A Juggling Act That Impacts the Bottom Line
By Michelle Miron
If you’ve ever contemplated running a company with your spouse, you may wonder how it might work to juggle the complications of a relationship with the day-to-day logistics of a business.
Can business disagreements lead to spats over household management? Do family dynamics worm their way into power plays on the job? Can couples running a business ever turn off their work worries and relax? And in the worst-case scenarios, what happens to the infrastructure if either the business or marriage falters?
Those are possible issues for the teams of spouses running some 1.4 million businesses nationwide. But many married co-entrepreneurs say the benefits outweigh the challenges; in many cases they’re able to turn their shared goals, unified leadership and knowledge of each other’s strengths to their full advantage.
Because the marine fabrication industry contains so many niche firms, husband-wife management teams are fairly common. Here’s what some real-life spousal teams in the trade have to say about the ups and downs of sharing both life and business.
Managing time together—all day, every day
For many married business partners, one of the biggest hurdles is adjusting to the added togetherness that comes with the territory. Thanks to COVID-19, many couples today are glimpsing this challenge as they work for separate employers at home, often in close quarters. But co-entrepreneurs make that proximity work for them all the time.
For Ed Skrzynski, co-owner of Marco Canvas & Upholstery LLC in Marco Island, Fla., the demands of that uninterrupted togetherness initially came as a shock. He bought out his family’s 42-year-old business 12 years ago, and his wife Tammy joined a year later as the business grew.
“She was always my best friend as well as my partner,” Ed explains. “I expected we would flow smooth like a river. But I found we are still two different people with two ways of thinking, and bumping heads at work can carry over into our personal life.”
Charlene Clark understands that only too well.
“When you spend 24 hours a day, seven days a week together, work—the good, the bad and the ugly—tends to always spill over to your personal life,” notes Charlene, co-owner with her husband Chandler of Signature CanvasMakers in Hampton, Va. “We often joke that when we get in the car to go on vacation, we look over at each other and say, ‘You’re coming too?’”
So, what’s the remedy? Many co-working couples find ways to set boundaries—physical, tactical, mental or otherwise—to give themselves space and help them maintain individuality.
For Deb and Mark Hood of Hood Canvas LLC in Merrimac, Mass., that meant creating two separate work areas at their shop, each with its own TV and sound system.
“We like that a lot,” notes Deb. “We’ve been married for almost 40 years, so we figured out pretty quickly how to make this work.”
Different people, different strengths
Another key strategy for co-entrepreneurs is defining clear-cut roles that take advantage of each person’s skills and expertise. Learning who functions best in which role can be something of a process, according to Chandler Clark.
“When we made the decision to bring Charlene into the company on a full-time basis, I thought I was hiring a seamstress,” he says. “Turns out, I was hiring my boss! We didn’t know much about running a business at the time, so everything was trial and error, and we stepped on each other’s toes a lot.”
After a time, the couple got better clarity on how tasks should be divided.
“Our primary focus [at first] was just to do whatever we had to do to get the job done,” Charlene says. “When we finally took a step back and not only clearly defined our roles, but also those of our team members, we were able to begin working on our business and moving it forward.”
The Skrzynskis have also fine-tuned responsibilities over the past decade. “We both have different skill sets, and the various job roles tend to flow to us each based on that,” says Ed. “At times we’ve switched roles to see if the other can do them better.”
In the best-case scenarios, tasks can be allocated based on preference.
“We each have a unique set of skills and love what we do,” reports Deb Hood. “We wake up every morning looking forward to the day and challenges. To us it is fun, not work.”
Juggling differences of opinion
Disagreeing with your employer about how a business should be run can be stressful enough. When your employer is also your spouse, those disagreements can be especially uncomfortable.
“We disagree all the time,” says Chandler Clark. “We both bring different backgrounds and perspectives to this business, and we are both passionate about our opinions. We try to diffuse the situation when it gets too hot and take time to walk away and consider the other person’s point of view. We will always work to find a constructive resolution.”
For the Skrzynskis, business disagreements became challenging enough that they hired several other managers to add objectivity and perspective to decision-making.
“This has created a buffer between our idiosyncrasies and keeps us from nitpicking each task,” Ed explains. “If we are not happy with something, we can go to the GM and have him drive the issue to a resolve. This separation on smaller issues has led to more quality time and less discussion at home.”
