The secrets of couples who create together

Appreciating your partner’s skills—really celebrating the ways their unique capabilities—is key to building a working relationship

Most of us spend the majority of our waking hours at work. That means we invest most of our time in work relationships: figuring out how to best communicate and collaborate, how to succeed, and how to recover from failure. Work With Me is a deep dive into those dynamics.

When you decide to start a company with your partner—or anyone, really—there’s one thing you need to determine from the start: who is good at what. After that, the other parts tend to fall into place. If they don’t, you might have a bigger problem on your hands.

“Paulina is better at operations and management,” says Joseph Orr, referring to his partner, Paulina Serrato, with whom he founded Maniorpedi—an on-demand nail service that travels to corporate offices—“and I’m better at branding, digital marketing, and growth strategies. I have a clear vision of growth, and Paulina has a clear vision of operational efficiency.”

Serrato and Orr met in 2016 at WeWork 222 Broadway in New York City. The two followed the time-worn trajectory of acquaintances to friends to romantic partners. Their first date wasn’t supposed to be a date at all—just two friends having dinner.

“We went to dinner, and then a bar, and then a hookah place, and another bar, and another bar, and since that night we haven’t spent a day apart,” Serrato explains.

Joseph Orr and Paulina Serrato, who run the on-demand nail service Maniorpedi, met at WeWork.

Three years later, they share an apartment on the Upper West Side, a rescue dog named Benji, and a startup. Since that first inkling of an idea, they’ve grown year over year, doubling their business in the first year and tripling it the year after that. Maniorpedi now has 15 employees.

As entrepreneurs, Serrato feels that it’s almost impossible not to bring work home. “We talk about the business almost everywhere we go. However, we try to keep a work/life balance,” she says. They’ll leave their phones and laptops in another room after 7 p.m., and their phones silenced and in their bags if they go out to dinner during the week. “We try to enjoy our time together without having the business be the center of our lives,” she says.

But sometimes their business does need a little extra love. Serrato and Orr have learned that they have to communicate and trust one another if they want to make everything work.

“To grow this business into something incredible, we realize we have to communicate clearly, make good decisions, own our strengths and weaknesses, and most of all, trust one another,” Orr says. “Trust is the glue that keeps our vision alive and helps us stay committed to one another in all aspects of our livespersonal and professional.”

Finding that level of trust, and identifying strengths and weaknesses, are at the core of building a business with someone with whom you’re also romantically involved. “You need to know where each of you is strong and where each of you is less strong,” says psychotherapist Ken Page, the author of the book Deeper Dating. “The more you develop a language that acknowledges where each of you shines and where each of you could maybe use a little help, the better off your business and personal relationships will be.”

Appreciating your partner’s skills—really celebrating the ways in which they are uniquely capable—is key to building a working relationship that actually does the work you need it to do.

That fact isn’t lost on Nelia Dunbar and Bill McIntosh. The geologist pair has been working together in Antarctica since they met on the ice-covered continent 35 years ago.

From the start, Dunbar and McIntosh conducted field research on volcanoes together, usually in a tiny tent perched on the ridge of a mountain.

“Living through storms in a tent in Antarctica, you see each other in more physically dangerous and stressful situations than I think many married people would necessarily go through,” Dunbar says. “But that’s really what our marriage has always been. Our science lives and personal lives are intermingled to an extent that makes them one and the same.”

And when you’re working in such extreme conditions, every fault and every strength can be magnified.

“You’ve really gotta be able to trust other people to get things right, get schedules right, calculate the food right, calculate the fuel right—all those things. I think we’ve done this enough that we feel we can trust each other on those things, and maybe that carries over outside of Antarctica,” McIntosh says. “It’s nice to be married to somebody who is really good at stuff.”

Dunbar stresses that equality has been a hallmark of their collaborations. “Having worked in Antarctica so much, it’s never me taking care of Bill or Bill taking care of me. It’s very equal. We have complementary skills, and like Bill said, we totally trust the other person and rely on them.”

It doesn’t matter where your workspace iswhether in Antarctica or at the intersection of Broadway and Fulton Street in New York City: The heart of a couple’s business collaboration is that implicit trust.

That’s something Jimmy Chin and his wife, Chai Vasarhelyi, learned as they co-directed the Oscar-nominated documentary Free Solo in Yosemite National Park. Chin, an accomplished rock climber, staffed and managed all of the technical aspects of the shoot of fellow climber Alex Honnold’s ascent up the face of El Capitan without a rope, while Vasarhelyi focused on breaking down the threads of the narrative and shaping the personal and human sides of the story.

“The most important aspect about it is the level of trust we have for each other in our respective roles in the film,” Chin says.

Their collaboration has become one of the most-talked-about documentaries of the past few years. It won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival and has been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

“I couldn’t have made this film on my own, and Chai couldn’t have made it on her own,” Chin says. “I think that it was that collaboration that really made it more than the sum of its parts.”

Vasarhelyi agrees. “It is the perfect marriage—no pun intended—of our talents.” 

Starting a business together? Follow these tips.

Express your appreciation and gratitude. Everyone wants to hear that they’re doing a good job, especially the person you’re building something with. “Tell your partner about his or her talents, the skills and ways of being that add to the success of the business and your relationship,” Deeper Dating author Page says. “We all need to be instructed in our gifts, and hearing it only helps make the relationship and the business stronger.”

Remember that this is a process. Both relationships and businesses go through cycles of creating, repairing, and rebuilding. “There will be small breaks in trust. Expect that to happen,” Page says.Bones that break but are set properly become stronger at the broken point. So, too, your relationship and your business can be stronger every time you consciously address the problems, failures, leaks, slippages, and ruptures that are part of every business and every relationship.”

Keep your word. It’s one thing to say something; it’s another thing to do it. “If you promise something and don’t deliver, even if your partner remains silent, the letdown will still happen for them,” he says. “When your partner expects something to be done, make sure you follow through.”

Jo Piazza is the author of the book How to Be Married and the host of the podcast “Committed.” Parts of this interview were reported for the most recent episode.

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