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Dawn Laing
Dawn Laing

Leadership Lab

How to thrive and survive an entrepreneurial couple-dom Add to ...

This column is part of Globe Careers’ Leadership Lab series, where executives and experts share their views and advice about leadership and management. Follow us at @Globe_Careers. Find all Leadership Lab stories at tgam.ca/leadershiplab.

Editor’s note: Dawn Laing started working full time at Nuvango in 2015, after she and her partner Drew Downs re-mortgaged their home to support the business. Dawn has a Bachelor of Science in environmental studies and a Bachelor of Arts in physical geography from Saint Mary’s University. She also has a Masters in natural resource science from McGill University and a MBA from the Ivey School of Business.

All of our eggs are in one basket, financially and emotionally, and I’m 110 per cent okay with that but it is not a life for everyone. There’s no roadmap that speaks to surviving a working – living – loving scenario with your significant other. Everyone will weigh in on how hard it can be but few will tell you how rewarding it could be. What people typically say when they find out I work/live/love with my significant other is, “Working together and living together … I don’t think my relationship would survive that.” It’s true, some people are compatible in life but not in work. However, a surprising number of relationships are compatible, not perfect but compatible, and I’m living proof. Here’s my backstory and a few of my go-to tips for surviving this unique adventure:

My common-law partner, Drew Downs, started a business 10 years ago with his high school friend, Jamie Pichora. The company (GelaSkins.com) grew exponentially from a team of two to more than 30 employees at its peak. I met Drew at the beginning of his entrepreneurial journey and we started dating in the summer of 2006. I was working full time in a senior conservation biologist position with the federal government but had always been intrigued by private sector. Between my job and volunteer initiatives, I had also started a green events company with my best friend. My plate was full, and dating someone who loved his job and loved to work was incredibly attractive to me. Many of our first dates were spent in the studio they had rented for GelaSkins, packaging orders over late night beers and takeout. By 2008, I had packaged thousands of individual orders, supported customer service, created partnerships, reviewed copy and even spent three weeks during a holiday rush working in the mail room. It never seemed like work because it was fun and I was helping the person I love solve problems.

Flash forward to 2015. I put myself through an Executive MBA program (Ivey School of Business) while working full-time with the federal government in a national leadership position. Over the course of the MBA, I dedicated most of my off-hours and projects to GelaSkins (which rebranded to Nuvango in 2014). It was obvious where my heart was and it wasn’t in my government job. In May 2015, I gave up my secure salary and benefits and raised my hand to put everything we personally had back into the scaling and growth of Nuvango and our vertically integrated manufacturing studio – while simultaneously launching a flagship brick and mortar, and gallery, in the heart of Toronto’s art and fashion district. This wasn’t a decision we took lightly. We knew that working together day-in-day-out could be detrimental to our relationship, but we also felt that it could be an exciting adventure we could take on, as a couple.

Here we are more than a year later and I couldn’t be happier. We’ve had our challenges, but each hurdle and success has made us even stronger as a couple in love and in business.

One of the questions I get most often in interviews and meetings is how do we make ‘this’ work. The merger of business and a romantic relationship isn’t easy, and everyone has their own advice and opinions, here are some tips and highlights for surviving and thriving as an entrepreneurial couple.

Need to knows:

Before jumping into 24/7 work-life with my significant other, there were a lot of questions about what this meant for me, my career goals and the business. We also needed an exit strategy if work started to interfere with our life together. We loved each other and didn’t want this entrepreneurial experiment to break us.

Lay the ground rules and communicate

Have a Plan B, what happens if it doesn’t work? Be open and transparent around what flies and what will not. Be explicit about expectations and roles and responsibilities.

Consideration for other stakeholders

Drew has a business partner and the decision to bring me into the fold also required his support and consent. This isn’t my business, it’s a business I’m a part of (and am financially supporting), but it is the business of two equal partners started before I entered the picture. If you are coming into a business structure with existing partners, make sure everyone is on-board with your participation.

Take each plot twist in stride

Right out of the gate, there were additional challenges we hadn’t anticipated. Drew’s business partner was going through a divorce while we were re-structuring and re-investing in the company, preparing to launch a physical storefront and gallery and changing our software platform. To help him, we invited Drew’s partner to live with us during these multiple transitions. This meant the three of us worked together, commuted together and lived together for 11 months. It was efficient when it came to working on business problems, but it did add a complicated layer to work/love/life balance, which we had to work through.

Set boundaries for where work talk is allowed, and where it isn’t

It was important for the three of us to have a zenful place to escape to. Our kitchen/living room was an extension of our studio, but the couch … the couch and bedrooms became sanctuaries away from the noise of work life. We no longer have our business partner roomie, but these zenful rules still apply.

Leave your emotional baggage at the door

Being a couple in a professional environment means being professional in a professional environment. Sometimes it’s not easy but save those conversations for outside of work. Naughty or nice, language and body language affect the workplace around you.

Money talk

You can not be afraid to talk about finances, money, forecasting, compensation when you work together especially if you haven’t diversified your income stream into other businesses. Leaving my government job meant we, as a household, were turning down a significant, secure salary. By removing that security, we were upping the ante with risk. Luckily, Drew and I are both on the same page when it comes to our personal comfort levels around risk and what we are willing to sacrifice to build the business.

Celebrate

As an entrepreneurial couple, you can get caught in a loop. The loop is, “what’s next, what needs to be done, what have we forgotten?” It’s easy to get caught up in an addictive loop of problem solving while ignoring achievements. You love what you do, your significant other loves what they do, and you are driven to keep moving forward because you’re hungry to build your business. That’s great, but don’t forget to high-five, sleep and celebrate.

Value your love life and your work life

The same way you celebrate work achievements, don’t forget the small gestures at home. Small wins like toasting one another for making the time to make a meal together or bigger wins like anniversaries or birthdays.

Find your own things to do outside of one another

As entrepreneurs, It’s easy to become hermits. Remember, there’s a whole other world out there. You need time to yourself. Make time for patio drinks, motorcycle rides, hikes through the park, concerts with friends – whatever it is you like to do. You might be reading this and think, “I’d never” but if you’re anything like the other entrepreneurial couples I know, it’s easy to fall in love with that work-love-life loop and sometimes you need friends and family to pull you out of it.

Have fun

Life is supposed to be fun, your significant other deserves a happy, healthy partner. If you’re miserable and your relationship is flailing, maybe working together isn’t for you. Don’t be afraid to concede and exit. It’s okay to be compatible in love and not in work. That’s what that exit plan is for.

Working together, much like a relationship, is not going to run perfectly. Drew and I are not perfect and we have made mistakes and, as much as we try to adhere to our advice, we don’t get it right every time. It’s how you accept and learn from those mistakes that can determine your success as a couple in love and in business.

Dawn Laing is director of communications and marketing for Nuvango, GelaSkins and Notion MFG in Toronto.

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