In the summer of 2007, Mariette and Scott Wharton were driving from their home in the Washington, D.C. suburbs to North Carolina for a family vacation. During that six-hour drive, they hatched a business idea.

So confident in the idea, Mariette, who refers to her husband as a “visionary,” advised Scott to chuck his job and start a company. “Just quit your job,” Mariette told Scott. “Let’s move to California, let’s take the kids, let’s go live the dream in Silicon Valley.” And that’s exactly what they did.
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Within the next year Mariette and Scott moved their family to Los Altos and launched Vidtel, a cloud video conferencing service. “We took all the poker chips and went all in,” said Mariette. Five years later, the company is going strong. “We’ve never looked back,” she said.

Marriage is hard work, and so is running a business. Yet more and more couples are signing up to tackle both. There aren’t any recent numbers, but it’s estimated that married couples own more than 3 million businesses.

This includes, of course, the local mom-and-pop shops, but there are also some big-name companies in the crowd. Cisco, VMware and Flickr are just a few well-known firms that were founded by married couples.

Perks and Pitfalls

The perks of starting a business with a spouse are obvious. There’s likely no one you trust more than your spouse. And you understand and recognize each other’s skill sets. Married couple Julia and Kevin Hartz, co-founders of Eventbrite, an online ticketing platform, knew their strengths and divvied up responsibilities based on them. Julia focuses solely on people; Kevin oversees the executive staff. “It’ll allows you to work harmoniously and will help you get from Point A to Point B two times faster,” said Julia.

And then there are the personal perks. You can tell – not ask – the boss when you’re leaving work early to catch your child’s soccer game. Or, you can bring the kids to work with you, something the Hartzes do. “They are part of our journey, so they often come to the office or accompany us on business trips,” said Julia.

But along with these pluses come challenges, such as putting all your eggs in one basket. The Whartons went two years with no income. “It’s not for the fainthearted,” said Mariette. “You have to look at yourself before you start an adventure like this and make sure that you have an appetite for risk and uncertainty.”

Another downside: It’s way too easy to bring your work home – business chatter often takes place during breakfast and weekend downtime.

Where’s the Money?

But the biggest challenge many couples face is raising capital. While the Whartons and Hartzes didn’t have a problem, venture capitalists are reluctant to invest in a company run by a married team because the personal and emotional component is too risky. “When there’s a personal relationship on the management team, it complicates things some,” said Geoff Yang of venture capital firm Redpoint Ventures. “It’s definitely a yellow flag.”

Geoff_yang Yang says he has to think ahead: What if one spouse is asked to leave the company? Would the other one want to exit as well? Can the remaining spouse make rational decisions about the situation? “The relationship tends to trump their obligations as an employee or officer of a company.”

Yang says he’s invested in three companies – out of roughly 100 – founded by married couples. Only one failed, and Yang says it wasn’t because of the relationship.

Tips for Success

So is starting a business with a spouse an uphill battle? Maybe. But starting a business usually is, regardless of the relationships. And experts say it’s even more important for married entrepreneurs to follow the same ground rules as anyone else starting a business. Intuit Vice President Greg Wright, who oversees the personal finance website mint.com and small business offerings, provided suggestions for anyone starting a business – married or not:

  • Agree on the level of financial risk. “Each partner will likely have a different tolerance for financial risk,” said Wright. “So decide upfront what you’re willing to risk to grow the business. And know where you draw the line.”
  • Divide duties based on skill set. “Businesses are most successful when partners tackle the areas they know best,” said Wright. “Determine at the start who’s in charge of what, and plow forward.”
  • Ask for outside help. “When married couples run a business, it can take over their lives,” said Wright. “So seek support from people who’ve been through this before. And seek support professionally, too. When it’s just the two of you talking about the business, it narrows your perspective.”
  • Communicate. “You can’t let personal feelings affect the business,” said Wright. “So you need to have honest and open communication at all times.”

As for the Whartons, they’ve experienced more ups than downs, and say they’d absolutely do it again. “It’s addicting – we get a big charge out of it,” said Mariette. “But it’s for people who really have a clear passion and are willing to put a lot at stake.”

Hear more from the Whartons about their journey in starting a business together:

Photos: Top: Scott and Mariette Wharton, married couple who founded Vidtel, a cloud video conferencing service. Bottom: Geoff Yang of venture capital firm Redpoint Ventures.