‘Pillow talk would turn into a status meeting’: Three married couples reveal the delights and pitfalls of starting a business together

February 14, 2023, 4:26 PM UTC
Photo illustration of Seema Bansal and Sunny Chadha, Crystal Anderson and Kiesh Herman, and Adam and Danella McKinnon, each surrounded by a pink frame.
In honor of Valentine’s Day, the founders of Venus et Fleur, A Very Good Job, and McKinnon Collective explain how they balance their business with marriage.
Photo illustration by Fortune; Original photos courtesy of Seema Bansal and Sunny Chadha; Crystal Anderson and Kiesh Herman; Adam and Danella McKinnon

Your coworker totally screwed you over today. They forgot to send the invoice; they didn’t answer the biggest client’s call; or they dropped the ball on the slide deck. Then you go home in a huff, ready to vent about it to your partner—but there’s that coworker, sitting at your kitchen island.

Working with a spouse can be problematic—threatening both work life and the sanctity of a relationship. But for some couples who have gone into business together, that collaboration has been the unlikely backbone of a strong marriage. 

“For me, it’s an absolute no-no,” Lindsey Metselaar, host of millennial dating podcast We Met at Acme, tells Fortune. “You work together with your partner in so many other aspects [of your life]—like parenting or building a home. You don’t need to also work together.” 

Metselaar recalls past relationships in which hearing her partner on a work call “completely” turned her off. “If you’re working with them, you better love how they conduct business, because you’re getting into bed with them every night.”

But for Crystal Anderson, going into business with her partner, Kiesh Herman, at their event production and digital marketing startup, A Very Good Job (AVGJ), wasn’t a decision at all. “The universe decided for us,” she tells Fortune.

The two began dating in 2018 and formed AVGJ in June 2020. Anderson leads creative development; Herman is company president. Prior to the pandemic, the couple worked outside the home, knowing nothing about each other’s work styles. Now, under the same roof, they’re meeting one another anew.  

“You realize your boo is the person who never sends a follow-up email,” Herman says, laughing. “Or who follows up three times in one day.” Even so, she adds, working together creates an array of issues—opportunities, Anderson interjects, to grow closer. 

When being married is an asset

Adam McKinnon, a longtime artisan, and Danella McKinnon, a former teacher, started their leather goods business together in September 2019, weeks before they married. The Bay Area couple were tired of their nine-to-five jobs. When Adam floated the idea by Danella, she says she was more worried about leaving full-time teaching and having a consistent paycheck than working with her husband.

While Adam handles all design and crafting, Danella says her job is “all the stuff that every artist and small-business owner hates: paperwork, marketing, admin, ops, and customer service.” Having their own departments, Danella says, is key to making a relationship work at work.

When they man a booth at craft markets, Danella adds, customers love seeing a married couple working together. Being a family business is a huge part of their company ethos, the two say. “No hate on single business owners, but us being a couple-run business [is foundational]. Every bag we have is named after our friends and family.”

On the East Coast, Seema Bansal and Sunny Chadha founded luxury flower delivery company Venus et Fleur before they even lived in the same country. Wanting to impress Bansal after meeting through friends, New York–based Chadha sent flowers to her Vancouver apartment, which arrived “awful and dying.” 

Both parties realized the vast gap in the luxury flower market and formed Venus et Fleur at the same time they defined their relationship. They incorporated the business in 2015 but didn’t get married until 2018.  

“We had a lot of naysayers, [but] we believed we could do everything together,” Bansal says. “We were building a brand as well as getting to know each other and falling in love.”

At the end of the day, they say they’re both risk takers, and entrepreneurship can be very lonely, “so it’s great to share what we’re going through together.”

Together may be an understatement; the two even share a desk. “Luckily our strengths and weaknesses balance out,” Chadha says, adding that they share an “almost identical” approach to business and life. He runs operations and supply-chain management while Bansal owns the creative side.

Separating church and state

But not every couple who works together wants to be that close. “I don’t want to paint a picture that [the beginning] wasn’t hard,” Herman says of their experience launching AVGJ. “Crystal and I are so in love and aligned in our lives, which helped in our work life, but we were starting at zero and had to learn each other as new people.”

Part of that education has been realizing distance does make the heart grow fonder. “We have to miss each other,” Herman says. She now works from a coffee shop twice a week. When she’s home, she puts a small homemade sign on her desk with two sides, one reading “Do not disturb,” the other reading “What’s up?”

They regularly attend couples therapy, which they suggest for any coupled cofounders. Their main, therapist-approved takeaway: Separate work from their marriage.

“Pillow talk would turn into a status meeting, often led by me,” Herman recalls. “But we got to a point where we didn’t want to be engulfed by it.” Their edict: Don’t make roommate problems relationship problems—or coworker problems. 

“If we’re bumping heads because we have different work styles, I have to realize that we can pick that up at the office tomorrow,” Herman says. “But once the workday is done, this is my boo.” 

The McKinnons have physically divided their home in half: One side is a shipping station–cum–storage room, and the other is Adam’s workroom. But just because work occurs in their home doesn’t mean it’s the center of everything they do there. “The core of the house is all in the bedroom,” Danella says. “Our relationship comes before anything, and we’ll never jeopardize that.”

Distinct personal and work boundaries are critical, Adam says, and business meetings can’t be combined with chatting in bed or eating takeout with Netflix. One word of advice: “Still go on dates where you’re absolutely not allowed to talk about business.”

While each of the founder couples said they’d encourage like-minded entrepreneurs to consider going into business, Metselaar advises proceeding with caution. She instead encourages entrepreneurship-minded couples to consider what the worst-case scenario would be. A step further: just like a marriage prenup agreement, she’d write up a business prenup. “Put everything in place so you can protect yourself,” she says.

Keeping the spark alive

While they try to make business off-limits while vacationing or spending time with their one-year-old son, the Venus et Fleur cofounders acknowledge they often break those rules. But that doesn’t matter, Chadha says, “because our goal is the same. We want our company to be successful, and we find a lot of joy in doing this together.”

Any entrepreneur needs an “ecosystem” of genuine supporters, Chadha says, whether it’s your business partner, your team at work, or outside friends. “Fortunately, we have each other every day,” Bansal adds. “Love always wins, which is lucky because we’re in a business that spreads love every day.”

Going into their fifth Valentine’s Day, Herman and Anderson haven’t lost their excitement for one another, and often leave little notes on each other’s laptops or desks. 

“When I’m working at the coffee shop, I’ll be running home because I miss her,” Herman says. “I couldn’t run this without her, and what she brings to the table.”

“Any project we do, after it’s out in the world, I get to turn to my partner and be like, ‘We made something really cool,’” Anderson says when asked what the best part is. She looks at Herman. “I get to do that over and over again, every single day, and I get to do it with you? What’s better than that? That feeling is lightning in a bottle.”

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