by Elle Draper
Working together as a couple abroad wasn’t too much of a leap for us as we’d already been together 24/7 for a while before we left the UK. We spent six years together in Lanzarote in the Canary Islands. Now we live in a beautiful village in the hills of Almería in southeast Spain.
Maybe it was a move overseas that led us to starting a business together, maybe it wasn’t, maybe we’d have done it anyway sooner or later.
However, we certainly have learned some lessons along the way about what happens when you start a business with your spouse.
Setting up a business abroad
We knew that we would need to earn money to live and we were keen to start our own business. For us, it was important that our new life abroad should include an entirely new start and setting up a business was a major part of this. Alan and I had skills that complemented each other, so we knew we could make it a success. Our business has evolved greatly over the past ten years, and we are very proud of what we have achieved.
Starting a business as a couple
It’s unusual for couples to spend so much time together back in the UK (not without killing each other anyway), and so we were quite surprised by how many couples did it in Lanzarote when we first moved there. Here on mainland Spain it doesn’t seem quite so prevalent, but it’s still pretty common. It is not unusual for couples to set up a business together when moving overseas – combining skill-sets to earn a living when conventional employment opportunities are limited.
We have been designing responsive, multi-device websites and doing search engine optimization (SEO) and online marketing globally since 2006 as Gandy-Draper. And together we’ve built Spain Buddy from the ground up, an English language website all about Spain. It contains tourism tips, relocation advice, Spanish recipes, local news, almost 60,000 properties for sale, a free business directory and more.
Sadly, we’ve seen numerous couple-run businesses fall apart. Trying to suddenly be in each other’s pockets all the time can come as quite a shock when you’ve been used to working separately.
Of course we haven’t always found it easy (nobody does), but after more than a decade we seem to be doing something right. We haven’t killed each other just yet anyway…
Nine ways to start a business with your partner (and not kill each other in the process)
Now we share some tips that have worked for us and others.
Couples Working Together Tip #1: Keep your work life balance separate
Alan and I learned this one the hard way. We are both quite obsessive and our work is no exception. We had to learn to forcibly switch off from work in the evenings and weekends to enjoy time together as a couple. Separating work from play is crucial!
Watch some trashy telly, go for a walk, read a book, paint a picture, spend time on mutual interests and bring yourselves back to those things that you enjoy as a couple.
Find some separate interests too. Alan has his photography and I like to walk so we’ll spend time apart outside our house too. Let’s be honest, we all need a break from our spouses from time to time, eh?!
We really do try to restrict work to working hours. But I will admit some of our best brainstorming happens after we’ve had a few glasses of wine in the evening.
Couples Working Together Tip #2: Clock in, clock out
After ill health last year, I cut my working hours very dramatically. Ten to four, Monday to Friday. Gone is the ridiculous seven-day work week from 10 am until 3 am. We get the same amount done, if not more, because we’re working smarter and we’re getting proper rest. There are still the occasional late nights, of course, and the evenings and weekends do sometimes get eaten into, but we try to keep it to a minimum.
Switch the screens off and enjoy some downtime. I know that I don’t personally get more done in the longer hours — I just faff more. If I had a Euro for every time I’d looked back at the past hour and asked myself, “What have I actually achieved?” I probably wouldn’t need to work at all.
Couples Working Together Tip #3: Stop interrupting each other
Although Alan and I are together all day, every day, share an office and work toward the same goals, we do, however, work quite separately. So, although we’re together, some days we don’t really converse until the evenings. We tend to email or Facebook message each other during the day. This means our work flows better with fewer interruptions.
We do sometimes have ‘meetings’ (short and sweet) to talk about what we’re working on and to set schedules. We support each other when one of us has a tougher workload and of course we are always there to motivate and assist when we can. But… if Alan is buried in some photo editing or coding a website, he really doesn’t need me asking him minor questions that aren’t urgent, such as where he is at with a particular client. If I am drowning in data entry, translating a press release, writing an article or building a website, I really don’t need him asking what I think about a particular article he wants to write. So we keep the minutiae restricted to email. Trust me it works! We can then concentrate fully on what we’re doing with the only verbal distractions being things like “Here’s a cup of tea,” “I’m just nipping to the shop,” or “The house is burning down.”
