How to Stay in Business and Out of Divorce Court

Advice from small businesspeople on keeping both your marriage and company successful.
Freelance Writer and editor, Self-employed
May 08, 2012

Back in 1987, Lauren Dixon was a single mom living near Buffalo, N.Y. She’d just launched her own advertising agency and was in need of a writer and photographer, so she put an ad in the local paper and a few days later received a call from Mike Schwabl, a photojournalist in search of a new project.

The two met and sparks flew immediately. They married the following year, and in 1991 Schwabl became 50-percent owner of Dixon’s agency and the couple renamed it Dixon Schwabl. Today, 80 employees work in the company’s Victor, N.Y. office and things are going well. So well, in fact, that the firm is regularly ranked high by the Best Places to Work Institute.

So what is Dixon and Schwabl’s secret? How are they able to run a business together and stay happily married?

“I’ll tell you right now, it takes three things: open communication, mutual respect and offices on different floors of the building,” Schwabl says with a laugh. “We also count to 100 a lot.”

Here's some advice from Schwabl, Dixon and others who have run successful businesses while maintaining happy marriages.

Separate your duties. Dixon says that separate spaces are important, as well as separate duties. She focuses her time on the public relations and account services portion of the business while Schwabl specializes in the creative side, working with writers and producers. “There are weeks when we don’t attend anything together,” she notes.

Eric Koger and Susan Gregg Koger also subscribe to a separate duty arrangement. As co-founders of ModCloth, an online women’s clothing boutique based in San Francisco, Eric sticks with operational tasks while Susan specializes in creative merchandising. Each person is able to make executive decisions based on different areas of the business, thereby providing some autonomy.

Prioritize your personal relationship. Owning a small business is an exciting, invigorating and stressful proposition. Going into it with your romantic partner can add another layer of stress. The Kogers deal with challenging situations by keeping a strong perspective. “We acknowledge that our personal relationship has to come first,” says Koger. “If things ever started to go south with our business relationship, we’ve agreed that we would restructure responsibilities before it seeped into our personal relationship.”

Always stay respectful. Employees may feel uncomfortable working under bosses in a committed, personal relationship. Make it easier on them by saving your disagreements for private times. “I’ve heard horror stories about couples being disrespectful in front of team members and I can see that kind of behavior as a catalyst of things falling apart professionally as well as personally,” says Dixon.

Respect extends to listening, she adds. When making business decisions, one partner may be more decisive than the other. Make sure to take the time to hear each other’s opinions and consider each point of view.

Ease into the business. Starting a business together can be a daunting task. Make it easier on both of you by going one at a time, like the Kogers did. They started the company while still in college. When Susan graduated, she went full force into ModCloth while her husband worked part time and studied for his MBA. It wasn’t until a year later that they started working together full time, an arrangement that served them well.

“Don’t both quit your day jobs at the same time,” Koger advises. “I recommend slowly testing the waters to see what it’s like working together. You can get out some of the kinks that way.”

Do you own a business with your spouse? How do you manage to make it work?

Photo credit: Thinkstock

Freelance Writer and editor, Self-employed