Your spouse is always a partner in your business. Here’s how to make it work.

I stay up way too late at night running numbers for my new company. It’s incredible—me doing spreadsheets of financial projections—because I have dyscalculia, which means I was in special ed math and cannot do simple arithmetic, even now. But if you ask me how many people will take three or more seminars over the next four years, I can tell you the math I did to make that projection. Five-year projections come easily to me.

It’s just that I stay up all night doing it.

So when Matthew wakes me up to deal with pigs, the first thing I think is no. Not that I say no. He almost never asks for help with the animals, because I have no idea how to farm and we live next door to his parents, who have both been farming their whole lives, so of course when there is something important to do he asks them and not me.

1. Your partner’s probably not the best choice, but sometimes they’re the only choice.
He’s desperate if he’s asking me, so I get up. He says meet me in the pig lot. I am not even sure what that means, or if that’s what he calls it, because honestly there are pigs in every fenced-in place on the farm and he has a special name for each one and I can’t remember any of them. Big lot. Top lot. Back lot. Pasture. Forest.

On the way out I stop to look at my email. I can’t do this unless I know Matthew’s not watching. He’s super efficient in crisis and can’t believe how long I take to focus on a problem. He would not be happy if I am checking my email before pig fanfare but I need to know: How did Roger’s meeting go with the investor?

But there is no email from Roger, so I call and while the phone rings I put on gross pants for doing pig chores.

Roger reports, “First of all, the guy I met with could be a GQ model.”

“Oh,” I say, “If only I were in the market for a husband.”

“Forget it,” says Roger. “He’s married and his wife is Accessories Editor for Harper’s Bazaar. So you were never in the running.”

“Accessories Editor? Really?”

“Well. I told him I knew the ex-accessories editor from the 60’s, and she killed herself.”

“So you didn’t get any money, right?”


We have to sort the pigs that are going to market. Matthew has an idea about which are getting slaughtered today, and we have to lure them into the truck without luring the fifty others that are in that lot. Or fifty thousand. I don’t know how many there are. It’s hard to estimate pigs when they are all running around crazy which is what they do when anyone enters the pen.

2. Give each other a chance to help because helping each other feels good.
I have to distract myself so that I don’t think about how I’m ankle deep in pig shit. I start thinking about five-year staffing projections and a pig knocks me over. They weigh five times as much as I do. Or three times. Like I said, I can’t do basic math.

Then I think about the company name. I am not big on names so I told everyone else to think of one. They thought of which used to cost $1000 so I used it in the deck and then investors all over NYC googled it to see what was there and nothing was there because I didn’t buy it yet, but the domain industry is so advanced that all the searches from NYC triggered some alert or something and overnight the price went to $50K.

So we have no name. And we have gone through so many names that the last time I pitched I noticed the deck had four different names on four different slides.

Matthew loves thinking of names. And he says he’ll think of a name, just not now. Now he is paying attention to pigs and trying to be patient with me even though my attention span is low. He says, “Move to the left” and then remembers  I don’t remember my left and right so he says, “Toward the wall, move to the wall.” Then a pig gets past me because I’m not at the wall and it’s the wrong pig and we start over.

And over and over.

I’m sure he’s wishing his parents were here.

I am wishing I was good at names. I told him earlier that he can’t think of company names because they are hard. You need the name to be available to buy but you can’t just buy any name because you have to be able to rank first for that name when someone searches for it. So, something like may be available but if someone types in real estate, of course they’ll never find my domain. Plus it has to sound like lifelong learning because that’s what my company is about.

He comes up with businesslore, adventurelore, learninglore. I don’t know. So many lores. I said lore is a negative. It’s a word for story that brings negative connotations. I tell him not to help me. I tell him he’s good at naming Internet companies like I’m good at sorting pigs.

Then I discover is an online learning company. I don’t tell him that, though. Because it’s a dumb name for an online learning company.