Couples Working Together Tip #4: Who’s the Boss?
Every couple will be different here. For example, Alan and I have a completely equal footing within our business. But in your dynamic, it may work better for the one half or the other to take the day-to-day control.
Perhaps, by way of example, you jointly run a property maintenance business and one of you runs the office, brings in new clients, balances the books, keeps the paperwork up to date… and organises the work schedule for your partner. That doesn’t mean that one’s the absolute Boss, but it could mean that the other listens when time and spending are issues.
Conversely, perhaps you are an Estate Agent. After your years in sales and relevant experience, it may make more sense for you to take the reins while your less experienced partner covers admin.
You know your relationship. You know your business. Find a method that works for you. Play to your skills when sharing out what needs to be done. If one of you needs to be the controlling partner, then that’s cool.
What is vital is that you define your roles and responsibilities for various tasks clearly and you trust each other to get things done.
Couples Working Together Tip #5: R.E.S.P.E.C.T.
When your partner does something that annoys you, try to treat the situation the same way you would a work colleague. Would you blow your stack in the office with co-workers? Probably not, so try not to do it with your partner. To be fair, Alan and I always abused each other verbally (jovially) before we were a couple… so regular insults are just business as usual for us! But, we never approach each other in temper. Keep it professional. So what if he has left the toilet seat up this morning? Or she left her makeup all over the place? Does it really need to be dealt with during working hours? No, of course not.
Couples Working Together Tip #6: Brainstorm Together
Don’t get stuck in a rut, take time to brainstorm ideas and offer supportive suggestions to help each other. As I mentioned above, some of our best ideas come about over a few glasses of wine. Of course getting loaded every day isn’t going to help your business much, but do whatever you need to get inspired. If setting a specific time aside each week works for you, then go for it. If, like us, it works when it comes naturally, go for that instead.
Couples Working Together Tip #7: Relish outside opinions
Try to look at your business as an outsider. We’re all guilty of thinking that we know all about our own business and no change could possibly help. But change is good. Bounce potential ideas off each other. We often find that although one idea may be wrong at first it can evolve through conversation into something of real benefit to the business. And don’t be afraid to bounce ideas off a trusted friend whose opinion you respect and who has already proven to be a successful business person. An outsider may be able to spot things that you’re simply too close to see. Sometimes this can even be a game changer.
Alan was a business consultant when we met and I found his knowledge invaluable as we started out working for ourselves because I’d always been an employee. I had to learn fast. Nowadays we can help each other with fresh eyes.
Couples Working Together Tip #8: Share the chores and the workload
When we first started our business back in 2006, Alan was much busier than I. He was building the websites, running the finances and doing most of the ‘hands on’ business stuff while I just did the networking and sales. So it was natural that I look after the cooking and cleaning and kept him in cups of tea.
Over time that has changed. I took over the bulk of the business when he went to Dubai a few years ago. It was scary at first, but I soon organised my time to squeeze everything in. When Alan came home, it made sense to continue in my new routine, which freed him up to concentrate on other things and he’s now very much focussed (pun intended) on his fine art photography.
Nowadays Alan does most of the cooking, most of the shopping, and most of the “dog care” duties, while I run the day-to-day business. It works well for us. Of course when Alan is under pressure or has a tight deadline, then I step in and take those things over for him as he does for me.
Always try to be flexible and supportive.
Couples Working Together Tip #9: Accept when it’s just not working
Of course it’s not for everyone. You need to be ready to try something else if your work is causing issues in your marriage. Communicate with each other and don’t allow things to build up. It would be devastating for you both (and your loved ones) if your marriage breaks down over your business.
If your working together is putting your relationship at risk, then stop! No job or business is worth losing the love of your life over. Make the change and if one of you needs to do something else, such as getting a job elsewhere, then do it.
If you simply can’t work together – then don’t!
Have you started a business with your spouse? Tell us your own tips below!
Photo: Elle Draper and Alan Gandy, by Paul Boden