As business advisors working with entrepreneurs on a daily basis at the ISBDC, we have seen it all. We have listened to a teary-eyed client describing her husband’s efforts to sabotage their business dream. We have watched a fledgling business fail after the wife who controls the couple’s check book refused to lend her husband’s business some money to get through a difficult financial stretch. And on the more positive side, we have also seen the look of pride on a husband’s face as he watches his wife receive an award for her business success, and a formerly-skeptical wife breathe a sigh of relief and even take on an active role when her husband’s start-up business got off the ground.
During our feasibility discussion in the ISBDC’s “Launching Your Own Business” workshop, we stress the importance of having buy-in from a spouse or “significant other” when an individual is considering embarking on an entrepreneurial journey. We share with entrepreneurs the reality that if the spouse is not supportive of your idea, there’s a possibility that one big part of your life may fail—either your marriage or your business. Only you can decide if it’s worth taking the risk.
Risk-taking and the resulting consequences involve change, one of the contributing factors of marital stress. Starting a business can drain the family’s bank account, require working long hours away from home, and change your lifestyle when vacations and health insurance are temporarily lost to a start-up business. Stress can lead to disagreements that can lead to separation and divorce. While there are no statistics tracking business start-ups as a direct cause of divorce, we all know that it can and does happen. Articles have been written about “Why So Many Entrepreneurs Get Divorced” and about “The Link Between Entrepreneurship and Divorce,” making the possibility seem even more real.
COMMUNICATION IS KEY
To better assess the situation and obtain practical suggestions for alleviating potential marital problems related to entrepreneurship, we asked some of our successful ISBDC clients to share memories and lessons learned from their pre-venture and early business days. One client, who prefers to remain anonymous, intimated that he invested most of his family’s retirement savings to become co-owner of a business while his wife was out of state on vacation and without consulting her first. Needless to say, his wife’s initial reaction was not pleasant; but luckily for him, she grew to accept the idea and even helped him out with the business once she got past the initial shock. In looking back, he believes communication is the key to resolving conflicts related to starting or growing a business, pointing out that “Growing a start-up business is a high risk requiring 24/7 attention and time away from the family.” But, he believes you can get through it as long as you, “Keep partners, spouses and others close and involved.” In other words, he recommends that you “Don’t do as I did, but do as I say.”
Other Hoosier entrepreneurs interviewed for this blog say that, unlike some of their friends, they were fortunate to have their spouses’ support when starting their businesses. “My husband was always onboard and positive about starting this business. When I would feel stressed about things or question if this was the right decision, he would motivate me to move forward. A lot of the times we would look at the big picture and the potential (for success) to see us through some difficult questions or situations,” said one entrepreneur whose husband got behind her and even partnered with her on the business after she shared her vision with him. She goes on to say that, “It’s almost impossible for me to imagine having this business on my own. My husband and I are a team and almost always on the same page, when it comes to business decisions. We complement each other and are equally ready to take risks. We have worked hard and are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Even with a supportive spouse or partner, most of the clients interviewed agreed that there are still problems to deal with. Some of the business owners mentioned the lack of health insurance or the high cost of purchasing their own health insurance as causes of distress. “Our health has been shaky due to no health insurance, but that’s not the worst of it,” stated a now-successful businesswoman who confided that she and her husband actually lost their house and their good credit standing due to putting all their personal resources into the business. But in looking back, she now believes it was all worth it, and that if you persevere, things can be made good again. As her business grows, she said “It’s all turning around.” She noted that her company can now afford health insurance for her family and her employees and that she is working on re-building their credit score—something that will just take time, combined with continued business success—to restore.
In addition to problems related to health insurance (or the lack thereof), other stressors include time management and the great amount of energy required to run a business. One of the business owners mentioned the long hours involved and “sometimes not even taking time to sleep!” A couple of individuals talked about the sacrifices their families made for the good of the business, including skipping vacations, scaling back on gifts, putting off making major purchases and even “making do” without the essential items from time to time. These sacrifices can create animosity with an unsympathetic spouse, and “the stress definitely trickles down to everyone,” one of the entrepreneurs observed.
To get down to the heart of the matter, we presented all the interviewed business owners with a hypothetical situation: “If a close friend confided he or she wanted to open a business, but that his or her spouse was not supportive of the idea, what would you recommend?” Not surprisingly, this question produced mixed responses. One businessman said he would advise his friend to go ahead and start the business, but be willing to compromise with the spouse. Another suggested the friend “take the risk (because) it’s worth it if you believe in yourself and your product and have done the research.” And a third entrepreneur advised proceeding with caution: “Starting a business is such a roller coaster—I think it would really doom a relationship without support. I wouldn’t say hang it up, but negotiate the idea and lay out your case.”
A couple of other entrepreneurs, however, were not so encouraging. “I would tell the person not to start the business. . . . My hunch is that if one spouse discourages the other from starting a business, desired support is supplanted by indifference at best and antagonism and sabotage at worst. When that occurs, the business and the relationship suffer,” said one. Another pointed out that “Starting a business requires dedication, drive, determination, planning, sacrifice, and money,” and warned that “If you are serious about your marriage and you don’t have both parties on board and supportive, the marriage and/or the business will fail.”
IMPACT ON FAMILY
So, now that you’ve heard both sides of the discussion— the pluses and minuses of starting a business with or without the support of your spouse, how will you make your decision? If you are still confused, you are not alone. In 2003, Howard E. Aldrich from the Department of Sociology at the University of North Carolina, and Jennifer E. Clift, a member of the business faculty for the University of Alberta in Edmonton, wrote an abstract about The Pervasive Effects of Family on Entrepreneurship. Their contention is that whereas “Families and businesses have often been treated as naturally separate institutions . . . we argue that they are inextricably intertwined,” and they suggest that “entrepreneurship scholars would benefit from a family embeddedness perspective on new venture creation.” They raise some pertinent questions not only about the family’s influence on a start-up business, but also about the impact of new ventures on the family unit. One of the questions they raise is whether or not “new venture failure or success play(s) a role in family system transitions such as divorce.” They recommend that rigorous studies be undertaken to address these questions; but until then, there are no scholarly answers that we are aware of.
THE DECISION IS YOURS
Which way to go, which way to turn— should you pursue that business dream or hang it up? We recommend that before you take the plunge to start your business, it may be worth reading a few online articles that offer suggestions on improving the dynamics between the spouse, the family and the entrepreneur:
- Fresh Ideas: 10 Ways to Win Over an Unsupportive Family as a Young Entrepreneur
- Family Support is Paramount
- Your Marriage IS Your Business
- Help! I’m an Entrepreneur and My Family Doesn’t Support Me
Making a decision to start a business is never easy, but it helps to have all the information in front of you so you can make an educated decision. Visit the Indiana Small Business Development Center in your region and enroll in a workshop on “Launching Your Own Business.” Take a look at your available resources and your qualifications to operate the business, and do a lot of soul searching. Evaluate the pluses and minuses of having your own company, write a business plan, and then reach out to your spouse to get his or her feedback and buy-in. Your spouse’s support can mean the difference between success and failure . . . not only in your business, but also in your life.