Couples Inc.

More spouses are deciding to start a business together


Whenever a husband and wife call on Britt Schroeter for advice about working and starting a business together, the Towson consultant quizzes them about their marriage and career.

Experts say that to make a mom-and-pop business succeed, mom and pop must work well together.

"When I get husband-and-wife teams that call me looking to be involved in franchises, I like to play devil's advocate," said Schroeter, whose company is FranChoice. "I always ask, `Can you do this? Can you handle this?' There's always someone, usually the wife, who has a nervous laugh.

"Starting a business can be extremely stressful, and it can present a lot of challenges, especially if the business is failing. It becomes an issue of how much stress can they handle? "

As seemingly more husband-and-wife teams choose to work together, business and relationship experts say doing so successfully requires couples to communicate openly about the business, define specific goals for each other and to delegate responsibilities to staff members. And if things don't work out, couples should already have devised an exit strategy for their roles in the business.

"Anybody who counsels partners of any sort should always discuss, `How do we exit?' " said J. Robert Baum, a professor of entrepreneurship at the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland. "If a business folds, then you have to consider that there will be two people without an income."

Experts in the field of business and entrepreneurship believe that the number of husband-and-wife businesses has been growing, but there isn't much raw data available.

But Amy Bannon, a spokeswoman for the Washington-based International Franchise Association, said there is no doubt the numbers are rising. "It is definitely a trend," she said.

Baum said he knows of several husband-and-wife teams that have worked out well. But he warns that it's not for everyone.

So far, things have turned out well for Adam and Pam Sidle, who in April opened a Pump It Up party franchise in Owings Mills.

Adam Sidle owns 1st Metropolitan Mortgage in Owings Mills and was interested in getting involved in a second business venture. Pam Sidle is a former attorney who quit the legal business when she decided to have children. Once her two children were ready for school, she wanted to start a career in business.

The timing worked out for their family. Their daughter, Madison, is now 5 and just started kindergarten. Son Jack is 2 1/2 and attends preschool three half-days a week.

As in most businesses just getting started, the Sidles were working nonstop. "We were here all the time," Adam Sidle said. "We were booking parties, ordering pizzas and even stamping kids' hands. But I didn't want to work five days at a mortgage company and then spend all of my weekends here."

Pam Sidle, too, felt a bit overwhelmed. She was looking for a flexible work schedule while her kids were in school, but then her cell phone was ringing almost hourly with questions from workers. At times, the stress spilled over at home. "One negative is that we talk about the business all the time," Pam Sidle said. "Sometimes, I'm up at 11 o'clock at night working on scheduling."

But once the couple started delegating responsibilities to managers and designated specific roles for themselves, the business and their personal relationship improved.

Adam Sidle books most of the parties and handles marketing and some accounting. Pam Sidle spends more time at Pump It Up, about three mornings a week, and is responsible for scheduling, payroll and inventory.

Most importantly, they said, they developed an open line of communication.

"When you're married, you may assume certain things because you know the other person so well," Adam Sidle said. "One problem we had in the beginning was that I would do the interviewing for the staff and she would do the scheduling and payroll. Sometimes, I'd forget to tell her we hired someone and then she wouldn't have them on the schedule."

Schroeter, the Towson consultant who advised the Sidles, estimates that nearly half the time she persuades a couple against going into business together. Sometimes, as a compromise, she will have a couple consider opening two smaller companies instead of both of them owning one larger one.

She saw something in the Sidles that made her believe they could succeed: Adam Sidle's experience during the past decade showed he understood business and that he could handle the stress, she said. And Schroeter said the couple's skills were paired well for the business: Adam Sidle is more outgoing while Pam Sidle is more detail-oriented.

The University of Maryland's Baum said the key to success for couples working together is that each spouse has to have complementary skills. "When you're both sales people, that's when you have a problem," Baum said. "And husbands and wives are often together because they have so much in common."

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