Business ownership comes with highs and lows but wouldn’t having someone to share those times with make it all a bit easier? We’ve spoken with SME leaders to find out how they mix business with pleasure
We all know entrepreneurial life is often a hectic experience. With so many hats to wear and duties to perform on a daily basis, it can be hard to find time to come up for air. Livingstone, the M&A firm, picked the brains of more than 200 founders of UK private companies with annual turnover of between £5m to £150m and discovered leadership can be quite an isolated existence. Indeed, 77% said they put the business above everything else in their life, which resulted in 44% sometimes feeling lonely and 14% always experiencing the emotion.
Of course, with the vibrant reds and pinks doing the rounds at this time of the year thanks to Valentine’s Day, it’s perhaps an ideal period for entrepreneurs to take a step back and consider if the loneliness is worth it and if there’s anything that can be done to remedy it.
In the case of Fortuna Lisa Burke, founder of hair supplement company It Really Works Vitamins, keeping that fire burning is about time management. “When my husband gets back from work and once we've had dinner, I've become much better at telling my brain to switch off otherwise our quality time gets diluted and turns into a sort-of ineffective work-time that's full of stress thoughts and no actual work,” she tells Elite Business. “I've always felt that there's no point working so hard to grow a business if you end up distancing yourself from the people you love the most.” So whether it’s big plans that have been made or simply binging Narcos together, Burke has found her work-life balance.
But what about other entrepreneurs? It turns out many decided to team up with their other halves to build their enterprises, effectively allowing for more time together and a real understanding of the stresses that can be caused from operating a company. James Dunworth, co-founder and director of vaping business ECigarette, brought his wife in as a PA once the firm got to a size where she could become an official employee. “In my work I have times when I need to focus in-depth and we also find it useful to ensure [we’re] not on top of each other all the time,” details Dunworth, explaining that there are rules in place to get the right balance. This includes measures like having a set time during which his wife can bring any business matters to his attention. “Apart from emergencies, we don't work together outside that time,” he says. “We also put a limit on the amount of time we can spend talking about work at home and on holidays.”
From a transitional point of view, it took some adjusting in terms of accepting who’s in charge at work, as Dunworth’s wife typically runs the household and issues the instructions at home. “It took a little while to persuade her that at work her role was to carry out instructions, not give them,” he laughs. “It's worked out since though and we switch roles as we go between house and office.”
Dunworth admits there has been friction at times, which is something he’s seen with other relationships that mix with work, but notes that there’s a solid rhythm after eight years of mixing business with pleasure and insists the boundaries are crucial. “It's absolutely essential to have those rules in place – rules that give you both space, even if it's only mental space, from each other, a clear delineation in roles and clearly identifying [who’s] in charge,” he reasons. It’s not all work and no play though. The pair go for a weekly lunch to get some alone time in at a local village restaurant. “It's reasonably priced, the food is excellent and the staff know us by name, so it's become our weekly routine to go to the same restaurant every time,” Dunworth says. “The good thing is we don't need to spend precious brain space thinking about where to eat every week,” he laughs, which is something that most couples can relate to.
Meanwhile, Ernest and Agata Gikuma aren’t only husband and wife and parents of four children, they’re serial entrepreneurs and have been for ten years. Opening up straight away, Ernest Gikuma admits it was challenging initially in terms of distinguishing who was responsible for what. “We soon realised we needed to look at the needs of clients and use our strength as one team rather than two partners,” he says. The pair was able to take on wisdom from from another married couple of entrepreneurs who mentored them and got them up to speed to avoid “conflict zones”. “After a few months of pain, pleasure and pitfalls, we were inseparable,” says Gikuma. “We became a formidable force and nailed it from presentation to the close.” Today, the skills they learned a decade ago continue to serve them well, with trust at the centre of their success.
