Married to the job

Going into business with your spouse can be a dream or a nightmare – good communication is the key to making it work

Mon, Nov 11, 2013, 15:00

When Jamie and Lisa Cobbe gave up jobs in Dublin to start a business together in the west, they had to learn to speak to each other as colleagues – not as a couple – during working hours.

It took a good six months to sort out their working relationship, after starting Water Babies, a baby swimming programme, in the west.

“If there was an issue in the office we would argue it out as a couple instead of discussing it like colleagues,” says Lisa. “It made me realise that if we were going to stay together, we had to learn how to speak to each other properly.”

Even after that realisation, it was a conversation they had “to revisit a couple of times”, says Jamie.

Family’s future
As with any new venture, there were initial financial difficulties and self-doubt. But for the Cobbes, who had two young children, there was the additional pressure of staking the whole family’s future on the business.

“We had for a long time wanted to move to the west coast but we had never been able to figure out how to do it,” says Jamie. For him, surfing was the big draw; for Lisa, it was having her mother, sister and brother living in Galway.

It was only after taking their first child, Leon, now aged four, to Water Babies in Dublin, that they spotted a franchise opportunity that might make it all possible.

But two significant life events – the death of Jamie’s father and the birth of their second child, Marley, now aged three – delayed their pursuit of a better work-life balance.

It was March 2011 before they moved and then faced the reality of trying to make a go of their own business.

“We had both given up really good jobs and the recession had just hit,” says Lisa, who was an archivist in the National Library, while Jamie was the manager of a centre for young adults with intellectual disabilities.

“There was a lot going on and we did question for those months had we made the right decision.”

The word “copreneurs” has been coined for couples like the Cobbes and, whether the intimate partnership or the working relationship was established first, keeping both on an even track can be tricky. Home can no longer be a total escape from work, and vice versa.

“I think it is definitely challenging,” agrees family therapist Ann Campbell. “While you realise it is a professional relationship, you are much more likely to get short with somebody you are in an intimate relationship with.”

Good communication is important in all relationships but here it is doubly needed – clarifying in advance the roles and ground rules. And listening is the one part of communication that gets lost very easily, she advises.

It would be a good idea if couples moving into this two-dimensional relationship acknowledge that it requires a huge readjustment and talk about how things between them might be different.

Another aspect of being copreneurs is that employees will judge you as a couple, as well as employers.

“The other part that is huge for couples working together is family life,” says Campbell, who is vice chairwoman of the Family Therapy Association of Ireland.

“Gender issues come in here; when it comes to the crunch, whose responsibility are the children? Are they both business partners’ responsibility or is there an idea that one is the stronger partner, therefore they do less family stuff?”

Their own childhoods will colour expectations and, as they have had different upbringings, they really need to discuss how they are going to handle this. Likewise housework, which has been shown to be the thing all couples argue about most.

Yet couples working together, who may have spent the day talking business, can’t go home and argue with somebody else about who hasn’t done what, she points out. “You’re faced with that conversation with the same person as well.”

She advises co-workers going home together after a bad day to “name it and park it”. Acknowledge there is a problem at work but agree you are going to leave it aside and talk about it in the morning.

Self-care is really important, particularly when there are multiple demands on the one relationship. There is a fair expectation of a certain amount of care and minding in the intimate relationship, says Campbell, “but can you be black and white and just get on with work and have a different connection in the workplace”?

On the positive side, working and living together can greatly enhance your overall relationship.

“It is wonderful what people do together – and do it beautifully,” she adds. “They don’t kill each other.”

By the end of 2011, the Cobbes knew the business was going to work. “It all got a bit easier from then on,” says Lisa. At that stage they had assigned work roles, according to their strengths.

“I pretty much took over all of the teaching side of things,” says Jamie, “and Lisa took over all the client management side of things – looking after bookings, marketing.”

Having started with 62 babies in their first term, now, with extra trainers and a full-time administrator, they are teaching 400 babies and toddlers each week.

Meanwhile there was a new addition at home too – Dexter, who has just turned one. They are in the “privileged position”, Lisa explains, of having childcare “on tap” because her mother runs three creches in Galway.

Take time to relax
The Cobbes have got better at not getting out their laptops as soon as the children have gone to bed, but instead take the opportunity to relax and talk about other things.

“At the beginning we were working every single evening,” says Jamie. “I think we are more efficient than we were and can try to have some division between work and family life.”

However, time for just the two of them, outside work, is “the hardest thing to find at the moment”, he acknowledges.

“We could do with getting away and having the odd night out together,” agrees Lisa, but she reckons that it is true of any parents of three young children, regardless of whether or not they work together.

“We are in each other’s pockets,” she adds. “That’s really good, it is like working with your best friend. It’s fun and, when things are really good, there is no one better to share it with.”

‘Just working together on the farm suits us fine’
After Valerie Kingston got married she knew that if they were to have children, she wanted to be a stay-at-home mum. A food science graduate, she started experimenting in her kitchen with milk produced on the family’s west Cork farm.

