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Couples that work together, stay together?

The notion of working with a spouse sounds like a direct path to marital collapse. But for a growing number of couples, running a business together offers the best of both worlds.
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About six years ago, Ken and Stephanie Wright were looking for a change.

The couple had only been dating a few months at the time, but they knew they were right for each other and were ready to move in together. The problem, though, was that the Ohio River Valley wasn't exactly bustling with attractive job opportunities, especially immediately after 9/11. So the couple decided to move to the Atlanta area, where Stephanie was born and still had family.

Ten days after arriving in Atlanta, Ken landed a job with a Web-hosting company. Not long after, Stephanie took a position with a public relations and event planning business. The money was good and their careers seemed to be on track. But something was suffering as a result: their happiness.

"We really never saw each other — maybe an hour or two in the evenings," Stephanie Wright says. "It got to a point where, six months into great new careers, we decided it wasn't so great."

The Wrights chose to do something about it. They quit their jobs and used Stephanie's experience working in pottery studios during graduate school and Ken's background in retail, and charged $23,000 on credit cards, to open The Painted Potter, a pottery studio in Lawrenceville, an Atlanta suburb.

About a year later, after becoming enamored with the entrepreneurial lifestyle, they started thinking up new ideas and came up with The Dinner A' Fare, a company that sells ready-to-cook gourmet-style meals with all the ingredients proportioned and prepared for cooking. Inspiration for the business came from a late-night TV segment about a similar, but mom-and-pop-style, operation run out of a community center in California. With proceeds from The Painted Potter, which they sold about a year ago, the Wrights were able to launch in The Dinner A' Fare — another business that touched on one of Stephanie's other long-lasting passions.

"With two Southern grandmothers," she says, "I think I learned to cook before I could walk."

More time together
But the work that went into the development of menus, which change monthly at Dinner A' Fare, led the Wrights to the realization that they were only going to be willing to see their idea through if they could pursue it on a larger scale. Franchise inquiries filtered in almost immediately and now Dinner A' Fare has more than 30 franchise locations throughout seven states, with projected sales of $12 million in 2007.

"We realized that we'd rather work harder and work for ourselves and be able to see each other," Stephanie says.

For many, the notion of working with a spouse sounds, at best, dangerous, and, at worst, like a direct path to marital collapse. But for a growing number of American couples, running a business together offers the best of both worlds: pursuing a professional dream with someone you love and respect, while getting a chance to spend more time with them. According to the National Federation of Independent Business, there were approximately 1.2 million husband- and wife-owned small businesses nationwide in 2003, the most recent year for which the group has data. Anecdotally, family-business experts say that number has only continued to climb.

Kathy Marshack, a psychologist and family-business coach, says the increase in the number of women choosing an entrepreneurial path is playing a role in the growth of husband-wife teams. From 1997 to 2006, the number of women-owned businesses increased 42.3 percent, according to the most recent data from the Census Bureau.

"In the past, men tended to open a business and often a wife is helping, but he doesn't always see her as his partner," Marshack says. "Now, women are more entrepreneurial and recognizing that more in themselves than they used to."

Bill and Karin Kilburg have worked together in some capacity since 1991. Today, they sit at the helm of the Hospitality Performance Network, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based business meeting site selection firm that Bill Kilburg cofounded in 2002. Bill serves as the company's chairman and chief executive, directing the company's strategic growth planning, while Karin holds the title of executive vice president for operations — an arrangement that has given them work/life flexibility, but one that can also produce some tensions.

"Sometimes that sets up what I call spirited discussions, about certain items," Bill Kilburg says. "And it's hard not to let them bleed over into the family life."

"It's always a challenge," Karin Kilburg agrees. "Sometimes, I'll get a question at home and I don't want to talk about it. Because a really quick question turns into a 20-minute discussion. Sometimes you have to, though. But the attempt is to not allow that to happen."

That's an ambitious goal, according to Marshack. In fact, it's nearly impossible for couples to completely separate their work and personal lives, she says. Instead, she encourages husband-wife entrepreneurial teams to construct artificial systems to give themselves a break from their cohabitated business life. Her suggestions range from daily routines — going to the gym at the end of the day to unwind before heading home — to weekend or longer getaways, which she recommends once a quarter.

In the summers, the Kilburg family, which includes five children (two from Bill's previous marriage), relocates from Scottsdale for six weeks to a rented home in the South Mission Beach section of San Diego.

"It's one of the benefits of both working together and being entrepreneurs," Karin Kilburg says. "By 2 p.m., I'm usually boogie-boarding."

Other couples say that a key to maintaining both a strong business partnership and healthy marriage is to establish distinct responsibilities that do not overlap.

"I firmly believe that the key to working together as a married couple is to stay out of each other's area of responsibility," says Jennifer Davidson, who, along with her husband Patrick, founded PJ Madison's, an organic gelato-style ice cream company whose products can be found in natural and specialty grocers such as Whole Foods. "I have a tremendous amount of respect for my husband and I've never tried to mess with his arena, and he completely stays out of mine."

Separate responsibilities
Both the Kilburgs and Wrights echo that opinion. But, for Max and Sharon Beckwith, founders of The Little Author, a Sun Valley, Idaho-based company that scans and digitally reproduces a child's artwork to make professional-quality books, overlapping duties make more sense. At the core, Max is the "idea guy" and Sharon has the "practical side," but the pair have also made a point of learning about all facets of the business.

"Sharon does a lot of computer work, and I do a lot of production work, but basically we have both done everything," Max Beckwith says. "We both know every aspect of shipping, receiving, customer service, and production so as we hire coworkers, it's going to be easier to know where there are inefficiencies in the business."

The Beckwiths say they have found launching and heading a business together to be a challenging but rewarding experience that has only strengthened their marriage. Still, they say it's not for every couple.

"Something about it is a gut feel," Sharon Beckwith says. "Some of my friends say, 'I don't know how you can work with your husband,' and I think you just know in your gut whether or not you can do it. It doesn't mean you're not compatible for marriage. But business is different."

Yet, when personalities and business acumen mesh in a couple's professional life, these married entrepreneurial teams say the personal relationship often follows suit.

"If you can open a business together," Ken Wright says, "marriage is not that tough."