With around 70% of Australian businesses family-owned and operated, it’s no surprise that many of the small enterprises across the country are operated by husband and wife teams, or at least started out that way.
But is teaming up with your life partner a smart business move, or a recipe for disaster?
“Often marriages are made up of two people who have complementary skills and I think that also works well in a business sense,” says Robin Buckham, chief executive of Family Business Australia.
Challenges and benefits
While husband-and-wife businesses face many of the same issues as other small enterprises, Buckham says it’s particularly important for spouses to have opportunities to debrief about the business with someone who is not their business partner.
“It can be lonely in a small business,” says Buckham.
She says it can also be challenging for couples who run their own business to accept that there might be skills they don’t have between them and therefore they need to look outside of their relationship.
“You need to acknowledge that just because you know everything there is to know about computing, it doesn’t mean you know how to file a BAS statement,” she says.
However, on the plus side, Buckham says couples who operate a business together will often develop and share the same vision for the company.
“Family business owners often have a very long view of their business,” says Buckham. “So if you are raising capital for the business, you are going to be bequeathing it to your children and grandchildren and you are sharing that vision with your partner.”
Buckham says many of the family businesses she knows will often start with deciding what they want to achieve as a family, and then determine how the business can help them achieve those goals. “You’re in charge and you can shape the direction of the business,” she says.
Anna Blandford and Gareth Meney from Able and Game: “A little bit of distance can be good”
Melbourne couple Anna Blandford and Gareth Meney started their boutique gift card business, Able and Game, in 2009, coming from backgrounds in screen printing and computing to join forces.
Known for their distinct drawings and quirky humour, Able and Game cards are stocked in about 150 retail outlets and sold online and at local markets by Blandford and Meney.
Blandford told SmartCompany the duo’s business success can be attributed to their complementary skills—Anna looks after the creative side of thing while Gareth oversees the technical side—and the fact that they are not in each other’s pockets 100% of the time.
The pair works from an office rather than their house, but the office is divided into their separate workspaces. “We have distinct spaces, so there are times when we don’t really see each other during the day,” says Blandford. “But a little bit of distance can be good.”
That being said, running a business with your spouse can be all-consuming, says Blandford, who says it’s important to make the time for normal relationship things, like spending a day out together”.
“I think you can also end up just letting the business take over and you stop talking about other things,” she says. “Everything you talk about is business-related.”
But Blandford says there is an important benefit from knowing your business partner so well: honesty.
“You know that person so well, I think you’re not as worried about hurting their feelings,” she says.
Kylie and Jarrod Bishop from LBW Environment: “We’re the masters of our own destiny”
A desire for greater flexibility and control of their own futures led Adelaide couple Kylie and Jarrod Bishop to establish their own business in 2007, offering solutions to companies in the contaminated water industries.
LBW Environment now serves more than 60 clients across South Australia, Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia, employs 14 people and turns over “a couple of million dollars” a year, says Kylie Bishop.
Like Anna and Gareth from Able and Game, Bishop told SmartCompany she and Jarrod decided to start their own business after recognising their individual skill sets could provide the right mix for a new company. While Jarrod comes from a scientific background, Kylie’s skills lie in the commercial and marketing arenas.
The pair met while working together at the same firm in 2001 and Bishop says they “thought long and hard about the decision to start our own business”.
“One of the reasons we decided to go out on our own was to increase not just flexibility but we wanted freedom of choice … to be the masters of our destiny and that is definitely one of the benefits,” says Bishop.
“The other big benefit is that we’re both committed to success in business and at home. I think that has been our prevailing success as a couple. We get the job done at work and then get the job done at home,” she says.
Bishop also says the pair decided right from the start to use an office for the business instead of working from home, and to surround themselves with “a great team” of people who had the skills they didn’t.
She believes this helps the duo avoid being overwhelmed by spending all their time together.
“Even though you love your partner, you need to have other people around all the same,” she says. “We had a very clear mission for success, but we knew we need to have other people involved.”
The couple has five children, so flexibility was also a requirement, with Bishop saying they still wanted to be able to go to their kids’ sports days and pick them up from school.
And she says the flexible nature of their business informs the culture of the company. “It means we can decide to go out for lunch as a team, or decide to finish up early one day”. “It’s about freedom of choice,” she says.
Bishop says a lot of the challenges of running a business are the same whether you are married to your business partner or not. “Picking the right business partner is one the most significant decisions you have to make,” she says.
Bishop’s advice to other husband-and-wife teams is to make sure each partner has distinct roles in the business. “This has allowed us to bring the best of ourselves to the business every day,” she says. “I can imagine if you both wanted to do the same thing, you would get on each other’s nerves.”
She says it’s also important to learn “which challenges to fight and what to leave alone”. “You have to walk that line between not sweating on anything too small,” she says.
Anna Carosa and Stewart Koziora from the Retail Savvy Group: “It’s about respect”
Serial entrepreneurs Anna Carosa and Stewart Koziora opened their third themed restaurant in the Melbourne suburb of Carlton last week.
The duo, who have separately built and sold numerous successfully businesses including Wagamama Australia and Destra Corporation, started opening venues together seven years ago and now own and operate the Asian Beer Café and Father’s Office in the Melbourne CBD, and The Shaw Davey Slum in Carlton.
Their company also operates an online diamond store, Mia Bella Diamonds, and a digital printing company, Printergy Signs and Displays.
Again, this husband-and-wife team found success by each working on different aspects of the business, and allowing each other the freedom to use their own judgement.
“Stewart deals with the commercial side of things and goes and gets the deals done,” says Carosa. “He deals with the finances and I’m sort of more the creative side and quality assurance. I’ll go and do all the interiors for all our venues and work with the chefs and deal with the menus for each of the venues, whereas Stewart runs the bars.”
“We could probably each do each other’s job but we do what we each love and it just seems to work. And we’ve been together for 10 years now,” she says.
Both Carosa and Koziora agree that it comes down to respect. “You’ve got to respect what each other does and let them do what they do best,” says Carosa.
“Most frustration [in business] comes about because of a lack of communication,” says Koziora. “But we communicate, we were already married.”
Carosa and Koziora also say their relationship rubs off on their staff.
“I think the team love the fact that we’re together all the time … and I love it because I’m with my partner and we’re working together and achieving goals together,” says Carosa.
The involvement of their families is also important to Carosa and Koziora, including their three-year old daughter Portia who regularly spends time in the Retail Savvy Group office.
“It’s exactly what my parents did when my brother and I were younger, and it’s the same with Stewart’s family,” says Carosa. “That’s been our life, we live and breathe it and we don’t know anything else.”
“We grew up with being involved in our parent’s businesses [and] the older I get the more I appreciate what my parents did,” says Carosa.
“Just simply taking us to meetings. We were little and probably just playing the corner and not listening, but subconsciously you are sucking all that information in. We were always around our parents when they were running their businesses and I’m sure that’s a big factor in why we are successful.”
The pair say they don’t need to need to take time out from the business, and instead, they thrive on the fast-paced nature of owning and operating an ever-growing company.
“When we’re together, we love talking about work whether it’s good or bad,” says Carosa. “About new ideas, how we can improve, the next thing we want to do. That’s what we do, that’s our banter.”
“You’ve got to love what you do or else, what’s the point,” she says.