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Leadership Finding work-life balance when your business partner is your spouse

Co-founder of Pangea Pod Hotel in Whistler, B.C.

For most people, there’s work life and then there’s home life. Aside from the occasional “spouses welcome” party, or when office overtime eats into your child’s bath time, these two worlds rarely collide. Many of us never even contemplate working alongside our partners in life. It’s almost unthinkable.

Six years ago, that’s exactly what my wife, Jelena, and I decided to do. Six years later, the only question I’m asking myself is: “Why didn’t we do this sooner?”

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It was 2009. I had been working on Wall Street for an investment fund while Jelena was a scientist conducting cholesterol research at Columbia University. We both worked hard, were paid well, but barely saw one another. Work life and home life couldn’t have been further apart. We had to do something about it.

After much deliberation, we gave up our hard-earned jobs and decided to travel the world together. It was after three years on the road that we realized that we were perfectly capable of spending 24 hours a day, seven days a week in each other’s company. The idea of working together every day – as well as being husband and wife – sprung from this revelation.

Of course, we were under no illusions as to how much different working together would be to seeing the world together. There would be no magical African sunrises, no cocktails at sunset, no salsa on the beach to bring us closer. But we decided to give it a shot and went into business together – at the same time as starting a family. In Whistler, B.C., we set up Canada’s first pod hotel – a model which offers more than a hostel at a fraction of the price of the neighbouring three-star hotels. It was, and is, a project that saw us working together on everything from construction to branding. (We also set up our first diaper-changing stations at home, with Jelena giving birth to our first-born in 2013 and his sister in 2015.)

For my wife and I, this was a huge step. Not only were we re-entering the world of work as a duo, but we were doing it in a field – hospitality – in which we had zero prior experience. We were both making dramatic career changes, which, to outside eyes at least, could have been seen as a monumental risk (and it was). But the most important factor in our decision was that we could not simply go back to our “normal” lives of seeing each other for a glass of wine at 11:00 each night.

So, what have I learned from going into business with my wife, and what advice would I give to someone thinking of doing the same?

There is one thing in particular I wish to share. It is that in order to form a partnership that works in business, as well as life, you have to have the right kind of relationship with your partner. As well as both individuals having those qualities of patience, respect, understanding and the willingness to compromise that are so crucial to home life, the relationship has to be one in which conflict is ultimately constructive and opposing opinions are always respected. Otherwise, it can all too easily affect your personal relationship.

I should say here that being incapable of working together doesn’t mean that a relationship is flawed or imperfect in any way. I love my wife, and we have a very strong bond, but I’m not foolish enough to think that because I also work with her, my relationship must therefore be stronger or better than anybody else’s.

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To anyone considering starting a business with their partner, I would say that it’s important to have some boundaries you both agree on from the outset. I can only imagine how much more difficult starting a business would have been had my wife and I not done this. Right from the beginning, we defined what our roles and objectives would be and while we gave (and sought) each other’s opinion and work on virtually everything together, we always respected each other’s decisions.

The other piece of advice I have would be to continue to distinguish home life from work life where possible. When you’re spending quality time together or as a family, try not to bring up that latest management screw-up! Although your work and home life might be inextricably linked, it’s important – for the sake of your personal relationship, and the good of your business – that the two don’t become too intertwined.

Continue to maintain these boundaries and your business and relationship will thrive. And, as my wife and I have discovered, the shared experience of starting and running a business together, with all its triumphs and disasters, may just bring you closer.

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