Chuck and Brenda Horton at Sugar Bowl Ski Resort April 2010

About eighteen months ago, Hware’s business model was redesigned and I became a business partner with my spouse, Chuck.  While our business relationship is young, we have nevertheless been together as a couple for nineteen years. Being familiar with each other’s idiosyncrasies has prepared me for a journey of perseverance and patience. Let’s face it, there is no denying it. It is HARD, especially if you have two people like me and Chuck, who are long-time entrepreneurs; and whom neither one of us ever seem to be lacking with opinions about how we should go about building the business.  Yet, partnering with someone you like, trust and know on an intimate level can also be very empowering. I believe the overall integrity of the business partnership comes down to what I think are the five most important elements to the success of the business and a healthy relationship.  I share them with you with the hope that we can have a conversation about spousal business partnerships.  Surely we are not the only ones who have chosen to go down this path. We have  much to learn from one another don’t we?

  1. Be clear on your roles. Who is responsible for what, when, where, how and why. For example, in our software business, Chuck is primarily the the creator of our products. He is our software developer, programmer, Geek Guy. (Obviously, I have a thing for Geeky Guys. I married one.) He architects the software, designs it, and supports it.  My primary role is to market and sell the software.  There is no confusion about our roles in this capacity. That’s not to say that I don’t offer feedback and opinions about how the software looks and feels from an end-user’s perspective or that he doesn’t comment on how to brand it.  In addition, some of our roles overlap from wearing many different hats. However, we are very clear on our primary roles.  Here is how we have broken down our responsibilities:
    Chuck: Finance, Business Development, Long-Term Strategy, Software Development, Company Culture, and Technical Support.
    Brenda: Marketing, Branding, Online – Offline Sales, Social Media, Strategic Relationships, Business Development, Company Culture.  As our company continues to grow we will add operations and admin support, but for now, we share in those roles as well.  As we evolve, other roles will later be absorbed by outsourcing services, vendors, and employees. We also recently set up Hware as an Limited Liability Corporation where I assumed the role of president of the company. The reason we did this? The software industry is dominated by White males. We like to do things different here at Hware.
  2. Know your strengths and use them well. We all have strengths and weaknesses. We decided early on to build a strengths-based organization.  I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised at how many people try to build a business going against their strengths. This just does not make sense at all. Imagine me trying to build our own website or Chuck calling on prospective customers. It’s just plain common sense to have people play to their strengths versus their weaknesses. We took a strength-based test before we became partners and it gave us a unique perspective going into the business relationship. One of Chuck’s major strengths is his ability to quickly process complex information and regurgitate it in a simple format. He is also a systematizer. He has used that strength to take complex processes and technologies and simplify it and systematize it for our business so that it runs smoothly and efficiently. Before we changed Hware’s business model, this is how he earned a living — offering business and technology consulting services. However, getting him to write a blog post would be like prompting him to eat his cereal with milk. He hates dairy milk and eats his cereal dry.  I, on the other hand love to write. I have always loved writing. I was a student journalist for my college newspaper at the University of Texas in Austin. I have also kept a personal journal since I was a teenager.  So, it makes strength-based sense that I am the one who blogs for our company. Fundamental to the success of growing an online presence for a small business is blogging. It plays to my strength. I recently looked at our google analytics on our website and the number one traffic driver to our site was an organic search on google! That means the blog is working! Now that’s an example of my strengths performing with optimal results!  Now, if I can just get folks to leave their comments, that would be even better. Hint, hint.
  3. Have clear boundaries and strong communication. This one has to do with knowing yourself and your partner. Because we both live and work together, it is easy for us to talk about our business 24/7.  This is not healthy for the relationship.  It’s important to turn it off and take a break. So, if we have a business related topic that we want to discuss during non-working hours, we usually try to ask permission to discuss.  Chuck often jokes by saying that I am the person in his life that taught him to say no and helped him establish strong boundaries. Our conversation usually goes something like this —  Brenda: “I need to run something by you regarding technical stuff. Are you at a place where we can have a conversation?”  Chuck: “Not right now.  I am giving my brain a break.” Brenda: “I really need to flush it out. When can we talk?  It is time sensitive.”  Chuck: “Will tomorrow work for you?”  Brenda: “Yes, how about first thing tomorrow morning during our hike?”  Chuck: “Fine.”  Chuck is much better than I am about turning off the business brain. Have you ever met an entrepreneur or business owner and all they talk about is business? Can you say BORING?  Please, get a life. Give it a break.  Don’t be that Guy or Gal.
  4. Have each other’s back. It starts with RESPECT! Put the egos aside.  There is no room for pride or self-absorption in a partnership. I don’t try to tell Chuck how to develop software just as he does not try to tell me how to network, negotiate, build business relationships, sell or market our software. We respect each other’s business acumen.  We don’t try to micro-manage each other or control each other’s daily activities. We set our goals and however we choose to achieve those goals is up to each individual. In addition, we know when to back off and give each other space when dealing with difficult issues, and believe me, there are many.  We have each other’s best interest at heart. Also, I think it is important to set each other up for success. For example, Chuck can work long hours of programming and he will occasionally forget to feed himself. This behavior has negative consequences. I call it Coder Behavior. Anyone who is married to a software developer knows what I am talking about. Anyway, one of my passions is cooking.  So, whenever I take a meal break, I always check in with Chuck and offer to bring him some of whatever I have cooked up. I know he appreciates it and it saves him from CRASHING at the end of the day.  Which leads me to my last insight.
  5. Don’t take things personally. Being a small business owner certainly has its frustrations and hardships.  Here’s the thing…Don’t EVER make it about YOU! The world does not revolve around you. Building a business is challenging enough without adding drama to the equation. If you are committed to your business and your relationship, you will do what is in the best interest of your relationship and the success of your business. Check yourself. Ask yourself if your ego or pride is getting in the way of making solid sound business decisions. I know we are emotional human beings, and there is a time and a place to express our feelings, but business is really about common sense and bringing solutions to our trials and tribulations.  So, be a SOLUTIONARY!

These are just a few insights from my own personal experience of having a spouse as a business partner. How bout you? I would love to hear from you in the comments section. Don’t be shy!  Please share a tidbit of advice or experience that has helped you navigate the spousal business partnership. Or, if you are just entering a business relationship with your spouse and you have some questions, ask away. Perhaps we can be a sounding board for one another. Let’s start a conversation. We can all learn from each other!

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