Couples learn to work together

Ashley Milne-Tyte Aug 29, 2008

Couples learn to work together

Ashley Milne-Tyte Aug 29, 2008


Tess Vigeland: What would it be like to work with your spouse, all day, every day, side by side.

For some people, bliss. Me? Not so much — I love you, honey, but no thanks.

There are lots of businesses run by couples, though. So how does it work? Or not work?

Ashley Milne-Tyte takes a look.

Ashley Milne-Tyte: Patrick Watson and Michele Pravda’s first meeting wasn’t auspicious. It was 1999. He was beginning a job as a server at a new Mario Battali restaurant in Manhattan.

Patrick Watson: Michele was already there and I walked through the door one day and I said, “I think I’m supposed to train today,” and she said, “Oh really? Well, nobody told me,” turned around and walked away.

Things improved. Rapidly. They married in 2001.

Now in their mid-30s, they’ve run Smith & Vine, their Brooklyn wine store, for four years.

Watson: You’ve got whites on one side of the store, reds in the other. And then from there it kind of goes by country; we start with the old world and finish in the new world.

Two years ago, they opened a specialty food shop nearby. They recently added a wine bar on the next block. They say each business is like a child — and a pretty demanding one. They both work 80 to 90 hours a week. These days they have staff, but they still spend plenty of time together.

Michele says it works because their personalities complement each other.

Michele Pravda: Patrick is very spontaneous, which is wonderful, and I am sort of calculated, and so it’s a good combination, you know? He pushes me to do things and then I say, “Wait a minute. Let’s step back and sort of look at all the parts and put them together.”

For instance, Patrick wanted to swap their popular $10-and-under wine table for one selling wines for $12-and-under. Michele resisted, afraid that customers would resent the change. Some lively debate ensued. They’re now rolling out a $12-and-under table with a section devoted to wines for less than $10.

Patrick says they used to wrangle more often.

Watson: For the first couple of years, yeah, we arm-wrestled on a number of different things. And I think eventually you just have to come to the realization, you know, compromise is best and you have to realize too that you’re both going to have really strong, really good ideas.

He says the key is to test both sets of ideas and to keep in mind that what’s best for the business should trump everything else, including someone’s pet project.

Not all couples work together so seamlessly. David Shapin used to own a medical transcription business with his wife. She’s now his ex-wife. They ran the business from their home in Las Vegas. That, Shapin says, was part of the problem.

David Shapin: It never really dawned on us that there were things we needed to think about about being together 24/7. We just thought it was gonna be easy.

It wasn’t. They had a new baby to care for just at the time they were starting the business. But Shapin says the baby wasn’t the main problem. He says increasingly, they just got on each other’s nerves.

His ex-wife didn’t want to talk on tape, but she confirmed that being together all the time drove them nuts and that they argued about the company more and more often.

Shapin says they’d need to make a decision on some aspect of the business and he’d say something like this:

Shapin: This is what I have experience in and I want you to trust my judgment on this one.

He says his wife would bristle. You can imagine the kind of back-and-forth they’d get into.

Shapin: It sounded like what you would see in an argument in a sitcom, and it wasn’t funny.

Shapin says their personal spats often meant business decisions were pushed aside. He says the business stagnated. He says his biggest regret is that the two of them didn’t discuss ahead of time how to separate business and personal.

But not all couples feel such a line is necessary. Michele Pravda says she and her husband know each other so well, there’s no need for boundaries.

Pravda: Whatever you have to say, you get out, you know? You’re not worried about hurting somebody’s feelings or walking on eggshells. There’s really none of that.

She and Patrick think this lack of ego is part of why they’ve been successful. The wine store doubled profits in its first year and is still growing. The food shop grew by 70 percent from its first to its second year.

As for David Shapin, after a few years he offered to go back to marketing work and let his wife run their business alone. Ultimately, they agreed to separate.

Shapin: The biggest problem for me now is that when you’ve had your own business, amplified by the fact that it was a family business, that now you’ve lost both parts and that’s hard.

He sold his half of the company to his ex-wife for a dollar. She says business is great these days.

In Brooklyn, Patrick and Michele are about to add a fourth child to their list of responsibilities, which they admit may make their juggling act a little more complicated: their first baby, due at the end of July.

In New York, I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace Money.

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