Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

The other half: Married to an entrepreneur

Real estate agent Dave Cole, left, and his wife, Julie Ellis, co-founder of Mabel’s Labels Inc.

Cherie-Lynn Buchanan/CL Buchanan Photography

When Dave Cole's wife, Julie Ellis, quit her job as a financial planner with Royal Bank of Canada to co-found Mabel's Labels Inc. in 2002, the father of three was scared.

"She was giving up a 10-year career, a steady income, benefits and a pension plan for an idea that might not fly," recalls Mr. Cole, a sales representative with Royal LePage Burloak Real Estate Services Brokerage in Burlington, Ont.

It was a financial risk the couple took as a team, but for his part, Mr. Cole is the silent partner, sharing the ups and downs of business behind the scenes.

Story continues below advertisement

And like most entrepreneurial spouses, he was in for a roller coaster ride toward success.

"At company events, we joke that I just have to show up and look pretty," Mr. Cole says.

But at home, he's been centre stage, facing one challenge after another.

For starters, there was tightening the family belt while waiting for that first elusive paycheque. That meant cutting back on RRSP contributions, getting used to eating in, and even stocking up on dry goods on sale.

At the same time, Mr. Cole morphed into Mr. Mom while his wife worked around the clock to build the business.

"When she's on call 24-7 for work, I'm on call 24-7 for the kids," says Mr. Cole, who books house showings around his children's schedules. It takes a lot of creative jostling to cover all the bases, he says, and the sheer busyness of it all can get overwhelming.

"The fact is, being an entrepreneurial spouse is a hard job because your support is vital to the health of the business and you have a life, too," says executive coach Bruce Sandy, founder and principal of Pathfinder Coaching and Consulting in Port Moody, B.C.

Story continues below advertisement

And it's easy, especially with a startup when the time commitment is huge, for that supportive spouse to slide into resentment or burnout, he says, particularly if there are kids and/or a second career involved.

Some spouses also get stressed over how much they are, or are not, involved in business dealings.

When Amanda Biderman wed Noel Biderman, who founded the married dating website in 2002 and became president and chief executive officer of its parent company, Avid Life Media Inc., in 2007, she didn't know what she was in for.

Often, the mother of two isn't sure whether her entrepreneurial husband will make it home in time for supper. The inconsistency of routine hits home hardest, she says, when Mr. Biderman has to leave their Toronto home to travel for business – about one week out of every month.

Even more trying is the fact that, as the wife of the man known as the 'king of infidelity,' Mrs. Biderman is thrust into the media spotlight.

"Because his business is controversial, TV and radio stations want to interview me about our relationship," she says.

Story continues below advertisement

To be supportive, she plays the public relations role with a smile, but admits that she is by nature a private person.

"I've always worked, and saw myself at home with the kids. I didn't sign up for the publicity job," she says.

Kevin Haakensen has also been drawn into his spouse's business. A senior financial adviser and partner at Dundee Wealth Management in Saskatoon, he spends his spare time acting as chief financial officer for Contango Strategies Ltd., a company that provides clean tech strategies for the natural resources and energy sectors.

It was founded in 2010 by his wife, Monique Haakensen, who is its president and principal scientist.

"The business takes up a lot of my time. We even talk strategy at night," Mr. Haakensen says.

It has also squeezed out those weekend fishing trips the couple used to slip off to on a whim. "Now the weekend is valuable time for Monique to get work done," he says.

Another timing wrinkle: All of this business building has delayed the couple's plan for kids. "We had discussed Monique having a baby in her late 20s. Now she's 29, and the business is her baby," Mr. Haakensen says.

As a result, their family is on hold for the next five years – at least, he says. "The business has to be at a point where there are key people to step in and take her place."

The key to solving timing and other problems created by the business is to anticipate them, Mr. Sandy says.

From day one, design a work-life balance partnership agreement – setting out your respective roles in the family and company, what business issues you will share, and when you will connect with each other.

You also need to build in check-in points to reflect about what doesn't work. "There has to be space to change the plan – to hire a cleaning lady or set up weekly date nights, for instance," Mr. Sandy says.

"Communication is key. When overwhelmed, exhausted people aren't talking, that's when the toxins in a relationship – blaming, criticizing, stonewalling – creep in and sabotage success."

Finding an outlet for your feelings is therapeutic, says Fiona Manning, a family physician in Victoria. In 1999, her husband, Scott Phillips, founded StarFish Product Engineering Inc., a biotech company that manufactures medical devices.

Three years ago, he joined his local chapter of the Entrepreneurs' Organization.

EO offers support not just for business owners but for their partners as well, so they can meet, swap stories and share advice.

It's a chance for spouses of entrepreneurs to learn from others who are in the same boat in a confidential setting, says John Cornelsen, its global spousal forum sub-committee chair.

Dr. Manning finds that helpful.

"Hearing others' experiences helps fend off those creeping feelings of resentment over the long hours Scott puts in at work, times when I'm stuck taking out the recycling so I'm late for a meeting or he misses our daughter's violin recital," Dr. Manning says.

"And it helps when you start to appreciate the many hats entrepreneurs have to wear, the stresses they feel, the risk-taking, the ebb and flow of money, and how hard it is for them to stop working the second they walk in the door," she adds.

"Over time, you realize it's all part of their passion for running their own show."

Special to The Globe and Mail

Report an error
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.