Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, January 22, 2024
by Barbara Bry
You’re married, and you work together? And when are the divorce proceedings scheduled?
In 2013, according to the National Federation of Independent Businesses, 43 percent of small businesses (today about 33.2 million) are family businesses (defined as two or more family members managing a venture that at least one family member owns). Of those businesses, more than half identify a spouse as the family member who is sharing day-to-day management.
So how do couples make it work? I interviewed Neil and myself, along with three other couples.
Barbara: When Neil and I met 30 years ago, he was an out-of-work real estate developer, and I was working at CONNECT, which helped entrepreneurs start businesses. Neil needed a job, and I needed to earn more money. Early on, we decided that we wanted to either buy or start a company together. Two years later, Neil came up with the idea for our first company (Atcom/Info) that pioneered high-speed Internet access in hotel rooms. Since then, we have done deals both alone and together.
Neil: When we met, my initial thoughts were that she had enormous talent, she was organized, disciplined and diligent — and gorgeous. My mother told me that she was too good for me. Who was I to argue? After some fancy footwork, I was able to convince her to start the company. Let’s tell the truth. If that company had failed, we would not have gotten married. It was the entrepreneur’s all-in bet. The company was a success, we got married a year later. We had a couple business failures later, but by then we were playing with house money. Timing is everything.
Barbara: In Neil, I saw a creative man who could be my partner. Neil and I play to our strengths both at work and at home. I can’t cook; he can. I wasn’t going to starve. I was attracted to his sense of humor and entrepreneurial spirit, his willingness to try new things, and his ability to spin a tale that almost makes sense, at least some of the time. His fantasies become reality.
By the time we sold Atcom, I had already left and joined the founding team at Proflowers.com. But I stayed on the Atcom board, and the hardest thing that I had to do was fire Neil as CEO. Try coming home to that.
It’s amazing that our relationship survived, but he is a magician, and he was the one who got the company sold.
Craig and Linda Barkacs, who are now both lawyers and professors at the University of San Diego, got married in 1983. In 1992, Linda was hired as a law clerk at the firm where Craig was a junior associate. Five years later, they started their own law firm. They make it work with a division of responsibilities, a deep personal commitment to each other and a sense of humor.
Linda: Craig re-proposes every five years. We have complementary skills. Craig is the idea guy. I’m more detail oriented. When someone makes a mistake, we used to say to each other, “why did you do that?” Now Craig’s answer is, “I was just being stupid.” It defuses the moment, then we can both laugh.
Judy Muller-Cohn and Rolf Muller were colleagues at Oregon State University, where Judy earned a master’s degree in entomology, and Rolf earned one in virology. They married and then each earned a Ph.D. at Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris. Since then, they have started a number of companies and raised four children. They stressed the importance of dividing up responsibilities, respecting each other’s turf and not second-guessing the other.
For Julia Ramirez-Stone and Ken Stone, it was not love at first sight. The couple met in 1989 when Julia worked as a law clerk at the firm where Ken worked. They actually didn’t even like each other for many years. After Ken started his own law firm, he recruited Julia because he respected her strength in management. They say that their relationship has thrived because they also recognize the importance of having fun and taking time for themselves.
Julia: Many times, when we had a disagreement, we would drive to Ensenada for lunch so we could talk in the car without interruptions.
Neil Senturia and Barbara Bry are married, serial entrepreneurs who invest in early stage technology companies. You can hear their weekly podcast on innovation
and entrepreneurship at imthereforyoubaby.com.
Please email ideas to Neil at [email protected].
Rule No. 794:
I married you for better or worse, but not for lunch.