Staying in love while in business - and married

A surprising number of brokers are in business with their spouses. Here are some tips on how to keep it together

Building a fast-growing business is hard. Staying married, despite what it’s like in the honeymoon haze of the wedding day or on the latest reality TV show, requires a lot of effort. So combining the two might be a recipe for lunacy, or the greatest self-development course you could ever undertake.

When I started my career as a psychologist I didn’t picture myself being a business owner, let alone the CEO of a fast-growing business with 15 staff. In 2017, the business, Pragmatic Thinking, was ranked No. 33 on the Australian Financial Review’s Fast 100 list. It wasn’t part of a big life plan; there was no vision board that captured even a glimmer of this path.

When my husband Darren and I started the business over 10 years ago, it was a leap of faith. We knew that we were going to need to figure it out along the way. The more I talk to business owners, the more I realise that business is built on the ability to figure it out as you go. The quicker you can work out how to get out of the bind you’re currently in, the more business growth happens.

In so many ways we were figuring out not only how to build a business but also how we should work together. It’s been our commitment to ‘let’s figure it out along the way’ that’s been a big part of our ability to build a fast-growth business, still stay married and have two kids. Through all of this, we’ve learned five important lessons.

1. Lesson 1: Be each other’s biggest fans

Among the busyness of business we often take the people we love the most for granted. We give our energy to clients, staff members, work, and leave the little that’s left of us for the people we love the most.

It’s been a conscious decision for both my husband and I to express how much we are fans of each other. We constantly talk about ‘us’; how are we investing in ‘us’. Of course there’s every chance you’ll be reading this and thinking, “Well, of course a psychologist and a behavioural scientist would do that”, but the honest truth is that we’ve got to be conscious of doing this. There are days when all I want to do is complain about the wet towels that are left on the bathroom floor, but I’d never mention that publicly (OK, only once to make a point).

On public platforms we make the choice to express how much we are fans of each other: in the way we talk about each other, how we celebrate each other on social media, how we each focus on what’s great about the other person, even if they’ve annoyed the crap out of us that day. Our friends are sick of seeing it on social media, but our marriage – and our business – has reaped the benefits of this lesson.

2. Lesson 2: Invest in personal growth

Business will challenge you personally every day. As a business owner, if you’re not growing personally then the business soon becomes stagnant. It’s my fundamental belief that the same is true of our closest relationships. When both people are investing in being better people, it strengthens the connection.

This lesson can be tricky to navigate when the pace and timing of your personal growth is not the same for both of you. For us it’s a reminder to give the other person support and space for whatever they are facing, respecting the timing. You don’t always have to do this together. The lesson we’ve learnt is how important it is for both of us to make the time to invest in our own personal growth, and to know that the other person is growing at a pace that is useful for them, and that’s OK. It’s a dance of knowing when to push and challenge each other and when to simply shut up and watch the latest Emma Stone movie together.

3. Lesson 3: Prioritise your own health

This lesson sounds counter-intuitive to a conversation about how to grow a successful business and commit to an amazing marriage. When the business is all-consuming and the travel is crazy, health not only takes a backseat but is put in a headlock and wrestled to the ground. The bottom line is you’re a better partner and a better business owner after a good night’s sleep and a healthy dose of probiotics.

4. Lesson 4: Learn to say no!

When success feels like it’s relying on you, it’s natural to put your hand up for everything – because really no one does it as well as you could anyway. But this does mean that you never ‘turn off ’ from the business world. If you don’t become the boss of busy, it will become the boss of you. This is a hard lesson to navigate during business growth, because if you don’t do it then no one will. Whenever I’ve made the time to investigate where my time goes, I’ve realised that there’s a better way to do things. It’s the ability to be protective of our time, to say no, to outsource as much as we can. That has made all the difference to both our business and our marriage.

5. Lesson 5: Love is the bottom line

Really early on in our business growth we talked about our fears of the business coming between us. Together we created this mantra that ‘love is the bottom line’. For us this means that, if there was ever a time that the business pressures impacted significantly on our relationship, we would shut the business down. It’s not to say there aren’t moments of strain, but if a seismic crack appeared in our business, our marriage would take priority. This has been such a powerful mantra for us that it’s now become one of our company values. This value holds a different meaning for every person in our team, but the essence remains. The core of what we do is making a difference to the difference-makers, and we want both our team and the people we work with to love that.


Alison Hill is a psychologist, co-founder and CEO of AFR Fast 100 company Pragmatic Thinking, a behaviour and motivation strategy business that works with organisations to build cultures they rave about. Find out more at www.pragmaticthinking.com.