In addition to believing in one another, the two also had to realise that any ideologies about how working together would play out needed to be cast aside. “My wife had a mindset of independence and I had the mindset of never to be manipulated by a woman,” Gikuma explains. “These set of ‘self-philosophies' put a lot of strain in the relationship at first. Here lied the [risk] of splitting the relationship especially in the months that sales were not coming through.” But the bright side of that difficult patch was that they had each other to depend on, despite any challenges they faced. “One thing that remained constant is that we enjoyed each other’s company and after calming down from the stress of lack and limitations, we made up – we have kids to prove it,” he quips.
To keep the fire alive, he says that the husband should keep their flirting game strong. “This way, a man can tap into the everlasting reservoir of sexual energy that works like magic,” Gikuma says. “Ladies must keep the surprises coming, those sexy messages to the partner especially when he is doubting himself. Make sure to celebrate the wins together, learn from the losses and lessons and make up especially in downtimes. If there is no friendship, chances are the relationship will struggle in the long run.”
Mark Ollila and wife Elina are another couple who decided to work together. Having been in the games industry since 1996 and 2002 respectively, Mark has an engineering and business background while Elina specialises in user experience. With his business Evasyst, a social network for gamers, started as a part-time project it soon became full-time. “Elina was the one that pushed me to become more active and take the CEO role,” he tells Elite Business. “As such, I then demanded Elina come in and run product and UX. It was an easy decision as she is the best around at that role and I knew I could trust her without the concerns of onboarding someone we didn’t know.”
Interestingly, while others look to keep work and business separate, the Ollilas have no intention of doing any such thing. “We can’t and we don’t,” says Mark Ollila on the topic. “Work-life balance? Nope. What we have though is a deal where irrespective of how much work we take home with us. We still do things as a family, such as cooking, camping and playing games together with the kids.” With that practice in place, the pair knows when they need to take a step back when something business-related is seeping into the home. “When Elina is working hard I take over the family jobs and vice versa. We’re a real tag team.”
Ollila is aware that the method they have in place isn’t for everyone though. “The downside is that all the eggs are in the one basket,” he admits. “[It’s] admittedly quite risky.” The upsides are massive, however, with plenty of time spent together resulting in more understanding because they face the same challenges in the workplace. “You both know what’s going on at work and might be able to give each other more slack if things are particularly hectic at the office,” he adds. “Your partner might also be helpful in pointing out your blind spots, more so than another colleague would ever dare to.”
Driving to work together, walking the dog and ensuring date nights are just some of the ways the couple stay connected. “Overall, the key thing for us is when things get hectic, humour helps a lot,” Ollila suggests. Interestingly, he has some words of wisdom that oppose his own journey for entrepreneurs looking for love. “Date people in separate industries,” he jokes. “But if you do decide to date someone in your own industry, make sure [you’re] fully prepared to marry them.”
And as it just so happens Lauren Armes, founder of Welltodo Global, the wellness resource service, has actually had her fiancé join the company. He left his existing role in order to ensure they had more time together. “Being an Australian living in London engaged to a Brit, it was always going to be tricky juggling family visits,” says Armes. She wanted to run a business in order to move work around a specific lifestyle that would provide the freedom to operate in either the UK or Australia – however they saw fit. “It just so happens that his sales experience was a huge value-add to the business, so we decided to take the leap for him to leave his nine to five and join the company and [we] haven't looked back,” she adds.
Managing to cruise around any relationship waves caused by working together, Armes says it’s been a piece of cake to join forces. “He is incredibly supportive of everything I've built and I see him as much more of a business partner than an employee,” she says, noting communication has been essential to make for a seamless transition. Helpfully, he’s also adapted well in terms of going from a large corporation to a fast-paced startup. They weren’t blind to any concerns when making the switch though. “It’s only natural to have doubts,” reasons Armes. “It's still a new business and there are inherent risks involved: financial and emotional. But at this point in time we don't have any major responsibilities other than to ourselves and felt that it was really now or never.”
So whether you’ve already found love or you’re on the search for the one, hopefully these stories will have provided you with some inspiration to get the work-life balance that works for you.