With the growth and evolution of entrepreneurship research in recent decades, new terminology has emerged to describe various types and dimensions of entrepreneurship. Copreneurship is one such term. It is a new term for an old pattern of work: husbands and wives or couples with marital or marital-like relationships working together in the same business.
Work relationships between husbands and wives jointly in a business are well documented historically. Not until the late 1980s, however, was this working relationship described specifically in an entrepreneurial context. Frank Barnett and Sharan Barnett, themselves a husband-and-wife team, coined the term copreneur in 1988 by blending the words couple and entrepreneur.
Three basic types of entrepreneurial couples may be distinguished: a solo entrepreneur with a supportive spouse/partner, a dual entrepreneurial couple, and a copreneurial couple. A solo entrepreneur with a supportive spouse is a situation in which one person is fully committed to and involved in the operation of the business and the other partner supports that person. Often this support is psychological or emotional support and encouragement, though it might also involve a small degree of “helping out” with the business. The solo entrepreneur makes the running of the enterprise his or her career, and the supportive partner may be employed outside the business pursuing a separate career. Dual entrepreneurs are couples in which each partner is committed to and involved in the running of a separate business. In contrast with the former two types of entrepreneurial couples, copreneurs are partners who are both involved in a joint business, and neither one pursues a career outside this business.
Although similar, the term coentrepreneur is different from copreneur. Copreneurs are a subset of the wider coentrepreneur group. Coentrepreneurs are any combination of two or more parties involved together in the operation of a business irrespective of marital status, gender, and division of work tasks and functions among them. “Involvement” is predominantly taken to mean ownership and management; for instance, two sisters involved together in owning and operating a business would considered coentrepreneurs, as would a separated or divorced heterosexual couple. The distinguishing characteristic of a copreneur is not only such coinvolvement but also the intimacy and marital or marital-like arrangement of two partners in a business venture. As Kathy Marshack has emphasized, the term copreneur represents more than the simple equation of marital partner plus business partner; it embodies the dynamic interface of the systems of love and work.
Copreneurial couples have chiefly been studied in the field of family business. Broadly and simply defined, a family business is owned or managed by one or more family members. Family businesses are regarded as the backbone of the global economic system and are estimated to contribute 50 percent of the U.S. gross national product, and around 67 percent to 90 percent of the world’s firms are classified as family firms. Copreneurs are an important subset within this broad grouping. They are often identified as married or common-law couples who are in partnership in the business. In generic terms, copreneurs are couples in family businesses who share personal and work relationships.
Copreneurship is a fast-growing, if not the fastest-growing, segment of the family firm business format. The recent rise of new types of home-based businesses enabled by information and communications technology and the boom in franchising, helping franchisees grow with the help of the parent franchiser, are among the factors responsible for the rapid growth of copreneurship. Another reason for the rapid rise in the incidence of copreneurship is that it affords couples an opportunity for flexibility in their work and nonwork arrangements. Other contributory factors are the “glass ceiling,” downsizing, and redundancies in organizations that have made corporate careers more uncertain. Copreneurship should not, however, be thought of solely in terms of small businesses and micro-businesses. It can also extend to the large-business sector. Typically, though, copreneurial businesses are small, and as with many family businesses, some are structured as sole proprietorships. Nevertheless, a variety of organizational structures, varying degrees of partnership, and differing ownership patterns exist under the copreneur umbrella. This contributes to statistical difficulties in gauging the true extent of copreneurship. It is also often not easy to separate copreneurs from the larger family business data sets.
Today, in the entrepreneurship, family business, and small-business research literature, as well as the popular press, copreneurship has come to be an accepted, commonly used term. Despite this common usage, there is no single operational definition of copreneur-ship. Margaret Fitzgerald and Glenn Muske have listed the different characteristics that researchers have used to delineate copreneurs. These include various combinations of the following criteria: ownership, commitment, responsibility, sharing of risk and/or management, intertwined worlds of business and home life, egalitarian relationships, running a business together and/or sharing an entrepreneurial venture, and defined areas of work, partnership, and minimum hours of work in the business. Most definitions have a similarity to one another and focus on the business rather than on family connection.
