Running a business with your spouse has advantages. A year ago we decided—after asking Twitter where was nice to live—to move from Maidenhead to Bristol. We were able to relocate home and business easily because our work and life together is one thing. We can head out for a walk or a run together and chat through a possible new feature for Perch or a business decision that needs making. Our life and business goals are one and the same.
My husband Drew McLellan and I are each a 50 percent shareholder in the business, while my college-aged daughter works for us part time. Other roles are fulfilled by contractors and freelancers. Major business decisions, from product features to financial issues, are made by the two of us.
We do have defined roles. I started the company, so a lot of the business of doing business comes down to me. I also enjoy the activity of running a business, and have a good head for accounting and legal issues. Drew is lead developer on Perch, and the direction of the product and codebase is his. We discuss most decisions, but there are distinct areas of the business that we each take the lead on.
However, when decisions need to be made that one partner is unhappy with, the overspill into non-work life can be difficult. How do we support each other as husband and wife while being able to argue the pros and cons as business owners? Where most people can leave work and head home to get outside input from their partner, couples in business can find themselves without that outlet.
Even when things are going well, there is a danger of becoming insular. On many issues, Drew and I come to a shared conclusion quickly. Is that because we are right or just because we read the same things, have the same experiences? These are difficult questions to answer.
Our small part of the web industry can be a navel-gazing place at times. Just watch how the same tweets circulate, the same products are mentioned, by the same small group of people. Asking advice from my friends in the industry can be very similar to asking advice from my partner. They know me and what I do too well, and are probably being influenced by the same books, blog posts, and speakers as I am.
Sometimes it takes an outsider to point out the mistakes you are making, and to open up conversations and ask questions that you might never ask yourself.
Getting some “business therapy”
Drew and I really enjoy watching business reality shows on TV—especially the sort of thing where an experienced businessperson goes into a failing business to help them out. A show airing in the UK at the moment has hotelier Alex Polizzi performing this role in family businesses. We cringe as we see the TV businesses making seemingly obvious mistakes. We sometimes wonder how much our own perspective prevents us seeing our own errors and the opportunities we miss out on.
Having an outsider look at your business can be incredibly helpful. We recently applied for, and were accepted into, the UK Business Growth Service’s Growth Accelerator scheme. This comes with several benefits, but the most interesting to us is the chance to work with a business advisor. When I first heard about the scheme, I had visions of being paired with an ex-bank-manager type, someone from a very traditional business. I imagined I’d spend more time explaining how our business worked than getting any real advice. That hasn’t been the case. Our advisor, Matt Spry, has enough technical background to understand what it is we do, but enough distance and wider business experience to be able to ask us questions we’d not ask ourselves.
We’ve been led through exercises that we know are a good idea but that seem a bit odd to do on our own, especially as a couple in business. Last week we covered a table in a local café in sticky notes to work out which aspects of our product are most important to different groups of customers. Every time we meet with Matt, it sparks conversations we might not have had with each other. It does sometimes feel a bit like “business therapy.” Even though Drew and I tend not to have too many conflicting ideas for the business, having a third party pose questions that are very much in one of our areas of responsibility is certainly helpful.
We’re still in the middle of this process with the Growth Accelerator scheme. It is too early to judge whether this input will increase the success and growth of the business. We have already found, however, that voicing concerns and considering a different viewpoint has started to make us confident to try changes we might have avoided before.
Finding your own outside help
We’re involved in a formal scheme, but there are other ways in which you could get input for your own business, whether you work alone or run a family business of some sort. Many of my peers are part of mastermind groups, groups of three or four people who meet regularly to offer input into the businesses of each member of the group. Episode 167 of Startups for the Rest of Us talks about how to set up and run such a group. Another method would be to try to find a business mentor. In that case, I’d advise looking a little outside of your direct field in order to gain a true outside perspective. Close friends are unlikely to ask the hard questions, and may just confirm the things you think you already know.
It’s so tempting to think we know it all. It’s so easy to become inward looking, especially when working alone, or with a partner or close friend. I’ve come to realize just how valuable an outside perspective can be. I’d encourage every business to look for ways to get that kind of input.