By Gretchen Hyman, contributor of Underground Group
⏰ 8-minute read
Family-run businesses comprise 64% of the U.S. gross domestic product, and husband and wife teams run 1.4 million businesses nationwide.
Running a business with your partner brings both unique advantages and potential pitfalls.
The real-life experiences of co-founding couples provide advice for co-founders from all types of relational backgrounds.
In a market that increasingly values personal connection, couples-owned enterprises bring unique, homegrown passion projects to life.
Family-owned small businesses currently account for 64% of the U.S. gross domestic product, and husband and wife teams run some 1.4 million businesses nationwide. These “mom-and-pop” companies have traditionally survived challenging economic times over their corporate counterparts due to their founders’ strong bonds and family commitment -- winning marketplace differentiators.
Couples who start a business together can enjoy a level of trust and accountability that isn’t found in regular business relationships. But they also may face additional pitfalls that come with trying to sustain a day-to-day balance of work and personal life.
Grow Wire asked five couples to describe what it takes to build a company together. Their hard-earned lessons provide a blueprint for staying focused, determined and relationally strong, whether your business partner is your life partner or not.
A gap in the nutritional supplement market inspired Gordon and Courtney Gould to start SmartyPants Vitamins in their Venice, California living room in 2011. Now a leading provider of multivitamins for kids and adults, SmartyPants has major retail deals and a partnership with Amazon.
Upon creating their company, Gordon and Courtney found they needed a better understanding of where their skill sets overlapped. They turned to coaching from a friend and colleague to help them navigate their first six months of business and delineate who was responsible for which tasks.
The couple discovered their business skills complemented each other: Gordon has a love of math and technical problem-solving, and Courtney prefers to build teams, put out fires and focus on product development. To this day, they share the title of co-CEO to keep their dynamic on an even keel.
Married co-founders Gordon and Courtney Gould say their dog helps them de-stress.
Gordon and Courtney aren’t the only founding couple to view their complementary skill sets as a business advantage.
In 2016, married couple Alex and Corrine Bouffard of Annapolis, Maryland, launched A&C Social Strategies to meet the demand for a digital marketing agency that specializes in social media and content creation.
The duo joke that a key to their success is they each do what other views as “the annoying work.” While Corrine enjoys the artistic side of their work, Alex is best at the analytical and business side. The dynamic is not only well-suited for helping clients tell unique stories through social media but also allows each co-founder to do only what they love, they said.
“I never have to deal with taxes, and Alex never has to edit videos,” Corrine said. “We believe it’s a huge advantage that we have control over our schedule and how much time we spend together.”
Alex and Corrine Bouffard co-founded A&C Social Strategies, a digital marketing agency.
Of course, co-founders needn’t be married in order to possess separate skills. But a close relationship -- namely, marriage -- amplifies the advantage, Corrine said.
“We’re able to produce the best possible work for our clients because we know how well we work together,” she said. “We already know how to encourage each other and push each other toward excellence in ways that are beneficial to both our business and each other. We also probably would have quit when it got difficult if we weren’t in this together.”
When living together is a business advantage
Rosie O’Neill, who refers to herself as a “newbie entrepreneur with a sweet tooth,” founded luxury candy boutique Sugarfina in 2012 after a third date with her now-husband and co-founder Josh Resnick.
The couple drew inspiration from a screening of the original "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" movie and launched their company based on a shared vision for a “candy boutique for grownups.”
Rosie and Josh taste-tested candies from all over the world before inventing their own custom-blended creations in a colorful range of chocolate, caramel and fruit flavors. Sugarfina products include rosé-infused gummy bears, Champagne Bears and Candy Bento Boxes. Today, Sugarfina has stores nationwide and in Europe.
When a business is young, it tends to dominate its founders’ lives, “but if you’re living together, it makes it a little bit easier,” Rosie said.
“It’s a huge advantage for us,” she continued. “We talk every day to and from work, and we talk at home. It’s enabled us to be a lot more strategic and, in a lot of ways, grow the company faster than if we weren’t partnered in life.”
Josh Resnick and Rosie O'Neill are the married co-founders of Sugarfina.
Hallie and Matt Grant have a similar story. They helm Sailrite, an Indiana-based e-commerce company that caters to boat owners. Matt’s father founded Sailrite in 1969, and Hallie and Matt are now president and vice president, respectively.
Taking togetherness a step closer, the couple works in the same office with their desks facing each other. A proximity that may overwhelm some is a communication perk for Hallie and Matt.
“If you want to take business home for discussion you can, and you don’t have to worry about leaving your spouse at home alone when you want to work late,” Matt said. “You get to be together a lot.”
Hallie and Matt Grant run Sailrite, a family business.
