The story of a Husband and Wife family business: My own

husband and wife family business

The day I realised my business skills didn’t match my builder’s skills

husband and wife family business

In 1984 I came to Australia full of enthusiasm and confidence that I was going to set the world on fire. After a few detours I started a building company, renovating houses in the inner city. I did well, as a builder. There are not a lot of streets in the innercity suburbs of Sydney where I haven’t had something to do with at least one house in the street. My building skills were up there with any builder in Sydney.

My business skills however?

Different story.

For the first years, the businesses operated on the edge of disaster nearly all the time. Perennially short of cash, paperwork piling up, behind on the quoting… I was overwhelmed, and the business (or I) wasn’t going to survive for the long term.

My wife at the time, (we divorced 20 years later, but that’s an entirely unrelated development) was concerned. She could see what was going on and she worried that I and the business were going to go under unless something changed. So she suggested that she join the business and take control of the back office, the systems and procedures, financial management and HR, allowing me to focus on the stuff I was good at.

And she did… Long story short, we became a family business and things turned around and 20 years later we sold the business to my junior partner, allowing us the room to move on in other directions.

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Mum and Pop against the world

Turning the business into a ‘husband and wife’ operation was the best thing that happened to me as a business owner. Until that time, I’d felt alone, unsure of myself, overwhelmed and frustrated, and although I wouldn’t have admitted it out loud at that time, the business was definitely not in a good place. From the moment my wife became involved, fully, I had someone to share my challenges with, to brainstorm with, to plan and strategise with. And I was able to let go of business functions that were not my strong suits (read: that I was hopeless at).

In family businesses, it is often the case that one of the partners starts the business on the basis of his or her profession or trade and then at some later stage the spouse joins the business to take control of some of the functions of the business that the founder of the business has trouble with.

As a business coach I specialise in working with such husband wife business partnerships, because although being in business with your spouse can be enormously rewarding and many great businesses have been built on the back of a marriage, there is also another side of the coin.

The other side of the coin looks quiet different.

Unique challenges

Waking up beside your business partner every morning comes with it’s own set of unique challenges. Here are just some of them:

  • It can be incredibly difficult to learn to ‘leave work at work’, if you’re waking up besides your business partner every morning.
  • Sometimes the spouse who joined the business (my wife in my story above) can feel like they’ve sacrificed their career for that of the partner. Resentment is one of the most destructive emotions in any kind of relationship.
  • Sometimes the admin partner has joined out of necessity rather than from skill, training or experience in this field.
  • Relationship dynamics can get in the way of business partnership dynamics.
  • If the business fails it can wreck the marriage as well.

I’ve written an article on my blog recently about some of those challenges, here. And there is a great article on the Smart Company blog about a bunch of business couples who have been successful here.

My wife and I experienced many of the challenges listed above as well. I’m happy to say that we managed our way through them. I think we both felt it was the honesty of our communication about the challenges that made the difference, along with the fact that we accepted the challenges as real and important, right from the beginning. We also engaged invaluable external help at various stages in our journey.

The Beyoncé and Jay-Z Family Business Survey

So how are the pros and cons of family business balancing out in your circumstances?

I have created a special survey that may help you and your spouse initiate a series of powerful conversations about the state of your business and home relationships. Inspired by the power-couple of the music business, the survey is called the Beyoncé and Jay-Z Family Business Survey. You can access it on my website here. It consists of only 12 questions and should take you more than a few minutes to complete.

The most effective way to use the survey is for both you and your spouse to complete the 12 question survey separately and then to sit down, compare and discuss the results with each other. In your discussion, practice curiosity: “I see you scored question 3 quiet low, a lot lower than I scored it. I’d love to hear how come you gave that score there”. The conversations that follow will start to change your business and your life… I promise you.

Family Business Australia is a great organisation that supports family businesses in Australia. There is a special Family Business resources page on my website here, and there is a page about how I help husband and wife family business owners make business fun again here

Family business and the 7 Big Questions of Small Business

Business owners frequently ask 7 Big Questions about how to Build a Beautiful Business and Life.

The 6th of the 7 Big Questions is: How do I make our family business work better? 

To answer this question I have identified the 9 biggest challenges (and how to overcome them) to making your husband and wife family business work. There is also a page on this website with lots of family business resources to help you move things forward, as well as a page outlining the way I support husbands and wives partners in business.

This is one of several articles on this site that explains how to make your family business work, in some depth.

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