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MAGGIE JACKSON | BALANCING ACTS

'Co-preneurs' brave work-life challenges

'Co-preneurs' Joanne Chang and Christopher Myers each play distinct roles in running their South End restaurant. 'Co-preneurs' Joanne Chang and Christopher Myers each play distinct roles in running their South End restaurant. (Photo by Erik Jacobs for The Boston Globe)
Email|Print| Text size + By Maggie Jackson
March 9, 2008

Staying married is hard enough these days. Could you stay in business with your spouse, too? In a new twist on the traditional mom and pop shop, millions of couples are running businesses together, from bakeries to software consulting, and clothing lines. "Co-preneurs" prize the intense togetherness that others might find suffocating, and the idea of finding a business partner they can fully trust.

"It's impossible in almost any scenario to find a business partner whose interests are so much aligned," says Dan Ratner, who became chief operating officer of his wife Genevieve Thiers' start-up, Sittercity.com, a few years after she founded the online caregiver service in 2001. Thiers is the company's chief executive.

Still, the risks are high. If the partnership or marriage sours, all is at stake, says Miriam Hawley, a Cambridge therapist who runs an executive coaching firm with her husband, Jeff McIntyre. Together, they interviewed 50 couples for their forthcoming book "Intimate Leadership: The Power of Couples In Business Together" (New Win Publishing, fall 2008).

"There's a downside to everything being in one basket," says Hawley. "If you're having a hard time on the business or personal side, everything can fall apart."

By one estimate, the "drop-out" rate may be steep. Twenty percent of co-preneurs surveyed in 1997 had quit working together by 2000, according to national surveys by Glenn Muske, a professor at Oklahoma State University. Still, the total number of such couples - 3 million - remained steady, meaning just as many went into business together as quit during that period, says Muske, adding that about one-third of US family businesses are led by couples.

So in an era when close to half of first marriages ultimately fail and two-thirds of new businesses collapse within four years, how do co-preneurs do it? Aside from the need for a rock-solid relationship, the secrets to such twinned work-life success seem to be knowing where to draw boundaries and carve out breathing space - from each other and from the job.

This can be difficult for people, like Christopher and Jennifer Smith, who tend to complete each other's sentences. Christopher is the president of Aquent Graphics Institute, a software consulting firm for publishers that Jennifer started in 1994. She is executive vice president of the Woburn firm, and they have three children, ages 2, 4, and 7.

"It can be difficult . . . ," begins Jennifer.

" . . . spending too much time together," interrupts Christopher. "We don't share an office anymore. We do need to go off and do our own things."

"You get so comfortable that you meddle in . . . ," she adds. And he jumps in, "each other's affairs." Then they good-naturedly bicker a bit about whether she's correct in calling such meddling "disrespectful."

Perhaps that's why employees can be forgiven for thinking the pair are in Jennifer's words "sharing the same brain." Says Christopher: "Someone in our Chicago office will have a conversation with Jen and they presume that I must know everything that took place with her."

On the flip side, their closeness means they each inevitably hear more of what's going on at the company, and employees receive "an additional sounding board," observes Christopher. The company's finance guy, for instance, recently asked Jennifer how he could persuade Christopher to file expenses on time.

Playing distinct roles within the business is key to surviving as co-preneurs, many say. Boston's Flour Bakery owner Joanne Chang says her strengths complement those of her fiancée Christopher Myers, a partner in Radius, Via Matta, and Great Bay restaurants. Five years after becoming a couple, they opened their first joint venture eatery last year, Myers+Chang in the South End.

"He'll come in to the bakery and say, 'I think you should spruce up the artwork,' " says Chang. "He's a restaurateur. He's been in the business longer. He's not a chef. I'm a pastry chef."

"You're walking up each other's backs all the time if you don't have a reasonable division of responsibilities," says Myers. "She loves being hands-on in the restaurant, and communicating. I like working on tweaking the mechanisms of the business, the marketing, the branding, how the restaurant feels and looks and tastes."

When disagreements inevitably arise, couples take different tacks, from using e-mail even across the same room to physically separating for a bit of time. "It gets personal so fast," says Thiers of Chicago-based Sittercity.com. She and Ratner married last year, although they've been a couple for nearly seven years. "We don't fight about anything except work."

During one particularly heated disagreement over a marketing strategy, the pair discovered the "Camp David approach" of negotiating with each other through a written document to keep their argument professional, says Ratner. It worked, and they now use that strategy if needed. They also have a prenuptial agreement that outlines the company's fate if they divorce.

Now Thiers and Ratner are setting a new work-life goal: they're trying not to talk about work 24/7. Last year, they managed a rare feat for co-preneurs - a vacation - and during the 10-day honeymoon in Marrakesh, Morocco, they hardly talked about the company. But they couldn't completely get away: they checked into work twice a day.

NEXT: Couples who run a business post-divorce.

Maggie Jackson, author of the forthcoming book, "Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age," to be published in June, can be reached at Maggie.jackson@att.net.

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