The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

American Copreneurs

The Who, Where, and Why of Couple-Operated Business Ventures


Nicole M. King


American Copreneurs: The Who, Where, and

Why of Couple-Operated Business Ventures

Nicole M. King

 

 

Perhaps nowhere in literature is the idea of a home-based economy more evident than in the works of Kentucky agrarian writer Wendell Berry. In the fictional lives of the members of the community of Port William, couples work together, side-by-side, raise children together, operate the home and farm, and otherwise move easily between the two “worlds” of work and love with nary a thought to the process. There is sexual differentiation, to be sure—the women tend to the children, mind the house, gather the eggs, etc., while the men perform the harder physical labor associated with the farm. But there is no “sexual division”—a concept Berry says emerged about the time of the industrial revolution, when “nurture is made the exclusive concern of women.”[1]

Berry does, however, note in at least one place in his fiction what happens when this home economy splinters. In the novel Hannah Coulter, the title character, Hannah, notes that all three of her children have left the way of Port William, the way of the home economy. Two are divorced. Hannah’s daughter, Margaret, and her former husband “were working in different places, going off every morning in opposite directions. They worked apart, worked with different people, made friends with different people.”[2] Is it any wonder, Hannah seems to think, that their marriage didn’t work?

 

The Family-Owned Business

Historically, of course, homes were much closer to something like we see in Berry’s fiction and far less like the modern parking places and hotel rooms they have become. Women and men worked side-by-side, both to produce the things that the home itself needed to operate, and to bring in the income that the home used to purchase things that couldn’t be made. In an early issue of this journal, Nancy Pearcey writes,

Colonial families lived much the way families have always lived in traditional societies. Prior to the 19th century, the vast majority of people in the world lived on farms or in peasant villages. Productive work was done in the home or its outbuildings, whether for subsistence or for sale. Work was done not by individuals, but by families. Stores, offices, and workshops were located in a front room, with living quarters either upstairs or in the rear. The boundaries of the home were fluid and permeable; the “world” entered continually in the form of clients, business colleagues, customers, and apprentices. . . . For husband and wife [this] meant they inhabited the same universe, working side by side in a common enterprise (though not necessarily in identical tasks).[3]

For women, as Pearcey points out, marriage meant “to become a co-worker beside a husband, if necessary learning new trade skills in butchering, silversmith work, printing, or upholstering—whatever special skills the husband’s work required.”[4] The husband and wife were not merely a couple joined by affection, but rather an economic unit operating together to produce the things the home needed to function.

All of this ended with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, in which production was removed from the home and specialized in factories. For the sake of efficiency, the family was also splintered, as each member went its different way to the factory that was most suited to his or her physical strength. As Allan Carlson has argued, “capitalism—at the most basic level—has a vested interest in family weakness”:

Throughout history, strong, autonomous families have sought to be as self-sufficient as possible in their economic, educational, and cultural aspects.  Most of the Founding Fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson, agreed on the need for and celebration of the yeoman farm family, where such independence—which they deemed essential to a functioning republic—could be most readily achieved. . . . Such families make for poor consumers of capitalism’s goods.[5]

Increasingly, more Americans are now rejecting this divorce of home and work and finding their way back to a pre-Industrial Revolution melding of the two spheres. Glenn Muske, formerly a professor at North Dakota State University and one of the few writing on the subject of “copreneurship”—or couple entrepreneurs—has found that two-thirds of all U.S. businesses are family owned, and of those, one third is run by couples in some form or other.[6] 

Admittedly, the term “family-owned” can be a tricky concept, denoting everything from a small, mom-and-pop operation, to a family farm, to some of the largest companies in America. According to Business Insider, “one-third of all companies in the S&P 500 index are family-controlled.”[7] Are these “home economies”? Not quite in the sense that Wendell Berry is talking about, surely. A more helpful number might be that of the National Federation of Independent Businesses, which estimates that “43% of small businesses are family businesses (defined as two or more family members managing a venture that at least one family member owns). Of those businesses, 53% of managers identify a spouse as the family member who is sharing day-to-day management.”[8]The Fiscal Times calls such couples “a large and growing sector of the American economy. . . . 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.”[9] Other sources put the number of “copreneurs” at about 1.5 million businesses.[10] More broadly, “Family businesses [small ones in particular] are the majority in most economies worldwide.”[11]

But who are these Americans who decide to take back their work lives and meld them with their family lives? What causes them to take on such a venture? And does their work/family integration spell greater cohesiveness for the family, or simply more things to argue about?