Frequently, copreneurship constitutes couples who share ownership of, commitment to, and responsibility for a venture. Commitment and responsibility are often operationalized in terms of working in the business. This participation could include devoting time to work on business tasks and/or major decision making in the business. Some researchers specify the minimum level of such participation based on hours worked in the business. When Barnett and Barnett initially conceived the copreneurship construct, they specified joint ownership, commitment and responsibility to the business, as well as the blending of work and family worlds as the prerequisites for copreneur-ship. Work sharing in an egalitarian manner was also a feature of their notion of copreneurship.
When the literature interprets copreneurship in a mainstream manner, namely, couples in a marital and business partnership equitably sharing responsibilities, this might be described as pure copreneurship. An example of pure copreneurship is the case of the New Zealand fashion label “workshop” run by married couple Chris and Helen Cherry. Their work approach was described in terms of each of them equally engaging in all the tasks for the business: driving the van, invoicing, and designing. However, such an equal sharing of work is not necessarily what an egalitarian model with regard to the division of responsibilities is all about. An egalitarian relationship involves nonadherence to a traditional conception of masculinity and femininity to define responsibilities within both spheres of work and home. There is equity, therefore, when an androgynous orientation prevails and tasks are defined according to capabilities and expertise rather than gender. Departures from pure copreneurship arise with other forms of copreneurship that are not based on the standard marital-coupling or egalitarian model.
Despite its growth and significance, the phenomenon of copreneurship remains essentially underresearched. Several possible reasons have been suggested for this relative paucity of empirical research on copreneurs. One explanation is that since there are several types and degrees of partnership, it is difficult to gather separate data on copreneurial partnerships. Another suggestion is that because copreneurs are so widespread, they are not recognized as a distinctive group. The belief that work and family are separate spheres and the invisibility of the contributions of women to businesses are other key reasons given for the lack of acknowledgment of copreneurship.
Recently, however, the presence of copreneurship has been highlighted by a number of in-depth investigations, notably those of Marshack. This has also led to the recognition that copreneurship can effectively be examined through lenses other than that of family business. Indeed, copreneurship investigations from a gender perspective are on the increase. This has stemmed from a twofold recognition. First, not to do so is to perpetuate the male-focused standpoint that has led to the important contribution of women in family ventures being frequently hidden. This androcentric perspective and the hidden dimension of women’s involvement have characterized a significant portion of the academic debate on entrepreneurship to date. Second, there is the need to eliminate a cultural myth that views home and work domains as separate.
The emergence of copreneurship as a construct was seen to address many of the dimensions of entrepreneurial experience that were often negative for women. Its potential for sensitivity to egalitarian principles, mainly the division of tasks in the work and home domains not being determined along gender lines, was viewed as an affirmative step in this direction. Nevertheless, as research has pointed out, such equality and equitable division of responsibilities is often more perception than reality. For example,
Marshack’s 1994 comparative study between dual-career couples and copreneurial couples found that decision making and responsibilities were not equal. In fact, work was arranged around conventional sex role orientations. Any change in task allocation also tended to be from husband to wife, rather than vice versa. Despite this situation, copreneurial couples expressed a high level of agreement between the actual and the ideal division of responsibilities. This, however, represents an interesting potential paradox in which the tenets of the standard copreneurship construct (e.g., equal sharing of responsibility and power) may be undermined by the actual experiences of copreneurs themselves. Importantly, since it is often the case that copreneurs rely on stereotypical gender roles to construct boundaries between work and home, the valuable and essential contribution of women to the functioning of the business continues to be concealed and underacknowledged.