Tammy Skrzynski notes that she and Ed are often more critical of each other than their employees.
“It’s as though we protect our employees like children and take our issues out on each other,” she says.
Deb Hood remembers that when she and Mark first started working together 16 years ago, their young son was worried that on-the-job disagreements would ruin their marriage. “We have proven him wrong, as we work well together—much to his relief,” she says. “Mark has been fabricating canvas for a long time, so I needed to figure out how to defer to his judgment.”
Maintaining work-life balance
How do married co-entrepreneurs keep from making everything about work, all the time? Those who are successful often come up with creative solutions.
The Hoods, for example, established their shop on the same property as their home and have avoided hiring other employees and setting standard business hours. Instead, they work at their own convenience.
“We end up working most of the time; the big difference is, we work the hours we want,” Deb explains. “If we decide to take off and go sailing, there are no employees to worry about—we just lock the door. Family comes first, business second.”
The Clarks preserve personal time through “Sunday Fundays” during which work and work-related discussions are off-limits. Hiring capable company leaders also helps them step away as needed.
The Skrzynskis agree they should have started enforcing their own vacation times sooner, since workplace “fires” have too often interfered with loosely set plans.
“We had to do it all, and it became consuming because we poured our hearts and souls into making this business,” says Tammy. “We really did not take any time off personally, until last year, to recharge.”
That said, the couple tries to maintain day-to-day balance and carve out space for their two daughters by splitting work tasks, delegating work, shutting off their email accounts after 8 p.m. each night, and avoiding work discussions at home.
“We realized that with a rough day—and likely, that means the next will be a tough one too—those conversations could easily turn into an argument and even a fight,” Ed explains. “Now we might be sitting close to each other at night, and we’ll get an email from the other to address an issue sometime later. No need to get wound up on something we can’t take action on at the time.”
Rebounding from catastrophes
Every business has setbacks, but when a couple’s livelihood is entirely tied up in one business, they can be extra devastating. And often they’re completely beyond the owners’ control.
Florida-based Marco Canvas, for example, was among the many businesses that struggled after Category 3 Hurricane Irma demolished parts of the Skrzynskis’ shop and home in 2017.
“There was so much loss, we wondered if this was the end of our business and even our ability to rebuild our home,” says Ed. “It was action time and we both had each other’s backs. We busted our butts, took risks and invested more of our money. It reminded us of who we both are inside and why we are successful together in life.”
More recently, the company was forced to cease manufacturing for four weeks due to the pandemic; instead, it partnered with other community entities to produce and donate more than 10,000 personal protection masks.
The Clarks and Signature CanvasMakers were able to cope with the immediate aftermath of COVID-19 by temporarily switching to production of personal protection equipment (PPE) for soldiers and government contractors—a move that saved their regular team from layoffs and created 15 temporary jobs.
Clearly, working as husband and wife to create a viable business comes with unique challenges. Whether or not they’re outweighed by the advantages depends almost entirely on whether those team members are able to create work and home life strategies that keep both sides running smoothly.
“Ultimately, we are proud of what we have been able to build and accomplish together, and the challenge has made us both stronger,” concludes Charlene Clark. “We respect each other and what we bring to this business. Above all else, we make each other laugh every day.”
Michelle Miron is a Minnesota-based freelance writer with a 30-year background in journalism and marketing content.
SIDEBAR: Advice from co-entrepreneurs
“Your relationship as a couple will be tested time and time again, especially when money is tight. Don’t let your business define your relationship.”
—Charlene Clark, Signature CanvasMakers
“Set up boundaries. It can’t be all work 24/7, or you will lose yourself as well as your partner. Set ‘no work discussion times’ daily. Set up a plan for date nights. When it comes to staff and customers, be a united front and do not let people divide you. You are stronger as a team.”
—Ed Skrzynski, Marco Canvas & Upholstery
“Set a schedule and stick to it, don’t burn the midnight oil and don’t discuss work outside of work.”
—Tammy Skrzynski, Marco Canvas & Upholstery
“Be tolerant and understanding of each other. A husband and wife team that works well together, feeding off each other effectively, will increase its income two and a half times over an individual working alone.”
—Deb Hood, Hood Canvas