How to Run a Business with Your Spouse

Published on June 25, 2023

How to Run a Business with Your Spouse

If you have a perfect relationship with your spouse in your personal life and in running your business without any animosity, resentment, conflict or issues, you can stop reading now. But if you run a “ma-and-pa” business working with your spouse or significant other, can we talk?

Barbi works from the original home office — the living room (2001).

When my husband Paul and I launched The Garden Gnome over 20 years ago, we were a full-service landscape design-build company. To get away from my 9-to-5 job and to be able to stay at home to raise our son, who was 2 years old at the time, I decided to turn his hobby into a profitable business — not an easy task for a variety of reasons!

Originally, my duties included answering the phone at any time of day or night, because that’s how you get business, right? I also dealt with clients and potential clients who would show up at our front door at any time of day or night with questions, comments, concerns, ideas or just to visit. Oy!

I also did all the drawings, because I had a bit of education in that area. We spent weekends marketing at public events, most of the time dragging our toddler along because we didn’t have anyone to baby-sit. So, we juggled the toddler and the public. (And, yes, we used his cuteness shamelessly to attract attention.) These events included garden tours, home shows, public speaking engagements, networking events, hangouts out at a nursery display pond, and anywhere else we could get in front of people, because we were operating on a shoestring budget, and guerilla marketing was all we could afford.

Aqua Ultraviolet

I did the bookkeeping, payroll, taxes and any other task associated with the administration of a business. We couldn’t afford any kind of professional help, so I had to research what needed to be done and then make it all happen. Paul spent 10 to 12 hours a day building with a handful of whatever guys we could get to show up each day, and then ran all over town evenings and weekends tap-dancing for potential clients to get new work. The business (along with our son) grew slowly and steadily.

Leap of Faith

After about three struggling years, we made the leap of faith to launch The Pond Gnome, specializing in organic ecosystem water features, and left full-blown landscape design and builds behind. It was almost like starting over, and we began the whole process all over again. Again, the business (and our son) grew.

Eventually, we were able to hire a certified public accountant, which helped tons and took some of the more complicated work off my plate. We eventually decided that we had to set boundaries for answering the phone and accepting client visits to our home.

During the first 10 years, I worked as a silent partner, meaning that no one else in the industry really knew I existed. I was just the wife who did Paul’s books and answered his phone. It’s not that I wanted to be the company figurehead — heaven forbid! — but I got a little irritated when suppliers and clients continually offered goodies, rewards, lunches and the like to Paul while I felt chained to my desk running the business.

Taking the Business to the Next Level

Paul and Barbi Haldeman
Paul & Barbi Holdeman have received many industry accolades over
the years.

At about 13 years, I needed the situation to change, and I finally managed to convince Paul that if we were going to be a real business, we needed to be seen as The Pond Gnome so that someday we could sell the business and retire. This was a long road that lasted a few years. Hiring our first business coach in 2016 and learning how to systemize our business was a huge leap in that direction.

We still have some older clients who demand to speak to Paul instead of our service manager, but what are you going to do? We’ve come a long way over the past 23 years with the help of several different business coaches, all who had their own specialty to impart to our growing company. Paul is now the CEO, and I am the COO of a $1 million-plus company, and our son (now 25) is also a big part of our company. All’s well that ends well, right?

Tips on How to Run a Business with Your Spouse

Steal the Show

If you’re sitting at a desk all day, saying “Oh, poor me, nobody appreciates what I do,” stop it! All that does is foster resentment and make you bitchy, which makes people less likely to want to be around you, and the cycle perpetuates itself. I’ll admit, I was guilty of this.

The solution? Find your passion. Find a part of the business that you like and that you’re good at. Then, promote yourself in that area. If you’re awesome at social media, sign your work! If you run the website and blogs, make sure there’s an author’s biography online so that people know it’s you. If you like being in front of the camera, do the videos and vlogs! If you enjoy being in the background doing the nitty-gritty detail stuff, embrace it and own it.

Most of all, be honest with yourself. If you’re feeling under-appreciated and it’s making you crabby, do some soul searching to find out what you really want out of the business and out of life. Then, go after it. You have the power.

Can You Hear Me Now?

Parker joins the construction team after high school (2016).

Oh, yeah, this is a toughie! We’re partners, we’re spouses, we’re parents, we’re sons, we’re daughters, we’re sisters, we’re brothers … and we tend to let all that get mixed up in the same conversation sometimes.

You’re out to dinner on date night talking about the kids, and suddenly business comes up. That’s natural, as it’s part of your life. You’re in the office and your kid calls or comes in whining about something — the business conversation just got flushed. You two are having a meeting, and your husband’s fantasy football team co-coach calls or texts with a trade offer, and he answers it! Or, your bestie calls you with her drama of the day, and you answer it! Any of this ring a bell?

If you guys aren’t communicating, the entire business tends to break down. Employees get confused because they’re being told different things by different people. Marketing can stall out because no one is making a decision. Clients take advantage of the “he said, she said” scenario, because one or both of you doesn’t know what’s going on with that particular issue.

