Cubed Guest Blog: Managing a business with your life partner. Genius or crazy?

 

Sally founded littleBIG from her spare room in 2007. She has a strong grounding in lifestyle marketing and PR and a driving philosophy that we can change the way businesses thrive in this world and keep our heads and our humour while we do it. She has a laser focus on smart strategy and inspiring and developing the littleBIG team to be the best at what they do. She has led and executed strategies for the likes of Target, Dr. Martens, Skechers, DoubleTree by Hilton, Bang & Olufsen, The Athlete’s Foot, Queen Victoria Market, Dresden, Food & Wine Victoria, Procal Dairies and many, many others.  

Sally has kindly guest written an article for Cubed by Law Squared, a resource for early-stage startups. 

12 years ago I founded littleBIG solo and continue to be the sole director. About half-way through that journey my friendship with one of our design freelancers blossomed into romance and hey presto, we're now married with two kids under four and Rich and I manage the business together (he heads up creative). 

We live together, work together, parent together, eat together, sleep together, holiday together, socialise together. Everything together. Well, not everything actually, and that's probably the key to it... but more on that later. People often ask us "how do you do it?". "Don't you get sick of each other?" "Don't you argue?" "Don't you just constantly talk about work all the time?" Well yes, yes and sort-of yes, but mostly running a business together is a truly wonderful thing and, I believe, a key driver behind our happiness as a family and the success of our business.  

It hasn't always been smooth sailing though. Here are the lessons I've learned about how to run a business with your spouse without divorce, bankruptcy or any admissions to rehab facilities... so far!

Don’t expect it to be entrepreneurial bliss from day one 

It took us a couple of years to find and establish necessary boundaries within the business and at home. 

When Rich first moved into the office full-time we made the crucial error of sitting side-by-side in the open-plan office. He would be constantly glancing over at my screen and criticising me for "writing emails - again! All you ever do is write emails!" (yes Rich, management and comms work is a lot of emails - amirite people?). That drove me crazy. And I'd continually drive him crazy with my "loud typing" (whilst writing all the emails obviously). That alone set us off on a tricky path and we were pretty annoyed with each other when we went home. Easy fix for that one though - we moved desks and life was much easier.  

Other things weren't so easy to fix. I'd had a good seven-ish years of running littleBIG solo (recruiting and managing staff, setting objectives, making calls about what we did and who we worked with, setting up the admin processes, etc.) before Rich officially came on board, bringing his direct clients into the littleBIG fold and working with me to expand our creative business further. It was important to him that he came in at a senior level - making calls and being involved in key decisions. I was used to being the only boss, answering to no-one really (apart from clients of course). What I said went and if I wanted to do something a certain way, I'd just go ahead and do it. All of a sudden, I had someone critiquing my approaches and making different business moves than I would. It was unsettling for my ego, identity and workflow. I was defensive and argumentative, and so was he in response.  This was unsettling for staff and created animosity between us at home.    

Likewise, Rich had been used to working solo and making his own calls. He was excited about having a team to work with and opportunities to build the agency, but he wanted to maintain the same level of authority and control he had when working solo. In reality, he was now working in a business established by and directed by his wife. As keen as I was to share the highs and lows of littleBIG with Rich and truly call the business "ours", it was hard for me to get out of old habits and make space for him at the top of the business. And it took some time for him to get in the management groove with staff he'd been working side-by-side with as a freelancer, for years in some cases. All of a sudden, he was their boss and I wasn't the only person they needed to report to and take heed of.  

If you start your business from scratch together, I imagine these power and identity struggles will be less pervasive although you’ll still bring your previous work styles and ego needs to the business. Stuff will come up.  

Get some professional help 

We just didn't seem to be able to find our way on our own, so we engaged a psychologist to help us navigate towards establishing structural, communication and work/life balance techniques to make running both home and work life together sustainable. It was the best investment we ever made. We learned so much about what each of us needs to be validated, inspired, creative, productive and happy, and how to best manage and work with our team individually and collectively. After a few months tackling these issues with our psych, we stepped into a flow that services us as individuals, a couple and the business really well. 

