Married Entrepreneurs

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

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  • KB

    Love this post – I think it’s bizarre that there is such a strong popular narrative against working together when I think that a lot of people (myself and my fiance included) work better together than with anyone else BECAUSE you’re a couple. I think having a business or a project together forces you to really know each other and consider each other’s strengths and weaknesses – although you do have to be honest and willing to accept the consequences and likelihood that work will, in fact, interfere with your personal life at least one time. And, on the other hand, I think it’s also telling when a couple can look at each other and say, “That would never work, we’d kill each other.” Bottom line – you really have to consider each other on many more levels than you do with just a business partner, which can be exponentially better or worse, depending on the people and personalities involved. You just have to be really honest with yourself and your partner.

    • Totally agree. Just like I tell people that marriage isn’t for everyone, neither is starting a business (by yourself, with your spouse, or with anyone else). That said, I never would’ve done this on my own – we needed each other to push each other to take a leap.

  • This is so so inspiring. Way to go. So many adventures. And, your leather bags are absolutely beautiful.

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  • It’s so WEIRD that the popular narrative says DON’T go into business with your spouse! My husband and I made comic books together, and we take them to conventions all over to promote them. We also just teamed up to make my photography businesses even better. We’ve found that working on projects together makes us so much better than doing it alone. We would never have taken the leaps we’ve taken without the push we gave each other. And we spend so much time and energy on our work. I think we’d both be miserable if one of us were working crazy hours, traveling a ton, and obsessing about projects while the other was doing something totally different. That, of course, is just our experience, and many other people would think the complete opposite about their own relationships.

    We have been seeing other spouse teams who have built amazing businesses together all across the country. Clearly, it’s more common and more successful than we’ve all been lead to believe. As newcomers to the whole “working with your spouse” thing, we talk to lots of these people, and so many of them say variations of the points Robin and Jerry made here.

  • Class of 1980

    I would totally work with a husband if it was something we both had a great love for.

    I laughed at the “Good Cop/Bad Cop”. I have a male business partner and we do this too! Sometimes I’m the good cop and sometimes the bad cop. Same for him.

    No one is pigeonholed. Besides, why waste our talents on only one role? ;)

  • Vanessa

    Are you guys the same people that were on House Hunters International? Is it weird if I know that?

    • Hahaha yes we are, and no it’s not weird – it’s amazing how many people have seen it! You may remember seeing the leather workshop in the episode…

      • I didn’t recognize you guys when I saw your Reclaiming Wife post, but I recognized you immediately when I saw this one — too funny! Glad that you’re doing well. :)

        (Incidentally, you’re not the first APW couple to be on HH . . . Eva and Tyson were as well!)

  • kyley

    Okay, this is so not the point of your post, but GAH! You’re work is gorgeous. If I wasn’t saving every spare penny for this wedding, I’d want to buy all the bags!

  • Anne

    What a great post. I’d love to hear more about your adventures about running a business together. My husband and I both run small businesses, but have always wondered what it would be like to work together.

  • So into this post! Thank you for sharing. My FH and I are constantly dreaming about possibilities for our future and having a business together enters our minds a lot. It’s nice to see a healthy example!

  • Know thyself and know thy relationship, right? I think it takes a lot of the same things to make a successful business relationship as it takes to build a successful marriage, so if you’re on the same page and the communication is there it seems like a no brainer in some respects.

    I’d honestly love to work with my husband, but current career path and interests don’t allow it. (Although there are some future options we’re keeping our eyes on.)

  • sarahmrose

    You two are really cool. Props on picking up and establishing a life in another country, especially without a corporate job safety blanket — we’ve done it too, and it isn’t easy (even though I actually had a university-safety blanket, it was my husband who had to try to figure things out from scratch).

  • This post is so spot on! Everything resonated with me. My hubby and I also run our biz together–the only difference being that it was MY business for seven years before he quit his job to work with me full-time in 2009. I’ll own that it was difficult at first–I was overly protective of my “baby,” and he was over-confident (that’s my polite way of saying he at times tried to charge in without all the facts and “take over”). But after almost four years, we have it down pat–including the mastering of the good cop/bad cop routine, which had me laughing. It’s so true!

    For us, because we’re both so….um….strong-willed about how the business should be run (fortunately we almost always agree), we’ve become adept at assigning separate-but-equal tasks. I don’t mess with the accounting system and he doesn’t market to the brides. He keeps in touch with our venue partners and I train the officiants. Not that we don’t assist and brainstorm for the other’s part of things, but it’s helpful to each have our own business realm that is in line with our individual talents.

    The other struggle that we’ve had is when to leave the business behind and concentrate on other things. Because we so love it, we can get carried away. I agree that brainstorming is sexy, but sometimes you have to be careful. Setting up our business plan for 2013 is NOT foreplay!

    Being in business together is not for everyone. And I wouldn’t even think about taking on a business partner other than my husband. But for us, it only enhances the rest of our relationship!