Fifteen years later, Glenilen Farm is a multi-million euro producer of artisan yogurt and other dairy goods, headed by herself and her husband, Alan. But it remains a home-based business and is the backdrop to the raising of their three children, Sally (14), Grace (12) and nine-year-old Ben.

Their kitchen is the office but production has moved to a purpose-built factory in the farmyard. And since a manager took over the day-to-day running of the farm, Alan has joined her in the job of adding value to not only their own milk but that of neighbouring farms too.

While Alan relishes the challenge of growing the business, he says his wife would have been just as happy if it had continued at the initial level of selling at farmers’ markets, and she doesn’t contradict him. However, they are both glad that, despite living in the very rural area of Drimoleague, they have been able to generate 35 jobs.

“We pinch ourselves and ask ‘how did this happen?’” says Valerie who, although she maintains that she is not working full-time because the children are her priority when they come in the door from school, also admits that business is “24/7” and that they are on call all the time.

More than once Alan refers to his wife as the “policewoman”, whether that is maintaining the principles that are core to the business of Glenilen Farm or making sure all mobile phones are put aside when the family sits down for their evening meal.

But do she and Alan discuss work around the clock too? “Sometimes I wonder what else we would talk about,” she laughs. However, for faith and family reasons, they try to keep Sundays free of all shop talk.

“We don’t want the kids growing up thinking we have no time for anything else,” says Valerie. “Family holidays are important and we like our free time too.”

However, it is almost impossible to take time off at home, says Alan. “We find travel – getting out and looking at the business from a distance – is very healthy. As a family, when we are away, we think about things in a broader picture.”

The Kingstons believe it is a plus that the children see them working as business partners, as well as running the home as parents, and that they learn from that.

“They see how you interact with people for example,” says Alan. “They see what it takes to run your own business and that it is not a nine-to-five thing.”

Inevitably, the demands of the business impinge on family life and the children have to be very flexible, says Valerie.

“When they see and listen to what is happening, if plans have to change at the last moment, they understand why they have to change.”

Sally, at least, was able to enjoy the perk of a summer job this year, helping in the office. “If they can earn a bit of money, they don’t complain then,” remarks Valerie, who says it is nice to know the option is there for them to work in the business.

“They won’t be forced to take over the business,” stresses Alan. “It is a big problem for artisan food producers because the business is very much focused around the character of the people and it is very difficult for the second generation to come in and fit into those shoes.”

Living and working together wouldn’t suit every couple, but the Kingstons are very grateful that they can. In limited periods of downtime apart, he “clears the head a little bit” on long cycles while she likes to go for walks in the surrounding, beautiful countryside.

“I wanted a simple lifestyle, so we make simple products, we live simple lives and we have simple pleasures,” adds Valerie. “Just working together on the farm suits us fine.”

‘We are a great support to each other, because we understand the business through and through’

Musicians Roger Moffat and Sinéad Farrell consider themselves extremely lucky, as a married couple, to have found permanent, pensionable jobs in the same workplace – the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra.

Having met 11 years ago, while third-level students at the Royal Irish Academy of Music in Dublin, the odds were stacked against them getting jobs in the same country, never mind in the same orchestra.

“A lot of musicians end up emigrating to wherever they can get work,” says Farrell, who plays piccolo and flute and joined the RTÉSO five years ago, four years after Moffat, a percussionist.

They can see only advantages in being colleagues and can’t come up with one downside between them.

“We are a great support to each other,” she says, “because we understand the business through and through.”

They acknowledge that starting a family might, in Moffat’s words, “open a floodgate of problems” for them because the orchestra works irregular hours and they often play at weekends and in the evenings.

“But I don’t think it would ever be a reason not to do it,” he stresses but, at the moment, they are both happily sitting on the fence on this one – “we have two cats”.

Playing in different sections among an 80-plus ensemble means they don’t see much of each other at work. They generally take coffee breaks apart but might have the odd lunch together.

“It is more interesting if you have your own circle of friends and colleagues who you can talk about later on in the day,” says Moffat.

“But it is nice when we are on tour because we can commute together,” says Farrell. And they enjoy having a chunk of time off together in the summer.

On a Friday night, after playing for a live broadcast in the National Concert Hall, it wouldn’t be unusual for them – “like total geeks” – to listen to a recording of that concert as soon as they get back to their home in Donnybrook.

“It is almost just to put your mind at ease that the tiny thing you are fixating on really wasn’t that important in the greater scheme of things and didn’t come across on radio,” she explains.

However, neither of them would dream of commenting on the other’s performance without being asked – although “a cursory ‘well played’ is okay”, according to Moffat .

“Generally speaking, when a musician asks for advice they just want to hear they were great,” he says. And even as a couple they remain mindful of this.

“We wouldn’t be still married if we didn’t.”

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