When two's company, 24/7

Last updated 05:00 04/01/2014

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Taking work stress home, arguing about money and undermining your partner. Business coach Andreas Becker says these are some of the common mistakes couples make when they set up a business together.

Becker would know - he and his wife made these mistakes when they set up a video shop together eight years ago. Becker had previously worked for a big corporate and had a good relationship with his wife.

But working together sparked conflict. "I sacked her often and she walked out of the job a few times," Becker remembers. He says hiring a coach transformed the business, and their relationship.

"I was so excited about it that I decided to help other people as well."

He started as a regular business coach, but soon noticed he had the biggest results with couples. Since then, more than 100 businesses in industries ranging from retail to trades to hospitality have received his advice.

Christchurch psychotherapist James Driver, from Black Dog Psychotherapy, says relationships are one of the main issues that bring people to therapy.

Doing business together brings another layer of challenge.

"Any relationship takes quite a lot of work if it's going to be successful. Working together doesn't make it worse, but couples have to deal with each other many more hours of the day and have less space away from each other to express frustrations . . . It adds that much extra pressure, and I think it can be quite exhausting."

So what are the main dangers of doing business together for a couple?

FAILING TO DEFINE CLEAR ROLES

Driver says couples typically do not discuss expectations and assumptions around their partners' role unless these expectations clash. When working together, roles need to to be defined, he says.

"In business, you need that clarity." Becker agrees.

He works mostly with small construction businesses and has observed that men are often technicians while women tend to be in admin and finance and are less likely to have a clear role.

"When the business is small, it's OK," he says.

But as it grows, undefined roles become messy.

"The key thing is to make a clear separation: you're the builder, and you're the office manager, for example."

Becker says women are often underused and don't get the recognition they deserve. Kate and Blair Cunningham run a construction business. Blair is a builder and Kate manages the office.

She says Becker helped her define her role, and encouraged Blair to express how much he valued her contribution.

Becker's intervention also helped her juggle family and business. She employed a nanny, following his advice, and learned to leave work behind and spend more quality time with her family.

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Becker says he has observed men often struggling to delegate while women are  more open to taking advice from others. For Driver, the inability to delegate has nothing to do with gender.

"The founder of a business, male or female, often finds difficulty delegating effectively." However, men often feel socially more pressured to be the breadwinner, he says.  

MIXING BUSINESS AND FAMILY

Taking business problems home is another common pitfall. Driver says work can become a never-ending discussion for couples who work together.

"Normally if you go home and bring an issue from work, your partner is not going to be able to offer any input other than moral support.

"But if you work together, your partner can engage you at a work level and you're actually talking work at that point."

For Becker, failing to draw a line between family and business is a major pitfall for couples in business together.

"Leave the shop talk in the business. Have a proper business meeting, but don't bring it home."

One of Becker's clients, Emma Kwasza from tiling company Protiles, says coaching sessions helped her and her husband Leon learn to separate work and family time.

"As a couple working on a business you actually never stop working. It becomes what you talk about from the minute you wake up until you go to sleep."

Becker advised them to hold business meetings and to interact as they would with any other professional. Wife and husband dynamics don't have a place in business meetings, and business partners are off at home.

"We have scheduled meetings weekly where there's none of the potential bickering. It made a huge difference for us as a couple and for the business," Kwasza says.

UNDERMINING YOUR PARTNER

Driver says expressing contempt for a partner can be damaging, yet it happens often in any type of relationship.

Business partners who are couples have to work harder to manage conflicts in a way that is healthy for both the business and the couple, he says.  

Becker says there are some little gestures that erode relationships. He says research on the topic indicates that couples who have a habit of rolling eyes at each other and showing contempt have a higher chance of divorce.

"It is a sign of discontent, disgust almost. The partner unconsciously picks it up, and it adds up over time. If I see that behaviour, I stop immediately and explain what's going on and say ‘if you want to get divorced, continue, you will be. Stop it now.' "

Becker's instructions to improve a couple's relationship include stop rolling your eyes, buy flowers for your partner, and show recognition.

NO MONEY, NO TIME

Driver says couples who struggle to pay mortgage and bills are more likely to have destructive arguments around money.

Conflicts become less significant when basic needs are covered. Becker says a lot of his business coaching revolves around time and money.

If the business is not financially viable, the pressure on the relationship will become too intense, he says.

The purpose of a business is not just to get a salary; it is to build a future and create financial freedom for its owners, he says.

"The couple work so hard in the business that they have no time for friends and limited time with family. Most of them haven't been on holiday for years and years. They think it's the only way for the business to grow."

Being busy can become an addiction, Becker says. "As soon as someone says 'I haven't got time', they are not in control; they are a victim of time. You can change it around and become a boss of time."

Becker says most couples who contract his services are ready to change. However, some are just not a good business fit.

 "They think they have to work together in the same business but that is not true. They could hire someone else and the partner could work on their own business."

Driver agrees. He says couples who work well together in practical areas - finances, buying a house, having children - are more likely to succeed as business partners.

But if a couple struggles in those areas, starting a business together could be risky. "Two people are not necessarily suited to do business together.

The danger is that the business suffers and the relationship suffers too."

COACHING BUSINESS

Becker coaches between five and 10 couples a year. His wife, Eleanor, directs office and finance work. A client is typically worth between $15,000 and $20,000 a year.

Becker turns over between $100,000 and $200,000 a year.

- The Press

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