Valentine’s Day – Thinking of . . . . Business??

Valentine heart

Photo (CC) by moonlightbulb, on Flickr

Just before Valentine’s Day for the past 10 years or so, my phone will ring a few times with a reporter on the other end wanting to discuss couples and being in business together (probably not how you expected that sentence to end).

Copreneurs, or couples in business together, seem to be a fascinating topic this time of the year. Most writers are interested in knowing if there are more or fewer couples operating a business together? Another popular question is why do they do it? And the third most common question is does it make for a stronger business?

Considering the copreneurial couple is not a new topic. Two authors, Barnett and Barnett, in 1988, coined the term copreneurs. The first chapter of their book, Working Together, sets the basic assumption for why they do it. The title of the chapter is “An End to Separate Lives and Separate Agendas.” The idea of working together is considered utopian with both spouses spending time together at work and at home.

My colleague, Dr. Margaret Fitzgerald, and I have been exploring this unique business structure for over a dozen years. In our work, copreneurs made up about 1/3 of all family businesses. That may mean 1.5 to 3 million family businesses or more are owned by such couples. Yet anytime such claims are made, you need to consider the definitions being used. One common means of defining copreneurs is by ownership. Such data is more common than what we used and is often considered an appropriate proxy. Yet ownership does not define involvement in the business which we considered important. Our definition asked if the spouse was a major decision maker. Both individuals also had to be working in the business.

But is it utopia? That question is much harder to answer. In our study, copreneurs made less income but were nearly as satisfied with the success of their business as were other family business owners. This may have come from the fact that copreners feel more strongly that the business is a way of life and not just a way to earn income. Income is less of a driving force as being able to achieve a blended relationship both at work and at home. This question really depends on how the couple choses to define success.

Being a copreneurial business has it difficulties though. Some couples express reservations about whether or not they could make this type of ownership work. Those that try it discuss issues such as role clarification and the need to capitalize on the skills of each person as being important. Most people approach me with a traditional structure in mind with the husband as the business owner and the wife working in the business. Yet we find that situation is often reversed, again based on skills and who holds the strongest passion for the business.

Is running a copreneurial business a good option? It may or it may not be. The couple, not those of us on the outside, must measure the positives and negatives in doing so. And just like not all relationships remain together, not all copreneurial couples remain in business together. The personal relationship continues but the business one does not. And the reasons why such businesses start and stop remain hazy. We know business income has some influence as does the personal relationship remaining intact. Additional understanding of such business relationships requires more evaluation.

So for you copreneurs, enjoy this Valentine’s Day as you greet the customers, tend the till and stock the shelves. To everyone else, you only have candy, flowers, dinner and cards to get you through.

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