Business Startup Planning

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In Sickness and in Health. . .and in Business

Can a writer and a graphic designer find happiness together? More to the point, can they work together without leaving their personal relationship in a shambles?

When my husband and I joined together in business as well as holy matrimony, I was a little concerned about whether our marriage would suffer from so much "togetherness." I'd heard retired people complain that they'd married their spouse for better or for worse, but not for lunch. Would we get bored with each other? Would our diverse work habits drive each other crazy?

I needn't have worried. Our business and our marriage are getting along swimmingly. For those of you contemplating working alongside your spouse or significant other, here are a few keys I've learned to maintaining peace, harmony and mutual sanity:

Keep some space between you. Living together and working together can start to feel claustrophobic to some couples. Thomas and I maintain separate home offices: mine is in a spare bedroom, his is in the basement. We're connected by a wireless intercom. If you have to share an office space, a screen can help create an illusion of privacy. Try to schedule some time alone in the office each day.

Know your competition. Your competition tolerance, that is. Thomas and I don't compete with each other: I don't try to design logos, and he doesn't try to write press releases. For us, noncompetition is good. Another couple may thrive on a little healthy competition. Learn what works for you.

Take each other's strengths (and weaknesses) into account when assigning tasks. Don't get hung up on "roles" when it comes to doling out tasks. It's simply common sense for an extrovert to make sales calls, or a detail hound to keep the books. If both of you are miserable at accounting, make plans to hire an outside bookkeeper rather than making one spouse suffer with burdensome details (and possible mistakes).

Don't take work problems home with you. Leave them at the office. Remember that the marriage is not the business, and vice versa. Each has its own issues, rewards and problems. If it helps, visualize zipping up an imaginary "work suit" when you arrive at the office, and peeling it off on the doorstep of your home. Actors call this technique "stepping into character" when they're preparing to go on stage.

Don't bring relationship problems to work. Some employees balk at working for a family business, with good reason. Few things are more uncomfortable than witnessing stony silence or bickering between spouses that has nothing to do with the business at hand.

It's especially hard to maintain a work/marriage division if your office is your home. Try using a catch phrase, such as "we're on the clock," to signal when marriage topics are off-limits. Promise your spouse you'll talk about the problem later. . .and then be sure to do it!

Respect each other's opinions. Acknowledge that each of you is a thinking adult with valuable skills, experience and abilities. If you don't think your spouse is smart, what are you doing in business together?

Don't save common courtesy for outsiders. Simply remembering to say "please," "thank you," and "good job" to your spouse goes a long way toward keeping a relationship humming.

No dumping. Every job has its sweet juice and its bitter pulp. Don't launch a project, do all the fun stuff, and then run off, leaving your spouse with all the less-attractive details of finishing the job. It's not fair, and it's a surefire way to build resentment.

Hang on to your sense of humor. My husband and I joke about how the cat is our office manager and the chinchilla (a nocturnal animal) is the night foreman. We created an imaginary boss named Mr. Farzel whom we never see, but who leaves each of us notes and email messages. Somehow, a note from "Mr. Farzel" asking me not to leave my socks in the living room seems a lot more palatable than the same message from my husband. Hey, whatever works! And the inside joke draws us closer together.

Your marriage and your business don't have to be mutually exclusive priorities if you give each of them the care, attention and respect they deserve. Find what works for you and your spouse, and keep the lines of communication open.

Now, if you'll excuse me, the office manager is rubbing up against my leg, reminding me it's time for lunch.

[Jennifer Leo's home-based business, GraphiComm, is a design, editorial, marketing, production, ad specialty and Web page design firm located in Streamwood, Illinois.]

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