- Katie and Kevin Titterton
People reveal themselves when they learn you're going into business with your spouse. The responses range from the rosy ("You're living the dream!") to the apocalyptic ("You're brave. My partner and I would kill each other."). It's understandable: There is both fear and fascination with the unknown. Committing to a lifelong relationship with one person is daunting enough. To some, merging personal and professional lives on top of that seems completely deranged.
Neither of us ever expected to run a business. We've both always been mission-driven arts nerds and figured we'd always work within organizations, heading to an office in the morning and home again at night. But in 2015, when our first son was born, we looked at the cost and availability of childcare compared to our nonprofit salaries. Since it was basically a wash, Katie decided she'd step out of the traditional workforce for a year, enjoy hanging out with our baby and examine new options. She worked as a freelance writer for publications including Kids VT and started offering her skills to nonprofits as a project-based communications director.
Meanwhile, Kevin stepped into senior management, directing marketing at the nonprofit where he'd worked for years. We had our second son in 2018. The bags under our eyes became more pronounced, but we were advancing.
But the first year of COVID-19 exploded every fault line in our work-life balance, as it did for many other working families. Kevin was burning out, with the blood pressure to prove it. Katie was plunged into crisis communications for her clients. Our kids' early childhood education program closed. While our oldest started kindergarten on time, our toddler was home with us, full time, for a year and a half.
We were learning a valuable, obvious lesson: It is impossible to meet traditional job expectations and provide adequate care for young children at the same time. It doesn't matter whether you work from home. A lot of parents faced this dilemma during COVID-19, and a lot of them reduced their hours or quit their jobs. And most of them were women.
We figured these were our choices:
- One of us does the unpaid kid and home duties, and the other tries to get a high-paying corporate job to cover all our bills.
- We split the kid duties, Katie continues her consulting practice and Kevin becomes a wildly successful mushroom forager/yurt builder. (This plan required some magical thinking regarding finances.)
- We go into business together, combining our overlapping and complementary skills and building on Katie's existing practice and client base, while maintaining the flexibility to take care of our kids.
So, in late 2021, we launched our communications business, Clear Spot, from our Richmond home. We have significantly more freedom and flexibility now — albeit the terrifying, self-determined kind. Neither of us can count on a salaried paycheck every two weeks. Being paid hourly has an enormous effect on our relationship to time, and an hour that isn't spent working comes with the understanding that we aren't using that time to generate income for our family.
There are also upsides. When our child gets sent home with a runny nose, or when we just want to go for a bike ride, we can shuffle our schedules. We work with many wonderful people who are advocating for important causes; our clients include Let's Grow Kids and the Vermont Association for the Education of Young Children. The client variety is good cross-training for our brains. And when we find points of convergence across different sectors — which happens a lot — it really feels like we're helping to advance the common good.
One year in, we've yet to drive each other completely batty, but we do spend a lot of time together. In our case, our business has mutual skills and interests as its foundation. And — this is important — we like working with each other. Maybe, had COVID-19 never happened, we would have eventually taken this step anyway. But for us, necessity was the parent of entrepreneurship.
We've all heard countless stories over the past two years about the difficulty employers face hiring and retaining employees, and the challenges families and educators experience as they try to make a broken childcare system work. We're not unusual. When kids are young, parents live on a hamster wheel in which they need childcare so they can work so they can pay for childcare. When childcare can't be found, or work schedules can't accommodate childcare, the wheel stops turning and the hamster's hair turns white.
When friends ask about our professional life together, we tell them we're not too different from any remote-working couple, except we speak the same jargon. Building a business out of our home is cool, but it's not glamorous. Our office space is a kitchen table; our conference room is a bedroom closet. Meetings are sometimes interrupted by a child shouting from the top of the stairs that the toilet is clogged. We do talk a lot about work, but we try to keep it to when we're walking the dog, or when we're making dinner and the kids are watching "The Stinky & Dirty Show."
This is us playing our hand the best we can. We're sticking to our values and exploring what it means to be in partnership. It's far more economically rewarding over time to stay on the salary ladder, but only one of us would be able to do that, at the other's professional expense.
Going into business together is an attempt at equity and solidarity with each other in all ways, and that has its rewards. If we can keep it up without our children forming a competing business out of the playhouse, we'll call it a win.