – 100% Rule entrepreneurial couples meet each other all of the way. They each put his or her whole self, talents, intuitions, and muscle into the relationships of marriage and business partnership, making each equally responsible for the outcome. Even though for efficiency’s sake they may divide up duties along the lines of who is most capable or available, they still consider themselves as responsible as their partner for the success of the goal.

Encourage Competition

Without question entrepreneurs are achievers and highly competitive. Without these qualities they could not create a successful business venture. Sometimes the achievement motivation and a healthy dose of competitive spirit are all that sustains the entrepreneur during extremely lean times. However, achievement needs and competitive drives are not reserved only for entrepreneurs. These qualities are evident in many people such as corporate executives, Girl Scout leaders, truck drivers, teachers and homemakers.

Sometimes it is not always easy to admit that you are in competition with your spouse, but once the truth comes out you are in a much better position to work with the inevitable. If you are feeling envious of your spouse, or resentful, you are experiencing competition. If you are feeling smarter than your spouse or the need to have the last word, you are experiencing competition. If you evaluate the worth of yourself and your partner by how much you each earn, you are in competition. Instead of being embarrassed by your competitive nature, or suppressing it or even denying it, admit it and acknowledge the problem to your spouse. Then do what successful entrepreneurial couples do . . . they encourage it!

Believe it or not, successful entrepreneurial couples actually encourage competition in their partners but they do put their relationship off limits. That is, their love for each other and commitment to their marriage and family life come before business or career needs. By following the 100% – 100% Rule they forgo competition within the relationship, but can foster it outside the relationship. For example, they give credit where credit is due. If they are copreneurs, working full time together in their joint venture, there are rewards and incentives built into the business for each partner to achieve. Instead of paying only the founder of the business and undervaluing the other spouse’s unpaid help, the supportive spouse is paid what they are worth and not a penny less. Bonuses aren’t banked for the common good, but awarded to the spouse who achieved the reward. Each partner is encouraged by the other to achieve their dreams, to express their strengths, to utilize their talents. If this means besting your partner in a career or business move, it shouldn’t be threatening to your spouse, but viewed as a challenge to work toward his or her own excellence.

Worrying about ego or pride is a waste of precious energy that can better be used in pursuit of your dreams or being creative. Harness that competitive spirit and re-direct your achievement need toward the things you do best at the business or at home. That way not only do you succeed, but your spouse, family, business and community benefits too. What better way to express the 100% – 100% Rule ?

Make Love the Top Priority

With the pull of achievement needs and competitiveness in the business world, entrepreneurial couples have their work cut out for them to sustain balance in their personal lives. Making time for friendship, romance and family togetherness is difficult but imperative. Again successful entrepreneurial couples have figured out how to make love the top priority. They have abandoned the old methods that worked when they were younger and had free time. They realize that spontaneity or waiting for the “right moment” is not likely to happen today with their lives full of so many responsibilities. Rather, they

realize that they have to plan for love to happen and be sustained. And they build a structure they can count on to keep these priorities straight. For example, they schedule once-a-week “dates” with each other to talk and rekindle romance. They make time in the morning or at the end of each day for uninterrupted discussions about anything and everything that is necessary to talk about to keep the flow smooth. They go on frequent mini-vacations of two or three days to pull themselves away from the demands of entrepreneurial life. They each volunteer their time to one community cause or child-related activity. All of these approaches help you remember why on earth you are working so hard anyway . . . to share your successes with the ones you love.

Renegotiate the Terms of the Partnership

By making love the top priority, entrepreneurial couples have a simple way to notice when they need to reorient their lives. If there is no time to give or receive love, from each other or the others in their lives who are supposed to count, then it becomes time to renegotiate the terms of the partnership. If life isn’t meaningful or fun for either of you, it is time to re-evaluate the marriage or the business partnership or both.

In order to keep a business healthy, a business owner must not only be aware of market trends, employment needs, and movements of their competitors, but they must also be prepared to alter their business plan accordingly. Within your personal life, it is no different. A marriage agreement that worked when you were twenty, may be outdated for a couple in their forties, for example. Or aspects of the marriage contract may be archaic while others are still solid. Don’t throw the baby out with the bath as the saying goes, but if some things need changing, do it now, or suffer the consequences of a loveless marriage.

I have met too many entrepreneurial couples where the only thing holding them together is the business. They have forgotten that the business is a function of their love for each other, that by encouraging each other to achieve excellence, they have created a successful venture. By recognizing that the love is diminishing in your relationship and by being willing to renegotiate the terms of your marriage and partnership, you may be able to rekindle the romance and re-direct the business to new heights.

The Guidelines to Success

Although it is a lot work to maintain a healthy personal relationship among the busy-ness of entrepreneurial life, the methods of doing so are simple. Successful entrepreneurial couples already know these secrets. Now it’s your turn to cash in on what they know.

  1. Follow the 100% – 100% Rule and you will have a trusted full-time partner at your side.
  2. Encourage achievement and competition in your partner and you will share the fruits of his or her success along with your own.
  3. When you make love the top priority, you always have a marker to guide your decisions and direction in life.
  4. Finally, when you get off course, stop and renegotiate the terms of the contract, so that you can nurture and sustain business and marriage growth.
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