 

American Family Business Owners—Who Are They?

There are some significant differences between a small business, a family-owned business, and a copreneurial business. There are also a multitude of ways to define each of these. In an important paper on the topic, Fitzgerald and Muske write that “The definition of copreneurs used in this paper focuses on both spouses working in the business and sharing decision-making responsibilities. Joint ownership [legal] was not considered a criterion for copreneurship.”[12]

Such a definition makes sense, especially when one considers the tradition of “mom-and-pop” operations in the U.S. in which “pop” may be the legal owner, as registered at the courthouse or on the permit, but “mom” surely puts in her share of work in the store, and, as Fitzgerald and Muske note, also performs the essential task of “household manager.” The authors suggest that “[a] spouse may work very few hours in the business, but may still have tremendous power over the direction of the business or daily operations through his or her input.”[13]

When examining husband/wife teaming in business, a few demographic trends do tend to emerge. The first notable one is age. When we hear of a couple in business together, we tend to think of the celebrity couples that the media has put forward as the typical examples—think Julia and Kevin Hartz of Eventbrite. The brilliant young entrepreneur is an even greater media darling—Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Larry Page and Sergey Brin of Google. We recall the romantic story of the young, broke couple, working first in their basement or extra bedroom, and then quickly becoming wildly successful beyond anyone’s imagination.

It’s a lovely narrative, but only a few stories happen quite that way. Most husband/wife business partnerships actually begin when the couple is a little older—it is about 50% more likely that entrepreneurs will be between the ages of 55-64 than 20-34, and it has also been found that “copreneurs” tend to be a bit older than conventional dual-earning couples.”[14] The reasons for this are fairly easy to guess—greater resources, more connections, a greater wealth of experience from which to draw, the desire to use one’s prime working years in something that fulfills a greater purpose. For whatever reason, however, the “mom and pop” of the mom and pop shop tend to be somewhere in the realm of middle age.

Couples who operate their business together tend to have a few other things in common when compared to other types of business. They tend, for one, to have more children living at home. Fitzgerald and Muske write,

Although these household types do not vary on the number of children under age 6, they do vary significantly on the number of children ages 6-17. Copreneurial households have more children of that age at home with just over one child per household. Noncopreneurial family business households had fewer than one child per household.[15]

Copreneurs also tend to be located in rural areas when compared to non-copreneurial business managers and to have slightly less education.[16] Perhaps most interestingly, as it relates to their overall purpose, copreneurs are significantly more likely to operate their business out of their homes as compared to noncopreneurial business managers (73% to 57%).[17] Fitzgerald and Muske also found that “These households are more likely to be home-based businesses and in rural areas.”[18]

Perhaps most important, at least when it comes to understanding why couples choose to work together and why they stick with it, is that these couples tend to be highly fluid—i.e., they like flexibility, and they can move easily between different roles and worlds. Nancy Rothbard, a professor of Management at the Wharton School of Business, believes “that successful husband and wife business partnerships tend to be led by couples who ‘like fluidity,’ are ‘very integrative’ and happily blur the lines between work and home.”[19] This assertion is borne out in interviews of highly successful couple-operated businesses. A Fortune story on working together counsels, “Forget trying to create a work-life divide.”[20]  Continues the story, “Trying to separate work and family when your work is your family is pretty much impossible.” Says Julia Hartz, co-founder (with her husband) of Eventbrite, “We focus on Eventbrite and our family. That’s how we spend our time, full stop. The nature of business today is that the lines of ‘work’ and ‘life’ are a little more blurred. . . . Work does come home with us, but home also comes to work. Our kids are regulars at Eventbrite’s HQ . . . ”[21]

Fitzgerald and Muske, in their comparison of copreneurial business ventures to other non-copreneurial family businesses, discovered something similar in their sample of copreneurs. The authors sought to assess, among many other things, the difference in lifestyle between the two groups. Surprisingly, “The noncopreneurial family business owner is significantly more likely to see the business as a way to earn income as opposed to a way of life. Whereas almost 38% of copreneurs saw business as a way of life, less than 25% of non-copreneurs felt this way.”[22]

