Adrienne Lumpkin has threatened to quit her job 17 times. “In eight years, that’s not so bad,” quipped the 44-year-old president and director of marketing at Alternate Access in Raleigh.

How much of her frustration has to do with the fact that she owns and runs the software-based telephone systems concern with her husband Kelly? It’s hard to tell, Ms. Lumpkin says, since she’s also bombarded by a number of other stressors, including three children, a fourth on the way and a growing 10-employee company. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Lumpkins aren’t all that unique. Husband-wife teams owned approximately 3.6 million U.S. firms in 1997, giving new meaning to “quality time.”

While Adrienne occasionally gripes about the strains and frustrations of working with her husband, she says it was a lifestyle decision that has added flexibility and made life easier for the entire family. When the Lumpkins’ first baby was born, Adrienne wanted to stay home and be mom, but after the second baby “I was crawling the walls,” said the 10-year veteran of Hewlett-Packard.

A year after Adrienne established Alternate Access as a one-person consulting company, Kelly volunteered for a severance package in 1994 and left his 15-year stint at IBM, where he had helped spearhead the company’s IP telephony division. That experience gave him the expertise to join Alternate Access, a computer telephony integration firm, as CEO and director of business development.

Similarly, software and services company Intelligent Information Systems (IIS) was founded by Shail and Sucheta Jain, a few years after Sucheta sought distraction from being a full-time mom and took on a handful of software consulting projects. In 1992, Shail abandoned corporate life at Data General to help form and grow the fledgling company with his wife. He took the reins as CEO, and she assumed the role of COO. Today, the company has 130 employees in Durham and Noida, India.

Upping the ante

With all their eggs in one basket, husband-wife teams know from the start that success is critical. The financial devastation of both spouses losing their jobs is a big issue, and as most friends who’ve started businesses together will attest to, relationships are often tested when things go awry. “Perhaps we have the most stable form of business because everything is tied into it,” Kelly said, “so we have no choice but to be successful.”

Couples agree that one of the biggest upsides to working together as husband and wife is the trust and unconditional support. “You can totally trust that things are going to get done,” said Ed Weems, managing director of strategic consulting firm Venture Management, the fifth company in which he’s worked with his wife Sue. “One’s not going to let the other down because he doesn’t want to miss dinner.”

For the Jains, the business is a learning experience they get to share and grow in together. Sucheta recalls a time when she was in a meeting with her husband and felt joy and pride watching him give an impressive presentation. “It’s so wonderful that I get to watch that side of him in action, and have the opportunity to be a part of it,” she said. “Spouses who don’t work together don’t usually get to see that.”

Drawing the lines

As nice as sharing can be, it can sometimes be too much. One of the biggest lessons all three couples have learned…often the hard way…is that there needs to be a clear separation of roles to avoid stepping on toes. In most husband-and-wife teams, spouses typically have complementary instead of similar skills. With expertise in disparate areas, spouses should tread lightly when they leave their jurisdiction.

As part of setting boundaries, the first thing the Lumpkins agreed upon when they moved into office space is that they’d be at opposite ends of the building. At one end, Kelly takes charge of sales and technical issues, and at the other, Adrienne oversees marketing and human resources. “We do our best work when we’re in our respective worlds,” Adrienne said. “When either of us starts to cross over into each other’s domain, we say, ‘Wait a minute, what do you know about such and such?'”

The Weems, who work on different floors of their home-office, say they primarily communicate by email during the day. “We must exchange 15 emails a day,” said Ed, who also manages the FastTrac program for the Council for Entrepreneurial Development. With three full-time employees and six part-time consultants, the Weems recently moved into real office space.

Brainstorming and problem solving might be a team effort, but ultimately one designated person has the authority to make the final decision…as in the case in a traditional company. “I remember a time when Sucheta commented that she thought I was doing somebody else’s job,” Shail said. “Now we have well-defined roles. We make sure we stay out of each other’s ways and give each other space to grow.”

Sue Weems, director of business operations and process engineering of Raleigh-based Venture Management, says she wishes someone had told her 20 years ago that they should keep their roles clean. Today, Ed spearheads sales and marketing, while Sue works with clients as project manager. “Teaming is wonderful,” she said, “but I think everybody needs their own individual sense of accomplishment.”

One of the keys to success of a husband-wife team is making sure each member pursues his or her professional capabilities to the fullest, instead of one just trying to help the other, Shail added. “That creates a good, strong long-term relationship because you’re looking to keep each other equal on a professional basis.”

At the dinner table

Things can get rough when there are disagreements and criticisms in the boardroom, but does that turn into a food fight when husband and wife are seated at the dinner table?

All three couples admit that two of the biggest shortcomings of working together are taking business issues home and taking business criticisms too personally. Whether they’re in the car, in the kitchen or in bed, these couples talk about work. Not one couple has implemented a rule stating that work should stay at the office.

What works for the Lumpkins and Jains is integrating family and work life. “It’s one life,” Adrienne Lumpkin said, “and it’d be artificial for us to say work stops at six o’clock.”

Sucheta said they didn’t make any rules because it’s almost impossible to stick to them. The Jains’ school-aged kids often visit their offices, listen to their business conversations and interject their opinions. They even know all the names of IIS clients.

Business becomes part of the family, especially when it’s your personal business, Kelly Lumpkin said. “When times are good, it’s easy to follow rules. When times are tough, everything’s on the table.”

For Ed Weems, the hardest thing about taking business issues home is fighting the urge to problem solve, instead of just lending a sympathetic ear. It’s even more frustrating, he added laughing, when you disagree with your spouse all day at work and then realize when you get home that you can’t turn to your wife and vent about what a jerk she was.

Overall, “The highs are higher, and the lows are lower,” Sue Weems and Kelly Lumpkin said.

Putting family first

While most husband-wife teams have found different techniques to keep their sanity, they share one commonality: putting their families and relationship first.

The Jains set aside time to spend with their daughters as well as with each other. Typically, they see a movie once a week with the kids and by themselves, and take lots of walks. “We wanted to grow a company without compromising our family, so we made a promise that the family will always come first,” Shail said.

The Weems also decided early on that they would always set their children ahead of their business priorities and planned for one spouse to take off work, should anything happen at home.

“In the best of times and the worst of times we are merged at the hip in one common goal, and that is [doing] what’s best for the Lumpkin family,” said Adrienne. “I do believe the Lumpkin family started before and will end after Alternate Access. Knowing that gives us perspective.”