And anyway, I’m getting better with pigs because I just sorted one while I was thinking about names.

3. Ask directly for what you need, even if it’s unreasonable.
Matthew is getting testy, so I have to pay better attention.

“Are you paying attention?” he asks. “I need you to pay attention.”

“I forgot my gloves,” I tell him. “I fell in the pig poop and I think my hands are getting stained or something. I will concentrate better with gloves.”

He guards the door to the truck while I start to get gloves. Then he realizes I’ll stop and check my email or something so he says, “Stay here and guard the door. I’ll get your gloves.”

Things are tense between us because I borrowed all the cash that he uses to run the farm. I didn’t want to take money from investors because they aren’t giving me a good enough deal. So I spent my own money to start building the company. Well, I told the investors that so I could keep negotiating and then I spent Matthew’s money. He calls it “working capital” but it’s supposed to be working for the farm, not his wife’s Internet venture.

So I try to be extra nice to him since I’m scaring him with glimpses of financial ruin.

I tell him nevermind about the gloves. I know he won’t find them because I didn’t put them back in the right place. Farmers always put stuff back in the same place so they can find it again. Probably this is true of money, too. Probably this is why people told him not to let me into his life.

“She is bad news,” is what everyone said, and surely they never even needed to imagine how I’d use his money to fund my Internet company before knowing I’d be bad for him.

4. Remember why you’re a good match.
Someone sent me a study that shows how a good indicator that a woman will be a high earner is if she marries a guy who is not a high earner. If Matthew made a ton of profit each year from the farm, I’d be living off of it instead of borrowing it to make more money.

We get the second and third pig onto the truck. I brace myself against the wall and let a pig slam against me without letting him pass. Matthew pats me on the back. “You did a good job. Thanks.”

He collects eggs, I make breakfast. We chat for ten minutes while the kids eat cornflakes.

5. Take time to do something that is not the business.
When I was younger and thought I knew everything and everyone was stupid and I wasn’t, I was hiring a sales guy who said he had to check with his wife before he decided about the job.

I thought he was a loser. Can’t he decide about the job on his own? But now I see that you partner with someone to be a team. You make decisions together to make a good life together, and if you each love each other you take risks together to help each person get what they need.

I need to fund site development. Matthew needs to get pigs to market. And we both need me to pay back the loan before he needs to buy feeder calves in the fall.

37 replies
  1. Ben Ziegler
    Ben Ziegler says:

    A fun post, Penelope. And, so true about spousal teamwork! On top of this, your escapades in the pig pen took me back to my own childhood. My Dad was a pig farmer. I only lived on the farm till age 8, yet still fondly remember (many decades later) being in the pig pens, and getting knocked this way and that. They do have a mind of their own. As a boy, my joy was trying to ride them. I hope your boys are creating tomorrow’s memories, today, through their farm life. Cheers.

  2. Diane
    Diane says:

    Ah, I knew you’d feature that research linked under #4 as soon as I read it. I almost emailed it to you, but I figured one (or a dozen) of your other readers already had. ;-)

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      One of my favorite things about blogging is that people send me links. I really appreciate it! So please don’t assume someone else has sent it. Links in my email are like presents that I save to open throughout the day.


  3. Jacque
    Jacque says:

    Shit. I’m scared as hell for you. Come ooooon Penelope. Make that money girl!

    That’s why you’ve done so much, and I sit and stare at a computer 40 hours a week for 50K a year and have to send my kids to school. You take scary risks and I never ever do.

  4. deila
    deila says:

    I love your writing — such a mixture of humor and helpful advice. I was almost jealous of your pig adventurers — it makes such great reading. But then I thought about the smell.

    Good luck with the name. Great direction with online learning. I’m currently involved as a student (which I love since I’m in my 50s).