Getting a business up and running, hiring staff and investing in product development and branding often puts a squeeze on the family coffers. Couples co-founders must tread the runway to profitability, which can be unexpectedly long and stressful.
“Not taking a salary [in the company’s early days] was a real challenge,” said Gordon and Courtney of SmartyPants Vitamins. “We basically took our savings to zero, which certainly makes everything so much higher stakes in terms of success.”
The sacrifices and risks felt intense at times, said Gordon, adding the duo’s family and dogs helped them snap back to what mattered most.
“We basically took our savings to zero, which certainly makes everything so much higher stakes in terms of success.”
Alex and Corrine of A&C Social Strategies felt a similar lack of financial security in their startup’s youth.
“There were multiple times at the beginning of our business when we would complete a contract and be waiting for the next one,” Corrine said. “Since our business had just begun, our income was not diversified enough for us to feel solid, and it was extremely difficult to trust that we would be able to continue.”
The couple have learned to trust and rely upon each other in a deeper way than if they hadn’t gone into business together, Corrine added. And they’re able to relate to their clients -- many of which are family-run businesses themselves -- with a “special bond.” Still, they caution those starting a business with just one income stream, noting it can be financially challenging.
Work vs. life
Not long after becoming a couple, Tony Winders and Carmen Zermeno decided to go into business together. Their shared passion for spicy food and Carmen’s family tradition of growing chili peppers in the family backyard were natural material for a business they could create, scale and sell.
The couple used Carmen’s background as a certified professional accountant (CPA) and Tony’s expertise as a longtime digital marketing executive to help them launch Pepper Bandits, LLC in 2016 from their home in Thousand Oaks, California. Soon after, Fuegorita, a super-hot crushed red pepper condiment, was on store shelves for use in cooking, snacks and prepared dishes.
Tony Winders and Carmen Zermeno launched a product called Fuegorita together.
Even when a homegrown business is just a side hustle like Fuegorita, finance and time allocation can get tight. It can be hard to hold your co-founder accountable when they are also your life partner, Tony said.
“The realities of work, family and daily life are often given priority over moving the business forward,” he said. “Things get postponed more easily when they might have moved forward if we weren't a couple. Bills, birthdays and exhaustion from the work week can cause us to push off regularly-scheduled business meetings.”
Holding a holistic view of the business from inception can save co-founding couples a lot of grief, he added. Some couples avoid an initial, direct talk about how much money each partner is willing to invest in the business or the amount of time they can realistically commit to getting it off the ground.
But while potentially daunting, it’s worthwhile to “know your goals, your limits and what constitutes success,” Tony said.
"Know your goals, your limits and what constitutes success."
With that discussion behind them, Tony and Carmen cite huge advantages of working from home -- and doing most everything -- together. Whether it’s having impromptu business discussions or making dinner together after a long workday, their shared endeavor is a bonding device, Tony said.
“We enjoy being together so much that Fuegorita gives us a project in common to work toward,” he said.
Everyone knows one of the most important qualities of a happy partnership is communication. But adding an additional layer of daily business discourse to a relationship can be the straw that breaks the dream. However, if done correctly, communication can be the ticket to a thriving mom-and-pop enterprise.
“You have to really make sure you’re communicating frequently and clearly, and there has to be a maturity to it,” said Rosie of Sugarfina. “It’s very easy to get into bickering or passive aggressiveness. You have to turn that off. You have to be professional and respectful and a good communicator.”
“It’s very easy to get into bickering or passive aggressiveness. You have to turn that off."
Sailrite’s Hallie and Matt have worked hard to keep heated work discussions from flowing into their home life and interfering with family time. The couple, who also employs their son Zach, made a pact after the first few years of working together to limit business talk to the office.
“Fortunately, we both honor this agreement,” said Matt. “Now we can have discussions at work without thinking about the repercussions at home. We also now realize that most things that really seem bad, like a nasty customer email, a legal threat or a new tax, can be solved fairly quickly. So, we just keep working hard and don’t get overly excited about anything.”
Couples co-founders cite mutual support as a central benefit of going into business together.
“We have absolute trust and faith and know we have each other’s back,” said Gordon and Courtney of SmartyPants Vitamins. “We keep our priorities in order and help each other see the light of day when things get tough.”
"We help each other see the light of day when things get tough."
The couple said they wish their earlier selves had understood that the kinks would eventually work out and lead them to the sense of accomplishment and pride they now feel.
“The outcome is always uncertain, and we never get the days back, so try to make sure you see the humor in the misfortunes and fully enjoy the wins in the day-to-day,” Gordon said. “It’s the little moments that make a life and a business, not the big ones.”