What exactly is there to value in this “way of life”? It’s hard to measure, but Fitzgerald and Muske speculate, “Attitude related to lifestyle, combined with smaller business size in general, may allow copreneurs a type of intimacy in relationships less available to larger, noncopreneurial businesses—a good question to address in future analyses.”[23] Husband-wife work teams seem to highly value the flexibility that home-based work brings. That is, they enjoy greater control over their own schedules, greater ability to rearrange childcare as needed or spend more time with children themselves, and more frequent interactions—leading, one might speculate, to closer relationships—with their own family members. As most of these businesses are located in the home, these couples also enjoy all of these benefits, and these speculated stronger relationships, in the home environment. Far less important to them is whether or not the home life and work life bleed together. There is no such thing as “work-family balance” for these couples, but instead the ability to manage both, together, which seems to be highly appealing to certain sectors. (Indeed, Fitzgerald and Muske call it a “cultural myth” that the domains of work and family are separate, in any arrangement.[24])

There is one final characteristic of husband/wife teams that deserves pointing out, and that is that in terms of gender, they operate very traditionally. Women tend to be the back-ups, the ones managing the homefronts, while men are the ones brainstorming/leading the businesses. Psychologist Kathy Marshack has studied this more extensively than most, and in a book on entrepreneurial couples summarized some of her research:

Copreneurial wives adhere to a very traditional feminine sex-role orientation, while their husbands demonstrate a more traditional masculine sex-role orientation. The dual-career couples, however, are more evenly matched in terms of sex-role orientation. That is, instead of scoring at the extremes of masculine or feminine traits, husbands and wives in dual-career couples score highly on both masculine and feminine traits.[25]

 In their own sample, Fitzgerald and Muske found something similar. In reviewing their their data set, they summarize, “the copreneurial household looks something like this: a rural, home-based business with a male business manager and a female household manager.”[26]

Marshack seems to view this dynamic as rather old-school, and a touch patriarchal. But other scholars suggest a different take on this dynamic. In an interesting theoretical approach to the concept of power in husband/wife work relationships, Gérard Hirigoyen and Amélie Villeger suggest,

 

Women in general, and the female copreneur in particular, understand the game and the challenges of this hidden power. By remaining in the shadows, her governance is all the more effective. . . . The commitment and support of the entrepreneur’s spouse plays a decisive role in the company’s performance by influencing attitudes, motivation, and the resources that are available to the entrepreneur. . . . The more the man seeks to invest in his professional life, the more he needs the support of his wife. The woman has discretionary power to authorize or sanction the professional investment of her husband by agreeing, to a greater or lesser extent, to take care of the family and to, at least temporarily, put her own career on the back burner. Ultimately, she holds a significant share of resources that are necessary for the success of her partner.[27]

The authors go so far as to hypothesize, “The informal power of the female copreneur is as influential, if not more so, than the formal power of the man.”[28]

Do these “power dynamics” really matter to most copreneurs? Do husbands and wives sit around in the evening after a hard day at work on the home business and speculate on their respective roles and the hidden power struggle between them? Probably not. But it may be helpful for the 21st-century reader to hear “both sides” in such an argument, in an age when gender roles continue to be so hotly contested.

 

Does It Work?

The next question which must be asked is whether or not the husband/wife work team functions well. That is, how do such couples compare to others in terms of their overall success?

There is one area in which the husband/wife team is not hugely successful: money. Fitzgerald and Muske found,

On every indicator, copreneur businesses are significantly less successful when defined in financial terms. On average, noncopreneurial family businesses have significantly greater gross income—$1,260,186 vs. $227,338—greater profit—$118,993 vs. $27,435—and provide a greater household transfer from the business, $37,219 as opposed to $26,598. These numbers translate into a larger household income for noncopreneurial family businesses, with family businesses having a total income of $75,818, compared with copreneur households earning only $57,492, on average. Although the literature on copreneurs indicates that they are in business for reasons other than financial, when asked to rate the overall success of the business, copreneurs had significantly lower ratings.[29]