There is a need for new career perspectives that can effectively convey the vital contributions of women, which might otherwise remain hidden when encompassed within a copreneurship or family business model. In addition, it may be argued that the copreneurship concept, traditionally grounded as it is in the marital or marital-like relationship, may not to be in keeping with contemporary patterns of intimacy and interfaces of love and work. The varied definitions and interpretations of copreneurship could also lead to inconsistencies, making generalization and comparability of findings on copreneurship difficult once the research in this area expands. There is also the possible confusion arising from the use of alike yet differently interpreted terms, such as coentrepreneurship. There is value, therefore, in extending the current conceptualization and research agenda on copreneurship to explicitly recognize a distinctive career typology for those who share both a similar work relationship, mainly in the entrepreneurial context, and a personal relationship. Such an explicit career focus is also in the interest of better understanding the experiences of the women who constitute half of copreneurial couples. The conceptualization of a joint career that has been recently put forward by Anne de Bruin and Kate Lewis is of merit in this connection.
Prior to the delineation of the joint-career idea, the common career classification that copreneurs might be included in was merely a subset of dual-career couples. Nevertheless, as Marshack highlighted in her 1994 article, copreneurs are more than simply dual-career couples: They are dual-career couples who share business ventures. Inclusion of copreneurs within the dual-career classification is, however, highly misleading. Copreneurs generally do not pursue salient careers that are separate in their own right. Rather, copreneurs have an interdependent career or a unified career path. The less known symbiotic career type might be more meaningful than the dual-career category in portraying such a shared career. Explored in relation to the career of coentrepreneurial brothers of Spanish independent film fame, Pedro and Augustfn Almodovar, the symbiosis metaphor conveys the very close, mutually advantageous career relationship that can prevail between two people.
The coentrepreneurial Almodovar couple is in a committed relationship based on emotional ties and trust, and their united career is characterized by a marked functional division of labor and distinct responsibilities. Pedro focuses on the creative tasks of filmmaking and directing, while Augustfn engages in the more humdrum responsibilities of producer and support of the creative talents of his brother.
While the symbiotic career usefully captures the nature of familial career interdependency and the compartmentalized division of labor that is possible in a coentrepreneurial context, it does not adequately address the dominant features of the copreneurial relationship. The symbiotic career of the careers literature is gainfully extended by de Bruin and Lewis to create the concept of a joint career and put forward the notion of a split between the primary and auxiliary career. The joint career also better accounts for the career profiles of copreneurs.
The joint-career formulation is based on the couple as a whole, interdependent system, not as two separate individuals. Each of the two (or more) parties in this integrated system is committed to a single career goal and trajectory, which is linked to the entrepreneurial activity in which they are engaged. There is a united (i.e., single) career path, which involves the organization and development of their enterprise, and with it they build a joint career. This joint career, however, progresses in association not only with the work sphere of the business but also through interaction of the personal relationship. There is an overlapping of the realms of work and family in the unfolding of an integrated career.
There is an increasing realization of the permeability of the work and home domains. The associated careers of individuals situated in the copreneurial context as well as other similar forms of familial entrepreneurship are interwoven in professional/work and personal/family relationships. The joint-career construct acknowledges this and suggests a binding of the careers underpinned by mutual interdependencies. It is thus potentially a useful framework within which to explore career trajectories that are not solely individual based but also more collective and cooperative. It is a unified career of two (or more) individuals with strong ties (usually spousal intimacy or familial-based trust and love) that can span the closely intertwined business and family spheres. It is a broader idea than couple-based copreneurship.
The united career trajectory encompassed by the joint career makes no attempt to imply an equal division of labor, as is usually implied by the copreneurship construct. Indeed, its point of difference is its acknowledgment of the possibility of an asymmetry in career contributions. The further division of the joint career into primary and auxiliary careers provides a dedicated recognition of the possibility of an imbalance in the functional division of tasks in the firm as well as in the household. The split into primary and auxiliary careers provides a fruitful avenue for discussion in relation to copreneurship and could usefully be discussed in the context of gender to add more depth to these arguments. It offers a framework for considering the working partnerships in entrepreneurship that neither depends on an equal division of responsibility nor relegates the women to a position of inferiority or subordination. Instead, this construct takes a middle ground that may be more akin to the empirical data being presented that point to the real inequalities of copreneurship experienced by many women than it is to the pure copreneurship ideal suggested by the literature.
