Copreneurs: When Work and Love Mix
Life + Leisure

Copreneurs: When Work and Love Mix

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On October 20, 1994, Kim and Scott Holstein met at a book signing to hear marriage expert and author Robert Bach talk about destiny. By May 1996, the Chicago couple was married. But before tying the knot, they made another serious commitment.

They went into business together.

Kim & Scott’s Gourmet Pretzels, Inc. launched in 1995, a product of the couple’s budding relationship and Kim’s longtime goal of running her own gourmet pretzel company. Today, the pretzel vendor sells soft pretzels to grocery stores and retail outlets nationwide, including Whole Foods, Barnes and Noble, and Super Target. And in 2010, the Holstein’s took a new twist on pretzels, opening Cafe Twist in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood.

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“It’s a project like building a house together,” says Scott of their growing business. “The same way you’d make decisions about paint colors for the living room, we make decisions for our company.”

The Holsteins join a large and growing sector of the American economy, small businesses jointly owned and run by spouses. According the U.S. Census 2007 Survey of Business Owners, 3.7 million American firms are owned and operated by a husband and wife. Couples in business together, nicknamed “copreneurs”, help fill a large category of family-owned businesses in the United States, which today generates 57 percent of the GDP and employs 63 percent of the workforce in the United States, according to Family Enterprise USA’s 2011 Annual Family Business Survey.

And as baby boomer couples retire and embark on “encore careers,” many will turn to entrepreneurship, which despite the 20-something entrepreneurs making news, is 50 percent more likely for people ages 55 to 64 than those between the ages 20 to 34.

For couples willing to meld their work and personal lives, the benefits of copreneurship are clear. Running a spousal business means staff meetings at the kitchen tables, combined family and business travel, simplified tax statements, and above all, more time with your significant other. Despite the appeal, copreneurship – like entrepreneurship – is not without challenges.

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“It’s the path less traveled to be an entrepreneur and to be in business with your spouse,” says Scott. “How much risk are you willing to take in your work life and in your personal life? It’s not so much about an entrepreneurial personality but a willingness to make that double commitment.”

Best for the job.
The Runnels met 18 years ago working on The Variety Club, a 22-hour live fundraising telethon. Catherine was the associate producer; Paul was the technical director. The couple built a relationship as they produced shows for stars such as Nelly Furtado, Neil Young and Prince before settling down with a house, a baby and a new events company, brand.LIVE Management Group, Inc. in 2008.

 At brand.LIVE, the Runnels make their business partnership work by dividing labor based on their expertise – Paul with productions and Catherine with people. “We met working in the industry so we always knew we had the ability to work together,” Catherine says. “On the rock tour there is two senior positions - one is a production manager and one is a tour manager. That model which existed in our rock and roll lives transitioned nicely into the events business.”

Kim & Scott’s Gourmet Pretzels uses a similar strategy highlighting Kim’s previous work in advertising and Scott’s in sales. The couple also turns to third parties to supplement their strengths. “We’re not experts in everything,” says Kim. “So we find people who can help us navigate our way and remove the stress from our business and our relationship.”

Honey, I’m home.

With no barriers between their day job and home life, it is sometimes difficult for copreneurs to know when it’s time to stop talking about work. For the Holsteins, the job stops at the stairs. “No one can talk business on the second floor of the house,” says Scott. “That’s where our beds are – our bed, our kids’ beds.”

Despite the need to find separation, the Runnels have also seen some beneficial aspects of their professional life trickle into their personal lives.

“If we have an issue that we’re dealing with in the office we go into a board room and we sit in front of an absolutely massive white board and we workshop it,” Catherine says. “We find we do the same thing at home – if we’re having a challenge, we get out a piece of paper, and we chart it out until we can find a route to success.”

Perhaps the most important quality brought into a couple’s business is the commitment inbred in their marriage. “We’re completely in it,” Kim says of her business. “Like our marriage, we’re in it in the good times and we’re in it in the rough times – we’re in it together.”

According to the 2007 American Family Business Survey by MassMutual, among accountants, business peers, parents and lawyers, spouses were the most trusted advisor for family business owners. For a couple in business together, this trust is critical not only for the betterment of their business, but their lives as well.

“We’re owners of the company,” says Paul. “So at the end of the day we’re motivated to make this thing work and grow and be successful.”

“Because what we do at the office affects our family and our home life,” Catherine adds.

“They’re so intertwined,” Paul finishes. “And not in a negative way at all.”