Work, Wedlock & Co.

Linda Leier Thomason and Ken Thomason knew it was true love when they discovered they both dreamed of running a business.

"That was partly what attracted us to each other," says Ms. Leier Thomason, who met her husband in corporate America.

Five years ago, they launched A Wonderful Wedding, a bridal consultancy in Charleston, S.C. It started as a two-person operation run in the spare bedroom and now says "I do" to $145,000 a year in sales and eight part-time employees.

The Thomasons aren't alone.

More couples than ever are setting up shop together, putting the test to both business acumen and marriage vows.

Many reflect Americans' growing discontent - spurred by continued downsizing - with corporate careers. Others simply want more than a few exhausted hours together in the evening.

Such togetherness is hardly new. Mom-and-pop operations have been around for generations. But as women gain more business experience, more couples are sharing control.

"Now it's very common to have husbands and wives running a business as full and equal partners," says Azriela Jaffe, who runs an entrepreneurial consulting firm in Bausman, Pa.

The trend also gets a boost by the rise in women entrepreneurs, who launch businesses nearly twice as fast as any other group. Lots of them end up pulling their spouse in for the ride.

"There are lots of men who are dying for their wives' businesses to become successful so they can quit their jobs and join them," says Ms. Jaffe, author of "Honey I Want to Start My Own Business: A Planning Guide for Couples" (HarperBusiness, 1996).

For Shel Horowitz and wife Dina Friedman, running a consulting firm for 10 years has meant more time with their two children.

In fact, they divide the afternoons into two-hour blocks, with one watching their preschool-age son while the other holds down the fort at Accurate Writing & More in Northampton, Mass. "That freedom is very special," Mr. Horowitz says.

Others think running a business will be more successful with a partner they know and trust.

"Presumably you share similar values with the person you married, and that's a very important part of a company's growth and success," says Ann Ehringer, director of the Family & Closely-Held Businesses Program at the University of Southern California.

Yet, while work and wedlock can be exhilarating and gratifying, it can also be incredibly tough.

"A lot of laundry that may have gone unspoken in a family relationship can surface in a business setting," says Paul Karofsky, executive director of Northeastern University's Center for Family Business in Dedham, Mass.

While strong marriages often survive - even thrive - on the job, marriages on the rocks often don't, and neither does the business.

The pressures of business can test the weak points in a marriage. Think carefully about a personal relationship, Jaffe says, before making it a career.

For starters, make sure you like spending time together - lots of time.

"People have a tendency to assume, 'We have a happy marriage, why wouldn't we want to spend time together?' " Jaffe says. But for some couples, too much togetherness spoils the intimacy, she says.

Ronald and Angela Oltmanns know all about 24-hour togetherness.

When the Abilene, Texas, couple married five years ago, she was a TV producer and he was getting a graduate degree in theology.

"Breakfast was the only time we said hello," Mrs. Oltmanns recalls.

So two years ago, they launched Oltmanns Research Associates, a firm that coaches other entrepreneurs.

Suddenly, they were side by side, all day.

"At first it was very uncomfortable," Ms. Oltmanns says, admitting that they fought frequently. "But we learned to communicate in a more authentic way, because you can't be dishonest and tell your spouse, 'You're not bugging me,' when he really is."

Even if couples have mastered the art of "honesty," a professional relationship brings new challenges.

"We both have different work styles, and it's been a big breakthrough accepting them," Mr. Oltmanns says. He, for example, doesn't like daily to-do lists; his wife lives by her day planner.

At first, each was so bothered by the other's style that they'd snoop through the other's desk to see who was working on what.

But they adjusted and now start each month by discussing an agenda for the next few weeks.

Other couples have less success.

USC's Dr. Ehringer, for example, used to run a real estate company with her husband. But after three years, she got out.

"When I agreed with him, everything was fine. But when I had a different opinion, it didn't make him happy," she says. "He was from a generation [with] no experience in sharing control."

While they've given up on being business partners, they haven't given up on being entrepreneurs. She now runs a successful fine-dining restaurant.

Another key is complementary skills.

For the Thomasons, it was an easy match. The two had worked together for a large health-care company in Charleston - he in accounting and she in marketing. "I tell people I married my weakness," jokes Mrs. Thomason, and from their different strengths came separate responsibilities in the business.

A Wonderful Wedding actually grew out of a disc-jockey franchise they bought eight years ago when they were engaged.

Most of the business was wedding receptions, and most of those clients knew little about planning one. So they started a "how to" magazine for brides. Linda wrote the articles. Ken sold the ads.

The magazine was a success, and they now plan weddings and stage two bridal trade shows a year.

For them, and many others, one of the biggest challenges has been when to stop working - keeping the business from consuming their lives.

"It's relatively easy to start a business," says Ehringer. "But it's very difficult to grow a business and to sustain that success."

When the Thomasons started A Wonderful Wedding, for example, they worked all the time. Taking a vacation was unheard of.

But when their son, now 3, arrived, they realized they needed a work life and a personal life. One big step: moving their business into an office downtown - and leaving it there at day's end.

They end each day with a short briefing session to catch up on the day's events.

"We symbolically try to wipe out feet before we leave the office each night," says Mrs. Thomason.

They're also trying to take more vacations - 10 days this August, for example, to attend a family reunion. They also have a date night once a month - just the two of them, no business talk allowed.

Still it hasn't been easy.

"We can't say we don't talk business in the evenings, because we certainly do," Mr. Thomason says. "But we try to keep that to a minimum, especially around our three-year-old son."

Making It Work - A 'Couple' of Ideas

1. Make sure your skills complement each other.

2. Define responsibilities. The clearer the better.

3. Set boundaries between your work and personal life. Try not to take business problems home or personal problems into the office.

4. Maintain separate interests outside of the company where you each can shine on your own.

5. Have a cash reserve to keep your bills paid during the lean months - because it's likely to be lean in the beginning.

6. Establish, up front, how hard you both plan to work, how many hours you want to clock each week.

7. Start a business you both feel passionate about.

8. Establish long-term goals for the business. Do you want to grow your business and then sell it, or create a family legacy?

9. Set up an informal board of advisers, people who can offer objective guidance: your accountant, banker, another entrepreneur. They'll usually do it for free. No employees; no relatives.

10. Keep a sense of humor.

Helping it work

For more ideas, see Azriela Jaffe's two free online newsletters: "Entrepreneurial Couples Success Letter" and "The Best Ideas in Business." To receive copies, e-mail her:

Or visit her Web site:

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