Mr and Mrs SME: Eight tips to business and relationship success

You may have heard the term ‘co-preneurs’; it’s a buzzword to represent the brave, and in some cases, foolhardy spouses that decide to run a business together.

And there’s no shortage of them, with 46% of family businesses’ ownership controlled by a husband and wife couple. There are many formidable businesses created by married couples around today, such as Fiji Water, Cisco, FLICKR and, closer to home, Harris Farm Markets.

But even today there is a heavy bias towards men (89%) sitting in the owner/manager position. Often, as in our plumbing business, the venture is born as the ‘baby’ of the male partner and the wife enters the business to help out.

Women are often employees filling support roles like payroll, bookkeeping and reception work with far lower salaries than their husband’s. A husband and wife team is the image presented to the world.

However, you need only to ask the question: “Who’s in charge of the final decision making?” to get a true taste of where the balance of power lies.

In fact, women experience glass ceilings in family businesses as much as elsewhere.

Being in a male-dominated industry, it’s expected that I take a support role and a common question from people is “Oh, so you do the books?” This expectation highlights that a woman’s involvement in their family business is often underestimated.

This is despite the fact that women bring proven benefits to businesses. For example, studies have shown that companies with women on the board outperform all-male boards and recent research analysis by Goldman Sachs demonstrates that Australian gross domestic product would improve by 11% if we could narrow the gap between males and females in the workforce.

A large part of Pipe Perfection Plumbers’ success is a result of my husband and I embracing ‘gender strengths’ (as we like to call them), to create a business that is unique. For example, it is a well-known fact that women tend to place a greater emphasis on the customer experience.

Perhaps this is due to our increased tendency to nurture. This is evidenced in our business where my involvement has resulted in an unusually high emphasis on customer care, providing helpful advice, and a big focus on branding and fun.

We’ve developed a sophisticated approach to creating advanced workplace systems, high standards for our plumbers and are one of the rare plumbing businesses active ong social media, with a fab website to boot!

The majority of those who actually contact us for plumbing services are women. And we know that women drive most household purchase decisions. So in industries like ours, empowering the women who work in the family business, can work to appeal to the core customer base.

My husband in turn has focused on plumbing standards, technical excellence in our work, sales targets and most things to do with the hands-on plumbing side of our business.

You can carve out a role as a true co-preneur, even if it once was just “your husband’s business”, by working on different aspects of the business that your husband may not excel at (and let’s face it, if you’re married to him, you will likely understand his strengths and weaknesses almost better than anyone).

In turn this also allows him to focus his time and effort on his strengths. Knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses makes for a strong team. And when combined with good communication, your achievements are all the more sweeter when produced by and shared with someone you love.

After eight years of running a business with my husband, these are the essential lessons that have led to our business and relationship being a success:

1. Bring specialist skills or experience to the business so that you can fulfil a senior role. If you don’t have them, get some training. Stepping into a senior role without adequate knowledge can result in underperformance and a loss of confidence (which may exacerbate any existing power imbalances).

2. Review, recognise and respect each other’s strengths. For instance, Darren has incredible plumbing and practical skills, an impeccable work ethic and a natural flare for sales but lacks finance or marketing ‘know-how’. This is where I come in and meet those needs and more.

3. With those strengths in mind, agree to your roles. Always listen to your spouse’s ideas and opinions but take full responsibility for your area. Your decision is final and you bear the consequences.

4. Seek advice from external sources – business coaches, consultants, mentors and professional associations. A third party can look over ideas or give honest appraisals of performance without fear of hurting the other.

5. Communication is a key challenge in 39% of family businesses. Focusing on improving personal communication will have an instant positive effect on working together.

6. Set boundaries – there must be a clear distinction between home and work. Phones off, dinner at the table and no discussion of work. If all you ever do is talk shop, you’ll want to spend your down time with other people and never your spouse.

7. Managing the workload at home fairly demonstrates equality and respect. The ‘CEO mentality’ of the husband can creep into the home too, with the wife feeling a little like an employee, not partner.

Wives may spend equal amount of time in the office but find themselves shouldering the bulk of the housework and child rearing duties. Resentment builds, undermining the personal relationship, which in turn affects the success of the business and the marriage. Divide and conquer in a way that is fair for both partners so that chores don’t destroy intimacy and a spirit of teamwork.

8. Listen – don’t interrupt or make non-verbal disapproving gestures when the other is speaking. Hear what the other has to say and recognise that your response needs to be different at home than it is at work. At home, it’s ‘listen and don’t fix’ but at work, you make the switch to ‘listen and suggest solutions’.

Husband and wife co-preneurs are not only capable of creating successful businesses, but also enjoying themselves in the process. The key is to constantly tend to your personal and professional relationship, to keep not underestimate your beneficial place in your business.

Women can regain the balance of power in co-preneurships, and add value to their family businesses. As co-preneurs embrace gender differences and recognise the benefits of women in business, the glass ceiling can be lifted to see the role of a wife in business as more than administration and instead see it as helping to lead a business to success.

This article first appeared on Women’s Agenda. Laney Clancy is the marketing and finance manager at Pipe Perfection Plumbers in Sydney.


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