In their discussion, the authors suggest that the lower educational attainment of the “business manager” in a copreneurial business as compared to a noncopreneurial business, in combination with the rural setting of most copreneurial businesses, may both have something to do with the lower financial success.[30] Other research, however, indicates that although the overall numbers for copreneurial businesses do tend to be lower, some of this difference disappears or diminishes when controlling for industry.[31] Also in this research, although some of these businesses do indeed show lower profit and the households less income, “these differences do not translate into significant differences in how the businesses are perceived in regards to overall success.”[32] In other words, the husband/wife teams themselves identify goals other than monetary profit, and they seem to be meeting those goals. (They are, remember, highly fluid individuals—they value flexibility and control.) As Muske, Fitzgerald, and Kim write, “Financial considerations are only one of a variety of reasons to start a business. Other reasons include control, life-style and family time . . . as well as allowing families to remain in specific geographic locations.”[33]

It turns out that there are many different ways other than financial to measure the “success” of a family business venture, and in many of those ways, the husband/wife team does quite well. Some research has found that couples self-select into working together based on pre-existing high levels of relationship satisfaction.[34] In addition, the authors discovered, “copreneurial businesses with high relationship satisfaction are more likely to have higher profit than if they were non-copreneurial.”[35] In other words, couples who work well together and are highly satisfied with their marriages are already more likely to want to enter into a business venture together. The research discovered that couples in highly satisfying relationships were 33% more likely to be copreneurs.[36] These couples were then “28% more likely to have high profit than if they had chosen to be non-copreneurial.” Such couples seem to need to work together—they prefer it, enjoy it, and are more successful at it than if they had worked apart. A study using Danish data sheds more light on such findings. This study finds that copreneurial couples often enter into business together because the prospects of finding outside work are low for one of the spouses (usually the wife). Encouragingly, this study also finds that compared to controls, both spouses do significantly better financially.[37]The authors conclude, “We find evidence that joint entrepreneurship is an effective route out of the underdeveloped and underutilized human capital of wives in the lower part of the Danish income distribution.”

Glenn Muske summarizes, “We do know that our copreneurs tend to feel their business is doing better and are often more happy with their family life.” Even making a bit less money, or working more hours, they are generally happier with their situation.[38] For certain couples, the arrangement of working together actually trumps things like pay and hours worked. As Carlson notes, “the biological family is a premodern entity, necessarily organized on nonmarket principles. . . . Family life survives only as the members of this small community defy, through tradition or intention, the incentives or pressures that would transform all human actions into market exchanges or subsume them to globalist economic goals.”[39]

 

Conclusion

There are a few important takeaways from all of this.

First, husbands and wives working together is not a new phenomenon. It is, in fact, the oldest of all arrangements. The preindustrial household was a productive unit because it had to be; the concept of specialization of labor, of each individual family member going his separate way each day, is entirely an artifact of the Industrial Revolution. The idea, then, of going into business with one’s spouse should not be so terrifying. After all, it’s the way of our great-grandparents, who lived not that long ago.

Second, it seems that for a certain segment of working adults, operating a business with one’s spouse makes even more sense than working apart. For those living in rural environments, where access to lucrative jobs is scarce, it can be more profitable to create your own job. And, as the Danish study emphasizes, in a marriage in which one spouse in particular finds it difficult to enter the labor market for whatever reason, profitability of the couple is actually maximized when husband and wife begin working together. Not all couples are best suited to this—the research emphasizes that those businesses that work best are run by couples who had highly functioning and successful relationships to begin with—but some actually do better together than apart.

And third, it is particularly fascinating that in a day and age fascinated with material gain, for couples in business together, the primary aims seem not to be financial. Most of these couples identify their business as a lifestyle choice more than anything else. They seem to love being together, working together, and they highly value the control and flexibility that being business owners brings. They set their own schedule, make their own decisions about finances, and in the process, their marriages, one suspects, improve. As Muske and Fitzgerald put it, “Copreneurs are viewed as having blended the dimensions of work and family. The couple is anticipated to have a stronger marriage and business because of this intertwining. Both the family and business relationship are strengthened by a shared vision and a true team effort.”[40]

For couples searching for alternatives to the contemporary, dual-career family, such options are refreshing.

