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Husband and wife teams – Challenges and possibilities of copreneurship


HUSBAND AND WIFE TEAMS – CHALLENGES AND POSSIBILITIES OF COPRENEURSHIP


Åsa Björnberg

London School of Economics

Couples joining forces in the professional and personal arenas is as old as the concept of the family itself. Historically, husband and wife teams represent a very traditional economic unit. However, over the last decades, couples who are running a business venture together – so called “copreneurs”[1] – may to some extent be regarded as a new phenomenon, not in the least due to the entry of women into the workforce. However, the literature remains relatively silent on the interface between work and love as manifested by these couples. Nonetheless, a substantial subset of business partnerships are founded and grown by copreneurial couples. Estimates indicate that approximately a third of family businesses in the US are run in a copreneurial fashion.[2]

At the heart of the family businesses and copreneurs lies the question - how do emotional and kinship ties among business owners and managers affect the business and its leadership? Another key issue highlighted by the copreneurial phenomenon represents the particular challenges involved in business partnerships, particularly where leadership is shared. Under what circumstances are two heads better than one? Copreneurs are uniquely positioned to address these issues, since they capture the essence of family businesses in a concentrated form.

In attempting to answer these questions, I draw on existing knowledge in the field, as well as preliminary findings from in-depth interviews that I conducted with eighteen husbands and wives who jointly operate their business in the UK. Although there are many ways of defining copreneurship, the definition used here assumes that the business partners are 1) married, 2) work in the business, and 3) jointly make decisions regarding the most important aspects of running the business.

Are two heads better than one?

Emotional drain or emotional support?

Sharing your work and personal space as a couple may be both a blessing and a curse. On the upside, the spouse knows exactly what the other faces at work, and is able to understand and empathize without lengthy background stories needing to be rehashed. The downside is that if the business is going through a rough patch, both partners are deeply immersed and may be less able to detach and remain positive for the other person, partly since they are unable to draw energy from a separate daily source, normally provided by an unshared work space.

Work-love boundaries

Because copreneurs are required derive satisfaction for both work and love needs from the same person, the potential distress they face in the grey zone between home and work is greater than that of dual career couples. As a consequence of the multiple roles and needs in the copreneurial relationship, these couples develop special strategies to cope with its inherent complexity – for example, by explicitly agreeing that the bedroom is off-limits when it comes to business issues. Couples who base their business activity from home, and thus lack a physical boundary, have an even stronger need to cope with potential spillover from either domain.

Trust and conflict

A clear benefit arising from the copreneurial partnership is the solid foundation of trust that copreneurs derive from their romantic relationship. This level of trust is difficult if not impossible to find in other colleagues. Although certain types of conflict may be avoided due to this trust, the level of closeness that copreneurs experience also means that they confront each other more readily. For many of the couples, business needs also forces issues out in the open. Although several couples mentioned that they have developed more effective communication and conflict-resolution skills thanks to the business, there is no guarantee for a reduction of the amount or intensity of conflicts. Indeed, the complexity of the relationship may at times create the opposite.

Whilst couples may be conscious to avoid arguing in front of employees, at times it is difficult not to revert to habitual modes of communication that are used in the private sphere. Dynamics change substantially when couples of smaller businesses hire their first employee. The initial introduction of a third party (in most cases, an office manager or administrator) breaks up the intensity of the marital dyad, often providing a buffer between the partners. It also ensures that the couple has a reference point with regard to their behaviour towards each other.

Role clarity

There is general consensus that clear roles are needed for a copreneurship to function smoothly. The challenge that couples face, however, is not only juggling the roles of husband and wife versus those of professional partnership. Even in the business it may not be clear who does what, particularly if the business is small and the partners need to multi-task in order to survive. Typically, roles evolve according to each partner’s unique ability, preferred task and/or professional background. This is often the result of an implicit process; rarely discussed openly between partners. The lack of formal communication regarding roles may in fact serve to prolong any existing role diffusion.

Complementary or similarity?

Similarity in terms of personality (personal style and character traits) generally points to higher level of marital stability. However, is this the case for couples who need to operate as business partners as well as spouses? Whereas having common values and interests appears to be vital for a well-functioning copreneurship, couples may derive great benefit from being dissimilar from each other in other ways. For example, the wife in one couple has no patience for details, whereas the husband has a developed sense for the particular; this difference has led them to divide tasks in a way that maximises contributions based on the specific preferences and strengths of each party. In another couple, the husband describes himself as quiet and introverted, whereas the wife is more outgoing and sociable. This allows her to network with external stakeholders and gauge the emotional climate among the employees in a way that he would feel uncomfortable engaging in. At the same time, he is able to provide a different perspective, based on his more contemplative and detached approach.

Overall, having different skills and abilities seems to be advantageous. Not only is it more efficient in terms of offering a broader ability towards business and client needs, it is also comforting to know as a leader, one does not have to be everything.

Final remarks

A common theme emerging from the interviews is that the copreneurs experience a high level of togetherness. Working and living together appears to be an active choice which allows these couples to have more time together and develop a deeper relationship. Like all married couples, copreneurs trade for love, sex, status and life support in their relationship. In addition, copreneurs also trade with their spouses for self-esteem, mastery and achievement. This makes it more challenging, but also rewarding for couples who jointly run a business.




[1] Barnett, R, & Barnett, S. (1988). Working together: Entrepreneurial couples. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.

[2] Fitzgerald, M. & Muske, G. (2002). Copreneurs: An exploration and comparison to other family businesses. Family Business Review, 15,1,1-15.

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