Most would consider Janelle Copeland and Fabiola Gomez’s business partnership a successful one. In 2009, the pair founded The Cake Mamas bakery in Los Angeles, Calif. They’ve since sold tens of thousands of cupcakes, won bragging rights and $10,000 on Food Network’s contest show "Cupcake Wars," and expanded to two locations.
What many may not know is it’s also an unusual business relationship. Copeland’s husband, Edward, is Gomez’s ex and father of her two children. In fact, that’s how they met.
Sometimes life and love tangle in unexpected ways, resulting in many a complicated (read: awkward) working relationship. Whether starting a business with your spouse’s ex, getting into business with your own ex or breaking up with your once-beloved business partner, those in the trenches say emotions run high but you can make it work.
During most of Copeland’s eight-year marriage to Edward, she only knew Gomez in passing, waving hello on drop-offs or pick-ups of her kids. In 2009, Copeland lost her management job at Circuit City and, with no luck securing a new one, decided she had the time to watch her daughter, now age 7, and her stepdaughters, now ages 9 and 11. Rather than communicate through Edward, she called Gomez herself.
Soon they were speaking regularly. One night, Copeland had a dream they owned a cupcake bakery together, and when Gomez learned of it, she gasped, “My dream is to own a bakery!” Little did Copeland know, Gomez got her first job at a bakery and worked there for nine years. They talked for three hours that night, and the next morning Copeland furiously researched competition in the area. “Edward thought we were crazy,” she says. “Do you really think this is a good idea?” he asked at the time.
With Gomez’s baking skills and Copeland’s business savvy, they decided to go for it. They came up with the name “Cake Mamas,” and by the end of the week, they were making business cards and using website builder Wix.com to design their site.
Today, customers who know the story frequently ask, “Which one’s the wife and which one’s the ex?” Copeland is considering making aprons with “wife” and “ex” printed on the front. She says the partnership works well for them because it creates a closer family unit. If one of their daughters is sick or needs something, one can work the bakery while the other attends to the kids.
Still, it’s not always easy. Heightened sensitivity can quickly turn a business disagreement into personally hurt feelings. “The last person you want to hear criticism from is your ex’s new wife,” Copeland says. “The fact that our dynamics are strange and it’s already awkward means egos have to be put aside. We’ve had disagreements at work, but at the end of the day we put them aside for our lives.”
Rhonda Sanderson, founder and president of Chicago, Ill.-based public relations firm Sanderson & Associates, learned that lesson firsthand while working with her ex-husband. She started her company, which specializes in PR for business franchises like Subway and Jamba Juice, in 1986. Two years later, she and her husband of five years, John Amato, divorced. Because they had a child together, they continued seeing each other and remained friends.
Then, in 1998, Sanderson was on a trip to Italy and fell down the stairs, breaking her leg in three places. When Amato picked her up at the airport, she confided that she’d be in a wheelchair for four months and didn’t know how she’d be able to run her business. An entrepreneur himself, he offered to work out of her office for awhile to help her as much as he could. “It was an accidental partnership,” she says. “He started doing more and more, helping with errands. Finally I said, ‘How about you come on the payroll and work with me?’” They’ve been working together ever since.
Working with an ex-spouse has its ups and downs. Sanderson trusts him completely and knows he’ll always be in her corner, but it can be a power struggle. “He had a hard time not running the place,” she says. “I have to say, ‘Don’t speak to me that way.’” They sometimes have screaming matches in the middle of the office, which upsets the staff. And although Sanderson never remarried, when Amato did, his wife was not thrilled with the situation.
“Would I recommend it? No,” Sanderson says. “Sometimes it just happens.”
Designers Domenico Dolce and Stefano Gabbana worked together as a couple for years before the relationship imploded. They launched Dolce & Gabbana while happily together in 1982 and spent more than two decades growing it. When they broke up in 2005, it had become a powerhouse brand. They opted to put heartache aside for the business.
“The worst time for us was when we broke up but kept working together,” Gabbana told the Financial Times earlier this year. “We thought about splitting up, but no. And the truth is, everything is exactly the same. But no sex!”
While some lovelorn couples are able to put their past aside, others are haunted by it. Tory Burch launched her eponymous clothing company with help from her husband Chris Burch in 2004. When the couple divorced in 2006 after 10 years together, they continued serving on the board as it grew into a billion-dollar business.
Then things got ugly. Chris launched his own clothing company C. Wonder, which Tory called “a knockoff brand selling lower-quality products at lower prices.” Last month, he sued her for breach of contract, claiming interference with the sale of his $600-million stake in their company. Weeks later, she countersued, alleging he “copied” the Tory Burch brand. Now they will battle it out in court.