Starting a Business With Your Spouse? Define Your Roles and Stick to Them

Running a business with your significant other creates an incredible sense of teamwork and togetherness that many couples don't get to experience. But don't let anyone fool you: working with your spouse is like riding a roller coaster. It's not for the faint of heart.

My husband and I launched our first business right out of law school. We were young, broke and very, very hungry for success. This was 1997 when the Internet was still in its infancy and full of promises. Phil had an idea for a business, and we jumped on it. We just kept moving forward without pausing to plan or think long term. We certainly didn't sit down and discuss who was responsible for what.

The business took off, but we were lucky our marriage survived. Without any kind of formal structure, we were constantly stepping on each other's toes.

When you are running a business with someone you're incredibly close to personally - be it a husband, significant other, child, parent, friend, or sibling - you're more likely to give unsolicited advice or pop your head into their office when they're in a meeting. You're also intimately familiar with each other's strengths and weaknesses - this means you'll probably be quicker to preach, doubt and judge.

I learned all this the hard way when I took it upon myself to meet with Phil's team and ask them to bring one of my ideas to fruition. I was impatient with Phil's long-term, big-picture planning and wanted things done fast. Phil felt disrespected that I intervened with his team and believed that my request would end up adding more time and money to the project in the long run. Needless to say, it was a tense time at the home and office.

Fast forward more than a decade later. We had sold that original company to Intuit and were ready to start anew with another business. This time around, we were older, wiser, and had the benefit of multiple years of couples' therapy under our belts. In particular, we knew that if we wanted to run a business together, we needed to be on equal footing with full autonomy in our defined roles.

Since Phil and I are virtually polar opposites, it was relatively easy to divvy up company roles. Phil is creative, tech-savvy and a visionary, but his sparks of inspiration don't always conform to the traditional office schedule. I, on the other hand, am a creature of routine and habit. Phil can have a great idea, but I'm typically the one responsible for executing on that idea and getting things done on time.

We sat down and honestly and openly discussed our strengths and weaknesses. These aren't the easiest conversations to have, but they're necessary. At the end, we made Phil responsible for web development, product development, and advertising. I'm in charge of general operations, customer service, and inside sales.

Defining roles is the easy part. It's much more difficult to hold up your end of the bargain to stay within your own lane and not get involved with your partner's department, employees, or decisions unless asked.

The bottom line is no two people will ever agree on anything, no matter how compatible they may be. It's hard to resist the urge to jump in when you're dead certain that your spouse is wrong and about to fall flat on his (or her) face. But here's the key: a business can survive missteps. Mistakes can be corrected. It's the second-guessing and ensuing resentment that can bring everything down.

In addition, it's important to recognize that resentment can spawn from company titles, particularly when one spouse or partner is CEO. I've been on both ends of the issue, since Phil was CEO of the first company and I'm now CEO of the second.

However, a title is just a few words or letters. My being CEO doesn't make me any more important to the business than Phil. And my meeting doesn't necessarily trump Phil's meeting when it comes to balancing who picks up the kids, etc.

In addition, when husband and wife (or two significant others) found the company together, it's pretty rare that the "CEO" pulls rank and makes a unilateral decision on an important matter. There have been several times when Phil and I don't see eye to eye, and I'd love to pull out my CEO card, but that's just not the way it can work. We started the business together, so we both need to be involved in making the major decisions that impact the business' future together.

The most important thing for us to keep in mind is that our marriage and four children always come first, no matter what's happening in the business. While we have been able to work together over the years, we know that if we hit a major stumbling block down the road, the priority will always be to protect our marriage.

While it hasn't been an easy ride, I would not want it any other way. By working together and working through these issues together, it has made us a stronger couple with a stronger healthier marriage.