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Three tips for running a successful husband-and-wife business

When I tell people that I co-own a consulting business with my husband, I usually get a wide range of reactions that range from bewilderment (“wow, what is that like?”), to disbelief (“I could never do that!”).

And, there are plenty of couple-founded business success stories (Crate & Barrel, Houzz, Eventbrite and Cisco to name a few) to boot.

It’s certainly unconventional, but not impossible to do. You simply have to figure out how to work together effectively. In honour of International Women’s Day and in celebration of women entrepreneurs, I’d like to share the story of how my husband and I founded our company, how we make it work and how truly exhilarating it is to be equal partners in business and life. 

Twelve years ago, my husband Shaheen and I founded our company, Pragilis (I’ll save the story behind the name for another blog post!).

Starting a consulting firm was my husband’s idea, and I didn’t really buy it then. I was in a stable, cushy job and I wasn’t into taking risks. But after we both gained some experience working with and among some of the world’s largest consulting firms and proved ourselves capable as individuals, we decided it was time for us to start our business together.

We started out small and grew slowly over the first few years, and now we have a team of change strategists who work on consulting assignments with a number of notable clients in Western Canada. 

People frequently ask us, “how do you work with your spouse?” The truth is, we don’t really interact much at work. He has a role distinct from mine (his role is in business development and I manage our consulting practice). He often meets with other members of the team more frequently than he meets with me. In fact, we have to schedule a weekly one-on-one to make sure we have enough time to work on the business, rather than in it. We typically devote this time to key decisions and to gauge how our business is doing. People laugh when we tell them this, but it’s just that busy for us. 

It’s not always easy running a business with your spouse (shocking, right?). It’s terrifying to think about how both our livelihoods depend on the success of a single business. Sometimes work spills into our personal lives and we’ll debate fiercely over the dinner table. Our kids will gently remind us, “mom, dad, no change management!” Other times, we have to go into client meetings right after a business dispute became a personal one, pretend to be cordial and do our best to be attentive to the client's needs. After all, in a service-based business, people don’t buy the brand, they buy you. People look to the two of us to embody the core values of our firm. 

I wouldn’t however, trade this for the world. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be on your own as an entrepreneur, and I certainly commend the men and women that do. It’s immensely gratifying to share in the successes and failures of running a business, one with a shared vision, with your spouse. We both share a much-needed grit and fervour for a higher purpose and channel that energy into our business. As a young family, the flexibility for my husband and I to make our own schedules is priceless. And, there’s really nothing like the exhilarating feeling of building a truly amazing company together. 

When things get tough, we remind each other why we started this business in the first place: to help humanize organizational change. And for us personally, to have greater control over our discretionary time so we can find our own work-life balance. Here are three ways we learned to work together to become happier co-founders and stay married:

Tip #1: Know your strengths and have distinct roles

In business, just as we do in our personal life, Shaheen and I complement one another and know our unique strengths.

He’s definitely more extroverted than I am, is able to quickly relate to others and thrives on deepening relationships with people; this is key to his success in the business development role for our business.

I have more of an “expert presence”; I have deep expertise in the domain of change management and can quickly diagnose a problem and propose a solution.

He’s a master at strategic thinking and I’m more adept to executing.

Because we’re well aware of our strengths, we play to them in every interaction with our clients and prospective clients. We draw a line between the decisions he’s accountable for and the ones that fall to me; that way, we’re not constantly checking up on eachother.

And, we set separate and clear goals and targets for each of our respective roles. Yes, there will be days where we slip up and instead of asking “how was your day?” one of us (usually me) will say “did you follow-up up with so-and-so?”, but we’ll recognize now when it happens and quickly course-correct.

Leverage your differences and don’t allow them to become a source of exhaustive conflict in your relationship and in your business.

Tip #2: Set boundaries, but be flexible

When we first started out, Shaheen and I would talk business non-stop. Now we have set some clear rules for our “business” time and our “personal” time.

The general rule is that business talk is not permitted after-work hours or on weekends, so that we can devote our time, energy and focus to our family and to our relationship.

The dinner table is not the place to discuss business and it’s definitely not acceptable to talk business in the bedroom. If one of us doesn’t want to talk business, then nobody talks business. 

Family vacations are also considered sacred. Unless absolutely necessary, we generally don’t check our work emails or attend to phone calls while on vacation.

Sometimes on family camping trips, we just let our phones run out of battery. We like to come back from a vacation relaxed and refreshed and we like to encourage our team members to do the same - this means we have to "walk-the-talk" when it comes to our values. We have to be good role models in our business and in our personal lives. 

There are going to be days when these rules need to be flexible; drawing a clear line between personal and business isn’t always realistic. Communicate it, agree to it, and move forward. We usually say something along the lines of, “I know we’re not supposed to be talking business right now, but this is critical and I need your help...” and continue the conversation.

Running a business and living a life together requires mutual respect and constant communication. You’ll need to get good at transitioning between the two worlds, many times a day. 

Tip #3: Always put love first

Although you’re spending what may seem like endless days and nights building a business together, you need to consciously take time to work on your relationship.

The same energy, focus and intention you bring to your business world must be brought to your relationship. You need to remind yourself that your relationship is far more than just about work. 

In the beginning, we were so busy with our business and our family life that we neglected our relationship. Our communication began to break down and our relationship began to suffer. We realized that we hadn’t done a date night in months. In fact, we couldn’t find anything else to talk about other than business. Problems can certainly escalate when you don’t know how to shut off. 

Now, we schedule date nights once a month, book a nanny, and spend a carefree night on the town. We strictly avoid business-talk and often talk about personal hobbies or life goals. My hope is that this strong emotional foundation carries through and dictates our success. 

Final words

As a result of building a business together, Shaheen and I have learned a lot about each other’s strengths and weaknesses and respect each other even more.

We’ve deepened our appreciation for the skills and talents we each possess that contribute to the success of our business - a category of success we may not have seen as individuals.

Although I’m still not a kamikaze risk-taker, I love being an entrepreneur and being able to share the experience with my husband. We are thrilled about the vision we have for Pragilis and look forward to continuing to share our entrepreneurial journey with you. 

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