How this married couple built a thriving business and stayed sane in the process.
6 min read
Bryan and Shannon Miles have been married since 1997, and in full-time business together since 2010. In 2017, they reorganized their five companies into one, BELAY, which provides virtual support to businesses and has generated just under $100-million in revenue since its inception.
The couple shared their insights via email about what they’ve learned it takes to build a company and a marriage that is happy and healthy.
1. Establish a long-term vision for life, not just your company
For many executives, especially those just starting out, a long-term vision might extend 5 or 10 years down the road and be specific to the business. If you’re running a company with your spouse, you’re going to want to “zoom out” further than that. Our 30-40 year vision for our lives long outlives BELAY. It incorporates our plans not just as CEOs, but as parents and, someday, grandparents. It may sound daunting to project so far into the future, but it becomes easier if you think of it as a way to identify and live your personal values. For instance, travel is a cornerstone value of ours, and the vision for our future includes having the time and resources to travel as an extended family. Once that vision is established, it becomes a “true north” guiding every choice we have to make — does a given decision get us closer to that vision, or further away from it?
2. What it means to own, not run, your business
Early on in the business, we decided we wanted to own the business, not be in the day-to-day details of running it. Working in support services has helped us understand this insight quicker than we otherwise might have. Companies, as a rule, are “hungry”; they will devour as much of your time and energy as they can. Consequently, we’ve seen many entrepreneurs get so caught up in the day-to-day requirements of keeping the company running that they short-change both the broader perspective that’s required to make their project a long-term success, as well as their personal commitments to each other and their families. We get it. Running a business is challenging, and there’s no shortage of weeds to get lost in. But strong planning and resource allocation make it easier. Hire qualified staff to bring order to the chaos. Do your due diligence, set clear expectations, then have the courage to step away and see if the machine you’ve built is able to run without you.
3. Know your lane, and stay in it
In every marriage, each of the partners brings distinct strengths to the relationship. That’s just as true of what each partner brings to a business and its leadership. Figure out where those particular strengths and passions lie and give each other the space to maximize them. Especially in the early days of our working together, it was important for us to define our individual roles and responsibilities, and stick to them. For us, Bryan emerged as the partner with the clearest and most ambitious sense of what the company might be and how it might grow, while Shannon excelled at managing the implementation to make that vision a reality. However, you divide the work, respect the decisions you’ve made. Let your partner take the lead in their area; if the balance of responsibilities isn’t working, you can always fine-tune it later. Remember that the responsibilities you take on as business partners are separate from those you share as spouses. Don’t take the work that your co-CEO does for granted simply because you once exchanged rings and vows.
4. Don’t be afraid to disagree
This is the flipside to point #3. Yes, you have your strengths and your areas of expertise. But that doesn’t amount to an absolute mandate to dictate the path the company pursues. Don’t run from disagreement or debate—welcome it. Guiding assumptions need to be tested periodically, and new opportunities deserve to be evaluated fairly. Sometimes these differences need to be resolved privately, but it’s healthy to address them in the context of a broader staff or company meeting when you can. After all, you want to model respectful debate for your employees and make sure they feel comfortable sharing differences of opinion and perspective with you and each other. Ultimately, you only need to be in agreement on the major, core decisions of the company, areas like capital allocation and strategic direction. When it comes to the small stuff, be prepared to defer when and where you can.
5. Be okay with the “gray”
There’s a strain of conventional wisdom that says that business is business, and family is family, and the time and energy devoted to one area shouldn’t overlap with the other. It’s a nice idea, but by and large, we’ve found that life as married CEOs just doesn’t work that way. There’s going to be overlap. There are going to be “gray areas” when business life extends into family life, and vice-versa. That’s okay. In fact, we welcome and embrace the way the two blend together. If we need to talk about the business over a family dinner, we do. If appropriate, we’ll even invite our kids into the conversation. The concept of work-life balance guides a lot of corporate thinking these days. While it’s a useful model, married CEOs should expect that their version of work-life balance might look and feel a little different than that of their friends and colleagues. In fact, they might discover that “work” and “life” aren’t two separate spheres in constant tension with each other, but complementary domains animated by the same sets of values. Our company and our marriage ultimately support each other more than they compete with each other, and our lives and our partnership are, by far, the richer for it.