 

Nicole M. King is Managing Editor of The Natural Family.

 



[1]     Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America: Culture and Agriculture (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1977), 113.

 

[2]     Wendell Berry, Hannah Coulter (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2004), 113.

 

[3]     Nancy Pearcey, “IS LOVE ENOUGH? Recreating the Economic Base of the Family,” The Family in America 4.1 (January 1990), 2.

 

[4]     Pearcey, quoting Alice S. Rossi, “Social Roots of the Woman’s Movement,” in The Feminist Papers, ed. Alice S. Rossi (New York: Columbia University Press, 1973), 250.

 

[5]     Allan C. Carlson, “A City on a Hill: With Transgender Toilets?” Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, February 2, 2017.

[6]     Bruce Feiler, “Together, at Home and at Work,” New York Times, November 15, 2013, Web.

[7]     Aimee Groth and Karlee Weinmann, “The 10 Largest Family Businesses In The U.S.,” Business Insider, November 17, 2011, Web.

[8]     “From the Altar to IPO: The Highs and Lows of Married Business Partners,” Knowledge @ Wharton, Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, January 30, 2013, Web.

[9]     Drew Gannon, “Copreneurs: When Work and Love Mix,” The Fiscal Times, February 10, 2012, Web.

[10]   Margaret A. Fitzgerald and Glenn Muske, “Copreneurs: An Exploration and Comparison to Other Family Businesses,” Family Business Review 15.1 (March 2002): 2.

[11]   Ho Kwong Kwan, Victor P. Lau, and Kevin Au, “Effects of Family-to-Work Conflict on Business Owners: The Role of Family Business,” Family Business Review 25.2 (2012): 1-13, at 1. 

[12]   Fitzgerald and Muske, “Copreneurs: An Exploration and Comparison to Other Family Businesses,” 14. 

[13]   Ibid.

[14]   Gannon, “Copreneurs: When Work and Love Mix”; Nicole Seymour, “Copreneurs,” Adjunct ERIC Clearinghouse on Entrepreneurship Education (Los Angeles: 2002), Web.

[15]   Fitzgerald and Muske, “Copreneurs: An Exploration and Comparison to Other Family Businesses,” 7.

[16]   Ibid.

[17]   Ibid.

[18]   Ibid. 

[19]   “From the Altar to IPO.”

[20]   Valentina Zarya, “How Couples Work Together Without Killing Each Other,” Fortune (February 12, 2016), Web. 

[21]   Ibid. 

[22]   Fitzgerald and Muske, “Copreneurs: An Exploration and Comparison to Other Family Businesses,” 11.

[23]   Ibid., 13.

[24]   Ibid., 1.

[25]   Kathy Marshack, Entrepreneurial Couples: Making It Work at Work and at Home (Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black, 1998): 97-99.

[26]   Fitzgerald and Muske, “Copreneurs: An Exploration and Comparison to Other Family Businesses,” 13.

[27]   Gérard Hirigoyen & Amélie Villeger, “Women and Power: A Theoretical Approach Using the Example of Copreneurial Businesses,” Palgrave Communications (January 17, 2017), 5-6.

[28]   Ibid., 4.

[29]   Fitzgerald & Muske, “Copreneurs: An Exploration and Comparison to Other Family Businesses,” 9-11.

[30]   Ibid., 13. 

[31]   Muske, Fitzgerald, & Kim. 

[32]   Ibid.

[33]   Ibid.

[34]   Tia Michelle McDonald, Maria I. Marshall, & Michael S. Delgado, “Is Working with Your Spouse Good for Business? The Effect of Working with Your Spouse on Profit for Rural Businesses,” Journal of Family and Economic Issues 38.4 (December 2017), 477-493.

[35]   Ibid. 

[36]   Ibid. 

[37]   Michael S. Dahl, Virjam van Praag, & Peter Thompson, “Entrepreneurial Couples,” IZA DP No. 8186 (May 2014), Web. 

[38]   Glenn Muske, personal correspondence, April 19, 2018. 

[39] Allan C. Carlson, From Cottage to Workstation: The Family’s Search for Social Harmony in the Industrial Age (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 163.

[40]   Muske, Fitzgerald, & Kim.