When love and livelihood meet: Advice from married entrepreneurs

There’s a reason why many corporations discourage workplace romance: Love is complicated, and so is running a business.

And yet many married couples continue to embrace entrepreneurship as a team, whether in a traditional brick-and-mortar setting, a co-working space or a home office.

As Valentine’s Day approaches, ShopTalk spoke with three local entrepreneurial couples about their own balancing acts – what works, what doesn’t and how they navigate the complex marriage of love and livelihood.

Mark Meissner and Casey Hickey, founders of Petit Philippe and Twenty Degrees Chocolates

Married since 2004

Co-business owners since 2010

Casey Hickey was fresh out of pastry school in Paris when she and her husband, Mark Meissner, realized his love for wine and her skills as a chocolatier would make for a great small-business combo.

So four years ago, the foodies opened Petit Philippe – a wine bar, chocolate shop (called Twenty-Degree Chocolates) and tasting room in one – on Selwyn Avenue.

Creating a separation of duties was critical to making the business run smoothly, Meissner says, so he handles the wine, in addition to the sales, customer feedback and bookkeeping.

Hickey, who has a journalism degree from UNC Chapel Hill, oversees the chocolate, marketing and social media accounts.

“She’s the creative talent. I’m operations,” Meissner says.

But while the shop operations are split, the parenting of their two young boys is very much a team effort. Before their oldest could take the bus, Meissner drove him to school. And when Hickey is doing most of the grocery-shopping and cooking, Meissner helps with the laundry and cleaning.

“We both know our limitations,” Hickey said. And that “makes coming to work a joy, every day.”

Matt and Kiki Aaron, founders of Blue I .

Married since 1996

Co-business owners since 2008

For six years, the Aarons have been immersed in the startup world and working side by side in an office off their living room at home. Their latest company, Blue I, offers a dashboard and mobile app that make it easy for insurance agents and clients to interact in real-time.

For them, the close proximity works. “We interject constantly. ... To us, it’s one continuous thought,” she says.

But outside the office, there’s more give and take.

Kiki often lets Matt take the lead on presentations to investors and industry leaders because, like it or not, it’s a male-dominated industry, she says.

Matt also defers to Kiki. Recently, Terry Cox of Business Innovation Growth (aka “BIG”) asked Matt to speak at a conference about fundraising for startups. But when Matt noticed that there was only one other woman scheduled to speak on the panel that afternoon, he told Cox, it’d be better for Kiki to represent the company.

Ego has no place in a business with your spouse, they both say.

For example, Matt recently wrote a blog post about their product. Kiki reviewed it and “ripped it apart,” Matt said.

It didn’t bother him. “You have to be able to listen to your spouse as a business associate, which is different than listening to your spouse as a spouse,” Matt said. “Your business associates can dog you about a bad idea in a way many spouses wouldn’t say to each other.”

But if the business ever seriously got in the way of their marriage?

“If you’re going to sacrifice one,” Kiki says, “don’t sacrifice your relationship.”

Matt agrees: “The business would move out before one of us did.”

Randy Lucas, founder of Lucas Tax + Energy Consulting, and J.D. Selby-Lucas, founder of JDSL Consulting Group

Married since 1994

Working under the same roof since 2009

J.D. Selby-Lucas, 45, started her management-strategy consulting business for startups and entrepreneurs about 10 years ago. She set up shop at home and enjoyed uninterrupted work time while Randy, a CPA, spent most of the week traveling for accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

But when Randy Lucas, now 46, decided to start his own home-based consulting company focused on renewable energy and energy efficiency, he “kind of invaded her space,” Randy says.

Says J.D.: “He took over my office.”

The more organized of the two, J.D. moved her office from the second floor to the third.

There are definite perks: It’s easy to practice presentations and proofread each other’s proposals. And sometimes a midweek breakfast meeting or coffee run is a welcome reprieve from the daily grind, Randy says.

But the work arrangements also required boundaries, which weren’t always instinctive. They had to learn not to push each other’s buttons.

Her button: Randy talks loudly. “If he’s on a call ... (for me) it’s like that experience you have when you’re at the airport, and somebody’s on the phone, and you’re like, ‘I don’t need to know your conversation,’ ” J.D. says.

Their solution: separate floors (they’re even working on a first-floor office to have more distance) and considerate communication.

Rather than barge in with a comment or question, they’ll each knock on the door softy and ask, “Hey, are you in the middle of something?” Even better, Randy says, is when they text to see whether the other person is available.

“And if it’s ‘No, I need 30 minutes,’ you stick to that,” Randy said. “And if you need more than 30 minutes, you say, ‘I need another 15 minutes.’ ”

It’s all about respect for each other’s work, he says. He doesn’t turn on the blender while she’s on a call or crank up ESPN when she’s trying to concentrate.

“The little things matter,” Randy says. “Otherwise that stuff can just build up, and then the next ‘who drank the last of the apple juice’ becomes a big thing.”