  5. Laurie
    Laurie says:

    Good comments about spousal team work…and I think you are spot on about successful partners complimenting each other — the income balance sounds about right…
    when spouses are both going great guns on entrepreneurial projects sometimes there is simply not enough oxygen in the room for both to get what they need…

  6. Sarah M
    Sarah M says:

    I knew it had something to do with lifelong learning or homeschooling. Now every blog post is like a chapter in a mystery book…I’m so excited to find out each little piece of the puzzle of your start-up.
    Sarah M

  7. mh
    mh says:

    dang, Penelope. This had all the makings of a great Letter to Hustler at the beginning.

    “My husband’s hushed voice penetrated the fog of my sleep.

    “‘Meet me in the pig lot.’ were his instructions.

    “I forget. Which one is the pig lot? Sleepily, I check my emails while I slip into my dirtiest, oldest, most ripped-up clothes.

    Homeschool parents really do have the best slove lives, eh?

      • mh
        mh says:

        Criminy, or sometimes delete?

        Work with me here; I have no natural “mental filter” on how I communicate.

        Maybe you have dyscalculia, but I have dysdiplomacia.

  8. Kelly Queijo
    Kelly Queijo says:

    Great post, Penelope. Lifelong learning is the new black! Good luck choosing the right name for your company. I’ve been told the name of my company is not “strong.” I’ve also been told it’s perfect, that the name “says it all.” Time will tell.
    Whether you’re chasing pigs or chasing dreams, feeling supported is important. How nice you and your husband both can have support!

  9. Laura E. Kelly
    Laura E. Kelly says:

    Everyone said I was crazy to form a work partnership with my husband (not one person said they could work with THEIR spouse). Five years in it’s going pretty well–as well as two “need my downtime” introverts working together can go.

    Your 5 rules are great and the whole essay puts my work partnership with my husband in a new light–at least he doesn’t need my help farming pigs.

  10. Razwana
    Razwana says:

    Wow. Yikes. And. Um. Wow.

    Pigs, finances, marriage and mud – all in the same post.

    Patience and understanding – something I shall apply to my relationship with my mother!


    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Well, it does hurt my negotiating position a little, but it’s worth it so that I can write about doing a startup as it’s happening. I find that when I keep secrets off of my blog I stop writing.

      Also, to be honest, it’s my fourth startup. So it’s not that hard to raise money. Raising money is a game. There are rules. If you play by the rules, you can raise money. The biggest rule is to have a good idea. Good ideas get funded, bad ideas don’t get funded. Sometimes I think I have a good idea, and then people don’t want to fund it and I think, okay, I have to go think of a better idea.


      • Danny
        Danny says:

        Hi Penelope,

        How do you pitch your ideas without worrying about or having someone steal your idea? Do you make potential investors sign a non-disclosure agreement?

        I’m currently considering my first startup, and I just ran into your website. I’ll have to peruse your site and do some more research to see if I can find some answers.



  11. Jen
    Jen says:

    This brings back memories of my parents screaming and threatening to divorce each other every February when it was time to borrow money for the crop loans. It sounds like you are great at investor pitches though. So hopefully you and Roger come through with some investors and then you can avoid that fight come fall.

  12. Me
    Me says:

    I would have been laughing out loud at this post except I am at work and supposed to be working !!!!
    While I am not trying to stay an internet venture and my husband isn’t a pig farmer, we often have similar conversations because I don’t pay enough attention when he is talking / telling me something and then I do the wrong thing and he, very patiently, corrects me and we carry on until he has to correct me again because I wasn’t listening when he told me how it had to be done !!!
    I think working together when you are in a relationship is the key to the relationship working – otherwise you really are just two people living in the same house. (Well I think that anyway !)
    Have the best day !

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      So true! I actually don’t think I would have started another company during the last few years because I was still learning how to work with Matthew. So much of a relationship is negotiating and learning what matters most to the other person and what matters most to ourselves. So much of a relationship is learning to give things up. I know that’s not the fairy tale version, but it’s the true version.