When firm-family tasks are unequal, often when stereotypical sex role orientations prevail, the joint career might be subdivided into primary and auxiliary careers. The primary career is that linked to the openly acknowledged and visible partner, whose tasks focus on the business domain and its core aspects. The auxiliary career, by contrast, is not subordinate or inferior to the primary career, but rather supporting of it and the business as a whole. The auxiliary career could also be one that is simultaneously devoted to the main tasks in the family sphere. Both the primary and auxiliary careers are a prerequisite for the resilience and success of the business as well as, in many cases, the efficient functioning of the family. The important point to note here also is that while there might be differentiation between the primary and auxiliary careers, together they make up the single entity of the joint career, which is pursued with a collective, cooperative, and committed movement toward shared goals. Indeed, it is feasible that the individuals involved in the joint career path may alternate auxiliary and primary roles dynamically within the career trajectory, perhaps in response to the needs and characteristics of the familial context.
Thus, the joint-career decomposition should not be interpreted as a static pattern. At different stages of the life course, or as a consequence of life events (e.g., sickness), the auxiliary component might merge into the primary, or there could be a switch with the persons occupying one or other of the component careers changing over. It is easy to envisage that once caring responsibilities subside as children grow up, an auxiliary career spouse can become dedicated to pursuing the common business vision of the joint career. This dynamic element of the concept thus can include work role transitions that may change with the altered contexts of work and home.
An important reason for distinguishing between primary and auxiliary components of the joint career is that a common theme in the family business literature from a gender-based viewpoint is the invisibility of the women involved. For instance, as Joanne Gillis-Donovan and Carolyn Moynihan-Bradt have emphasized, the contribution of women to the business and also the power and influence they wield in the business are largely unacknowledged and underestimated by families and even by women themselves. A typical case of a couple cited by these authors demonstrated that even the joint decisions made were presented by the woman as “his”; and though she was the one who had fostered the growth of the business that her husband had started up and she had played an active role in its operations during a 15-year period of his incapacitating ill health, she still remained invisible by being off the payroll and without a title. The invisibility of women in family enterprises, or what has also been described as the “hidden dimension” of women’s work in family enterprises, is amplified by many of the typical data collection methods utilized by formal agencies and, indeed, by the nature of the work dynamics being engaged in by such women, thereby creating a self-perpetuating cycle.
A principal research finding in the literature is that careers, especially for women, are family responsive or family centric. Yet, as is often the case, it is usually the woman who plays (or is perceived to play) an ancillary role in the business domain, so much so that it might be reasonable to assert that when the spousal relationship is androgynous, with no gendered division of labor, the distinction between primary and auxiliary careers within a copreneurial joint career will cease to exist. This assertion is also realistic in the light of the findings of Marshack, which confirm the invisibility of copreneurial wives, in contrast to dual-career couples who have moved beyond rigid sex role stereotypes and in whom this androgyny contributes to an equal and an equitable division of responsibilities.
Studies of microbusinesses and self-employed people, as, for instance, the New Zealand data reported from the Labour Market Dynamics Research Programme by Patrick Firkin and colleagues and the United Kingdom’s empirical research by Susan Baines and Jane Wheelock, often show women and wives in a typical support capacity for these businesses. Usually, the enterprises clearly have a principal with primary responsibility for the business, and this is in the majority of cases the male spouse or partner within the couple. Wives and partners of self-employed males almost always perform auxiliary roles, such as doing the bookkeeping and administration and answering telephones. Although these duties may appear mundane, they are essential for the viability of the businesses.
In contrast to the fashion label “workshop,” which was cited earlier in the discussion of pure copreneur-ship, is the example of the internationally known New Zealand fashion label “Zambesi” and its creators, Liz and Neville Findlay. Liz concentrates on design and Neville on financial, retail, and marketing aspects. Thus, together they have a joint career path. Neither of them is in an auxiliary role in their joint career, which in their case is inextricably linked to the success and growth of the business. This example further illustrates the worth of grounding the concept of copreneurship in the careers literature as well as the entrepreneurship literature.
