The funny thing about marriage is people will talk to you like they already know the outcome of any given relationship situation. Regardless of what decisions you’re making at the time, folks will either want to confirm that you’re doing things right, or they’ll warn you that you’re doing things wrong. And of course the answer is that nobody knows what the outcome of our marriages will be, not even us. Which is why I find stories like Robin and Jerry’s especially brave. Against the popular narrative, they decided to go into business together, in a country they’d never been to before, and without any idea of how things would turn out, they’ve made it work. Their story reminds me that the future is not pre-determined, but it’s also not totally unknown. It’s something we’re constantly building and moving toward together as a team.
—Maddie for Maternity Leave
A foundation of my and Jerry’s relationship has always been that we push each other to pursue our dreams. This has become even stronger since we got married three years ago. We moved to Bogota, Colombia, without knowing anyone here. Jerry pushed me to get back into my passion of map-making, and I’ve encouraged him to pursue leather-working. But by far the biggest dream that we have pursued in 2012 has been starting a company together.
Shortly after moving to Bogota, we started taking leather-working classes at a workshop down the street. It didn’t take long for us to fall in love with the craft and the people there. Soon thereafter, we decided to start Restrepo Leather to bring these beautiful leather bags to the U.S. and the rest of the world.
Common wisdom these days says that you shouldn’t get into business with family, perhaps even more so with a spouse. What if problems in business translate to problems in your relationship? Or vice versa? Jerry and I thought for a while about whether starting a business together was the right idea for us, and ultimately made the decision the same way we usually make decisions together: one part careful thought, one part gut feeling, and ten parts trusting each other.
With inspiration from Meg’s series on being an entrepreneur, I thought I’d give y’all some insights on what it’s like to start up a business with your life partner.
There’s nothing sexier than problem-solving together. One of the sexiest things about Jerry is his intellect (other sexy things: he makes me leather bags by hand, his beard). We’re both pretty good at problem-solving on our own, but working together, we usually find holes in each other’s arguments that push us to find an even more elegant solution.
We’ve perfected our good cop/bad cop routine. Sometimes when running a business, you have to confront people and tell them tough things, and you have to 100% be on the same side as your partner. Working in a luxury industry, we have to be demanding of the artisans we work with, and often have difficult conversations when the quality isn’t up to our standards. Jerry and I have made a point of not pigeonholing one of us into the “bad guy” role. I feel like it’s good practice for raising kids—we don’t want to tag one parent as being the easy one the kids can go to when they just want to get something, and the other parent is always the hard-ass.
We have an equal division of labor. In our relationship, Jerry and I have always made an effort to split up responsibilities pretty equally—sometimes to a fault, attempting to divvy up chores (a.k.a. stuff that no one wants to do) exactly 50-50. This has certainly come to play in running our business. It’s easy for one person to feel like they are doing more work, not to mention doing all the shit work. When we decided to take on doing our own logistics for a big order to London, Jerry said he could take over the majority of overseeing the process as long as I could handle actually dealing with the export company. We first thought this would be skewed in my favor, but the export process ended up being much more complicated than we anticipated. We learned that it’s okay to reevaluate roles as we go along and make changes as necessary.
Communication is key. Just like in marriage, in a business, you have to have open and honest communication with your partner. If one of us has an issue with a way that the other person is dealing with some aspect of the company, we have to address it, or it could have serious implications. We have to make sure to effectively articulate frustrations and concerns, rather than nag, in order to get things done. It’s also important to know when and how to bring things up. For example, it might not be the best idea to remind your husband/business partner at 7:00am while he’s still asleep to send an email to the accountant or ask if he followed up on an order. Running a business together has certainly helped with improving communication in our marriage at a point when we had already thought that we were A+ communicators.
Mostly, we really love hanging out with each other and dreaming about our future together. Oh, imagine the possibilities! What if we opened up a leather workshop someday in the U.S. where Jerry could teach classes and I could build a community space? What if we were able to create meaningful jobs for more leather artisans in Colombia?
But running a business is a lot more than “What Ifs” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nices”—in the meantime, we’re working hard to make these dreams come true, and having a lot of fun in the process.
Photo by: Avery Leigh White for Restrepo Leather