      So first I had to learn how to do all that in this relationship before I could trust myself to start another company and not ruin what I already have.


  13. Tara
    Tara says:

    Thank you. I missed the pigs. Pictures of the pigs. Stories involving the pigs. Hearing your story interswined with the pigs. You don’t need a comment on the rest. But I needed to thank you.

  14. Susan
    Susan says:

    Long-time lurker, first-time poster here.

    I, too, stay up until ungodly hours to work. Also to “work”, in the sense of fart-assing around doing whichever activities extend the hours of grownup time remaining to me after my home-schooled sons finally go to bed.

    The pig wrangling/name wrangling* partnership thing between you and The Farmer makes sense to me. My husband and I are both freelancers and as such, we tag-team in all over the place — from educating to feeding to driving around the kids. Housework, not so much, I guess I should count my blessings.

    Our partnership isn’t always (or even most of the time) super functional, so I’ll try to remember your patience with the pigs and Matthew’s patience with you with the pigs when next I feel as if Mr. McPartnerPants over here isn’t hoisting his share of the load.

    Thanks for this blog. I’d like to apply a synonym for “inspires” to describe what it does for me, but I’m too damned tired to check Anyway, thanks.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I really like how you describe your marriage – in quick short sentences you say so much about sharing and not sharing. And I love the moniker Mr McPartner Pants.


      • Susan
        Susan says:

        Thanks. :-) Of course, at 3:38 a.m. EST, I’m probably giving Mr. McPP less credit than he deserves. His 3:38 a.m. EST name for me would probably be Mrs. McNaggypants. Or worse.

  15. Kelly Niven
    Kelly Niven says:

    Hi Penelope. I want to say how much I love your openness in your blog. The post is great but it was the comment you made about “when I keep secrets off my blog I stop writing”. This has been a golden nugget for me :-) Thanks

  16. Neal Salter
    Neal Salter says:

    I think the farmer’s parents were right. Adriene or Penelope or whatever is bad for the farmer. She presents herself as levelheaded with a touch of quirky on her blog but in reality she’s rude, mean, dishonest, and immoral. I don’t think her or her children will do as well as she tries to imply.

  17. Pediatric First Aid in Kansas
    Pediatric First Aid in Kansas says:

    hahahaha! This sounds exactly like my wife and I. She is starting a business focused on childbirth and I run a safety and consulting business. Although neither of us is an expert in the other’s field we somehow always figure out a way to get done what is needed.

  18. Chelsie
    Chelsie says:

    Wow. I love you! I feel like I’m reading about me…lol. I too am terrible at basic math. My 7 year old can beat me at flashcards. My 9 year old asks me, “Mama, what is 9 x 12?”…and I go for the calculator…or tell him to. (Who needs to know 9 x 12 anyway???) :D

    And I’m distracted so easily. Oi. Not even going there. :)

    Anyway, I think I am in love with your blog. :)

  19. Christopher Quinn
    Christopher Quinn says:

    Hi Penelope

    As a small business owner I can truly attest to the fact your spouse is your partner in business, whether he/she is fully aware of that fact.

    When ever one of my employees calls in sick she often will come help with the job at hand. When ever there is a set-back in the business she is my biggest cherrleader!! And when I need to be away from my family to build the business or meet with clients she takes care of the household.

    So, yes, she is a partner in my business… and without her I would question if my business would be as successful as it is today!

    Interesting article!


  20. Danica Boutté
    Danica Boutté says:

    I need help with this because I am currently failing miserably at it. My husband is an executive and used to people doing what he says. I’m not his employee and I don’t agree with you all the time nor am I afraid to tell you so. He ends up pissing me off so badly I want to yell and sometimes I do.

  21. Jay Larke
    Jay Larke says:

    The problem is we are both Scorpios and I find we are both pig headed and neither one of us gives in … resulting in an argument. I’ve got to learn to compromise…..difficult.

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