And that was more important than ever because around the same time along came our first born.  

Share the management load beyond the two of you – at home and at work 

Instagram: @salharley: Happy Monday night. Business owner life. Kids in bed, laptops out to plan work for the week, one-pot wonder in the belly, school dentist form half complete. Fun! Seriously though, a dream to share it with the  #hothusband  🙌🏻🤩

Instagram: @salharley: Happy Monday night. Business owner life. Kids in bed, laptops out to plan work for the week, one-pot wonder in the belly, school dentist form half complete. Fun! Seriously though, a dream to share it with the #hothusband 🙌🏻🤩

Since becoming parents, maintaining equilibrium in work and home life has never been more important and we've been really mindful to make necessary adjustments along the way. 

Through pregnancy I gradually reduced my workload down to 3 days a week and took about four months "off" when our first son was born. I was still in touch with the business, but Rich and other senior members of the team kept the ship afloat. How I would have done that without my life partner also working in the business I honestly don't know. In fact, that year was a great year of growth for littleBIG and a true testament to the solid team Rich and I have become, and the team we've built around us. 

I returned to work three days a week which felt like the right balance for us as a family. Gratefully our parents shared the child-minding load when I was at work and eventually so did our wonderful daycare provider. The business continued to grow and that welcome yet increased pressure, on top of now having a child to care for tested our mettle again. We were finding it hard to agree on key decisions. Our minds were split in too many directions.  

It was at that point we realised we needed to find someone to help us run the business. Someone to be the more detached neutral party, to share the load of business management and also to fill a strategy gap we'd identified. They needed to be a great personality fit with us. We were all going to work closely. They also needed to have more or different experience than we had. It was a lot to ask now I look back on it but when we found Kate we hit the jackpot.  

She's been with the business for two and a half years now, in a general management and strategy role. She's been integral if helping us establish a new equilibrium, providing the voice of reason and acting as a senior management figure not married to the "other one"! I think that's been really helpful for our staff. They can talk to Kate about issues or ideas they have about me or Rich without worrying our personal relationship would complicate things. Without Kate, I certainly don't think the business would have grown further through the birth of our second child. 

Equalise 

Sometimes it's all hands on deck - our kids helping Rich set up a store for Melbourne Cocoa

Sometimes it's all hands on deck - our kids helping Rich set up a store for Melbourne Cocoa

Another body and soul at home to care for and more business growth, of course raised the degree of difficulty for Rich and I. Rich was carrying more load at work and I was carrying more load at home. We decided to balance the scales in late 2018 and now Rich and I both work in the office four days per week, spending one day a week each at home with our kids. The truly equal balance is working wonderfully for us now. 

Spend time apart 

One of the other things we prioritise and try to enjoy in equal measure is time out for ourselves. For us that means exercise (I like to practice yoga in the mornings, he does pilates at night) and spending time with friends. We do plenty of socialising together, but we also love to catch up with friends one-on-one or go on trips with our oldest pals while the other stays home with the kids. I think these are the things that keep us from burning each other out.  

Should you? 

Right now, in July 2019, I can honestly say that choosing to manage a business with my life partner was a genius move. There's been plenty of crazy along the way and there will be more to come no doubt, but overall, being able share the roller coaster of managing an SME with the person you love the most is incredibly rewarding, supportive and fun. Rich brings an instinctive, creative and decisive edge to the business I never could have. And being able to download your work day at home with someone who's right there in the trenches with you is great. You really feel each other's joys and challenges and can be truly understanding of one another in a way that's just not possible when you don't work together.  

If you're thinking about embarking on a new business with your life partner, or involving them in your existing business I say do it IF: you are willing to seek professional guidance and support; are both open to compromise and adapting your work style; communicate well together; and are willing to let others help. 

Enjoy the ride! 

 

 

 
Trent Milvain