An April 13 Style article about spouses who are also business partners incorrectly reported the location of EZGSA. The company, which advises small businesses on federal contracts, is located in Bethesda, not Chevy Chase. (Published 4/17/2004).
"When I am angry with him, I just give him the silent treatment at work," Elaine Tang says with a grin while sipping tea at her Rockville restaurant. We're talking about how she handles arguments with her business partner, who is, in fact, sipping tea with us. For four years now, Tang and her partner have run the popular Rockville Pike dim sum restaurant A&J's, as well as another A&J's in Annandale and a dozen more in China.
Restaurant work is hard work, 24/7, Tang says. Her partner agrees. The 24/7 dynamic is especially true for them, since her business partner, Jye (pronounced Jay) Tang, also happens to be her husband. And since a fight at home that comes to work with the Tangs can leave customers with a bad taste in their mouths, the Tangs have had to change their fighting strategies from their pre-restaurant days. It used to be that when Jye went off to his architectural firm and Elaine to the World Bank, they got what most couples get: a cooling-off period. Now that the Tangs, both 55, are part of a growing trend in business ownership, "copreneurship" (defined as married and in business together), they've learned to quell their quarrels quickly for the benefit of the business.
James Lea, a family business consultant who is a professor of family medicine at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, suggests that copreneurship is the fastest-growing segment of family-based business. Lea's research has shown that "copreneurship is dramatically on the rise." The reasons range from corporate downsizing to a return to family values. According to Lea, family and a need for flexibility are reasons that copreneurs create their businesses in the first place. "This is another example of how responsibility [to family values] is making an important difference," he says, in the business world.
Susan and Philip Robison, psychologists in Ellicott City, say people react strongly when they find out that the couple run a practice together.
"There is no neutral point on this topic," says Philip, who with his wife has been counseling copreneurs for two decades and set up a Web site called couplebiz.com. It is either "how much fun it [must] be to work with a spouse or what a bad experience it must be."
Evie Altman and Scott Orbach are the principal and president, respectively, of EZGSA in Chevy Chase, which advises small businesses on how to win federal contracts. They are also married and have very different work personalities that often lead them right to the battleground.
"We see different solutions to the same problem, and it's not always easy to get to a solution with battling brains," says Orbach, 41.
"When I first met him, I told him I would never work with him. I knew how he was," says Altman, 39. "He's one of the best negotiators I've ever met in my life, but he's also one of the most unorganized people and it's very frustrating."
Altman says she used to get angry with her husband whenever she asked him for something and he couldn't find it or simply forgot. But instead of banging her head against the wall every day, she found a way to circumvent the problem. She hired an office assistant. Now the assistant deals with Orbach's scattered work style and Altman gets what she needs without the added frustrations.
Outsourcing, as Orbach and Altman did, is exactly what the Robisons suggest. "Each spouse should focus on their area of expertise. Delegate and outsource if necessary, and understand your partner's personality and communication style," Susan Robison says.
"Evie is a perfectionist," Orbach says. Altman doesn't protest. "Despite the differences, we've survived marriage and business" and three children under 5. They have been married nearly a decade.
As it is for most copreneurs running a small business, Altman and Orbach have a long workday. "I do some work from home and we work odd hours. We are a great juggling act," says Altman. And according to Orbach, the business is with them wherever they go, except the bedroom: "The rule is that once we're lying down we can't talk about business."
Altman and Orbach's schedule isn't unusual for copreneurs. Kathy Marshack, author of "Entrepreneurial Couples: Making It Work at Work and at Home," warns that copreneurs must find a way to balance love and business. Marshack, who is a clinical psychologist in Washington state, says copreneurs need to be mindful of their business boundaries. Couples need to decide if it's okay to bring work home. Actually, Marshack suggests "implementing a 'cutoff time' for work conversations at home, as well as even driving to work separately" to make a clearer separation between home and work, and spending some weekends apart.
Couplebiz.com's Susan Robison recommends that defining roles in business is another important balancing tool for copreneurs. "Actually write up job descriptions for each spouse and make sure they each focus on their own strengths . . . their area of expertise," she says.
For the Tangs, who have been married for 30 years, this was easy. As an architect, Jye handles all the restaurants' design issues as well as certain mechanical problems -- such as a broken refrigerator. Elaine, a computer whiz with a mind for math, handles the finances and computers as well as quality control.
"But when he sees me overloaded, he comes and helps me more," Elaine says of her husband.
Susan Robison adds that couples must "make sure to be collaborative, not competitive."
"I'm very clever about competition," says Judith Doctor, who for three decades has shared a Connecticut ophthalmology practice with her husband. "There isn't any because I knew early on to stay away from cataracts, Dr. Daniel's specialty." At home, too, they divided up the chores when taking care of their four children, now grown, clearly defining their roles and creating little room for competition. "He did homework. I did behavior."
David and Lois Eisner, both 53, are a good example of "traditional copreneurs," according to Marshack, who says that in 90 percent of copreneurial businesses, the man is running the show.
He's the doctor and she's the office administrator at her husband's Rockville dental practice. For 20 years Novocained patients have gotten a front-row seat at the Eisners' office romance. It's not uncommon for David, poking around in a patient's mouth, to call questions over his shoulder about dinner plans or make a comment about a dress he thinks his wife should buy. The business partnership works, he says, because his wife gets it. "Lois knows about the stresses in the office because she's with me. Other wives empathize; Lois actually understands."
Adds Lois, "It works because of all the small, stupid things we do for each other."
Though copreneurship may be all roses for some, Robison says it's imperative that all copreneurs have a succession plan: "Draw up papers before you start in case one partner decides to step out of the business. Have a plan upfront."
That might have been a great idea for Altman and Orbach. They don't have a formal succession plan for the business they created in 1999, when they had only one child. Even though their company has seen a 300 percent growth in business in the last year alone, Altman says she wants out. "Scott is really happy in the business. I would really be happier to be home with my kids."
For the Tangs, who have grown children, the juggling act isn't so hard. But there's still the issue of fighting and that heavy dose of post-fight silent treatment. Says Jye Tang, "She uses her charm to settle our fights. She always talks first and settles the argument. I am a man and I can't do that."