You need to treat each other as partners and set aside time to communicate as such without distraction. You wouldn’t let a friend or relative or child interrupt a meeting with a client, would you? Then don’t let outside distractions interrupt a meeting with your business partner. Set up a time (daily, weekly, etc.) that works for both of you and put it on the calendar! It’s a meeting. Period. Write up an agenda with bullet points that need to be covered. During that time, treat each other as business partners and equals. (Save the sexual innuendo for later when you’re back to being in the spouse roles.)

Let’s not forget the other half of the equation: your marriage. You must take time to be partners, to let go of the pressures and stress of business, and to focus on each other. This is not always easy, but neither is divorce. If you need to find a good marriage counselor to help you get things on track, do it. Your relationship with each other permeates and filters down through every single aspect of your company. It affects your employees, your clients and your management team. If you are working the business together, then you two are the business and its culture.

Divide & Conquer

Paul and I found that we work pretty well together, especially if we each have our own “territories.” We consult on pretty much everything, but some areas are his to manage, and some are mine. For example, I take care of the inside of the house, and he takes care of the landscape and garden. If there’s a big decision and expense, we talk about it; otherwise, we just get things done. Not every little thing has to be decided by a committee.

Likewise, in our business, I don’t try to tell him how to build a pond, and he doesn’t tell me how to do the daily administrative work. (In fact, he’d really rather not know!) We learned a long time ago that this company needs both of us, or at least both of our roles in the business (i.e., both halves of the whole). That’s not to say that you shouldn’t know something about the other’s job in case of an emergency, but it might help the business — and your relationship — to get out of each other’s way.

Set Boundaries

If you’re one of those couples who do everything together, kudos to you! We’re not. You have to find out what works for you. If you need to set boundaries, do it. Go with your strengths, and let the other half help with your weaknesses (yes, you have to admit that you have them). Never be ashamed to ask for help. It’s a lot less painful than needing to be rescued.

Also set boundaries with clients! Keep regular hours and stick to them. Don’t allow your clients to run your schedule or your life. Some people think that because they’re your client, they’re also your friend — not really. Friends and family members often feel like they can call you any time of day or night with their trade-related questions, which is simply impolite. With clients, you can be professional but firm in setting boundaries. With friends and family, you might just have to live with it, unless you have the kind of relationship where you can be blunt.

Boundaries absolutely need to be set with clients. You cannot allow them to constantly interrupt your life outside work hours and expect to sustain your sanity. If they call outside designated work hours, let it go to voicemail. They’ll figure it out. If they show up at your house unannounced, politely explain that you’re in the middle of a family activity (even if you’re just sitting around in your undershirt watching football). You have to maintain the line between client and friend. Once blurred, it can continue incrementally and actually end relationships.

Pull Your Own Weight

Feel like a nag sometimes? Yeah, me, too. This is a very difficult subject. No one enjoys nagging — no, seriously, no one. But if you feel your spouse is slacking, you feel compelled to say something, right? So, bite your sarcastic tongue and try to find out why first. Maybe they’re having a brain freeze, and a little help and compassion from you could propel them past it. Or maybe they just flat-out forgot that something needed to be done. Or maybe they actually have a good reason for putting something off that you aren’t aware of. My point is to remember that you’re married to, and sleep with, this person, so be gentle with your words.

Finally, leave work at work. This is huge! (And it’s probably the most difficult hurdle.) If you hope to have a happy marriage, this needs to happen once in a while. Yes, the business is part of your lives, but your marriage was there first. Remember that time? Take time to be spouses and parents and friends and neighbors. Take time to recharge your batteries. Take time for a hobby. You and the business will be better for it.

In summary, if you are unhappy with your role in the company, change it. If you want more involvement, take it. But be careful what you wish for! Spend some time on a little self-reflection and decide what you really want: more credit, more attention, more money, more time with your family, more time for hobbies or charity work, etc. Once you’re honest with yourself about what you want, then you’ll be comfortable with whatever decision you make. Then it’s time to have an open, honest conversation with your partner about what each of you wants out of the business, life and your marriage. Sleep well!

Barbi adds signs to the wall of the new construction yard (2015).

3 thoughts on “How to Run a Business with Your Spouse”

  1. Barbi,
    We met at MHPS23 in Denver. You may not remember me, but I’m the “smiley, bald guy” from Kansas. Believe it or not, I stumbled across this article this morning while researching…and I recognized your name from Denver and the BATTLEGROUND community.
    The above article on “Living Life in Business with Your Spouse” is so well-written and thoughtful that I just had to tell you how much I enjoyed reading it. Funny. Relatable. Spot-on.
    Sheri and I experience the same challenges, and your reminders hit home for me personally as well. Thank you.

    1. Of course I know who you are! You are our BG Ambassador. Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m so glad you enjoyed the article, and that it provided value to your life.

  2. Barbi,
    Aaron recommended this article and I think it was wonderful. My wife is starting to work in my business this week and your words have helped me to think about what is important in our lives together as spouses and how to approach our new roles. Thanks for the insight!

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