Copreneurship is a significant and rapidly growing form of enterprise that deserves further research attention. However, given that entrepreneurship and careers are social constructions, it may be time to question a notion such as copreneurship that is rooted in a standard heterosexual marital relationship. Although marriage is an institution that is withstanding the evolution of society, it is not as relevant for some couples as it once was. Although copreneurship does account for informal life partnerships, other forms of intimacy, such as same-sex partnerships, have not usually been included within the copreneurship label and research agenda. Moreover, given the recognition of socially accepted alternatives, there is value in adopting new theoretical approaches that acknowledge the career trajectory as the main focus (for consideration in terms of entrepreneurship) rather than the relationship itself.
The apparent paradox of the essential contribution yet marginalization of women partners is seemingly reconciled within the construct of copreneurship, with its connotations of equality of opportunity and sharing of responsibilities. The actuality is, however, often not such an egalitarian outcome. Furthermore, perceptions of actual experience may be colored by an ambivalence by women themselves about the true worth of their contributions to the business—”helping out” or doing “odd jobs” often being used as descriptions of their contributions—despite their contributions being vital to the success of the business and the efficient functioning of the home. The copreneurship terminology, focusing as it does more on an egalitarianism in the division of labor and power within the business domain rather than the composite of both business and family domains, remains rather inadequate.
Indeed, the reality of the copreneurship notion may be a perpetuation of the relative invisibility of women—in particular those who are or perceive themselves to be within the periphery of responsibility and power of the business venture but may yet be core to its survival and success within the wider unit of activity of both family and business. Shifting the lens to focus on the nature of the career of entrepreneurial couples may thus represent a springboard that could facilitate greater visibility and recognition of varied family contributions to business ventures from a holistic perspective that encompasses both love and work. It can more accurately reflect the real experiences of partnered entrepreneurial women than the copreneurship concept currently does.
A joint career can apply to entrepreneurial pairs but can also encompass more people than such a dyadic relationship; strong ties may be substituted for marital type ties, and there is no insistence on a compartmentalized division of labor. Decomposition of the joint career into a primary and auxiliary career provides for the possibility that at a particular time, one party involved in the composite career can play a lesser role in the entrepreneurial venture, yet this role constitutes an integral part of the unified career. Gender need not be at all influential in terms of who occupies the primary-and auxiliary-career components respectively. Furthermore, even women in firm-family relationships who occupy the auxiliary position are explicitly acknowledged and have definite career paths and roles that are neither invisible nor inferior. Other partnerships based on strong ties (e.g., between siblings, or parent and offspring) and less traditional copreneurial relationships (e.g., same sex), can also be included within the joint-career framework. It is a gender-neutral, marriage-neutral, and power-neutral construct. Its theoretical newness, however, means that researchers must continue to refine and develop the idea and support it with empirical findings. Similarly, more research on copreneurship, in all its forms, should be undertaken. Only then will the building of cumulative knowledge on the interdependency of careers in a context of copreneurial involvement and other forms of coentrepreneurial intimacy gain momentum.
- Baines, S. and Wheelock, J. 1998. “Working for Each Other: Gender, the Household and Micro-business Survival and Growth.” International Small Business Journal 17:16-35.
- Barnett, F. and Barnett, S. 1988. Working Together: Entrepreneurial Couples. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.
- de Bruin, A. and Lewis, K. 2004. “Toward Enriching United Career Theory: Familial Entrepreneurship and Copreneurship.” Career Development International 9:638-646.
- Firkin, P., Dupuis, A. and de Bruin, A. 2003. “Familial Entrepreneurship.” Pp. 92-108 in Entrepreneurship: New Perspectives in a Global Age, edited by A. de Bruin and A. Dupuis. Aldershot, Hampshire, UK: Ashgate.
- Fitzgerald, M. A. and Muske, G. 2002. “Copreneurs: An Exploration and Comparison to Other Family Businesses.” Family Business Review 15:1-16.
- Gillis-Donovan, J. and Moynihan-Bradt, C. 1990. “The Power of Invisible Women in the Family Business.” Family Business Review 3:153-167.
- Marshack, K. J. 1994. “Copreneurs and Dual-career Couples: Are They Different?” Entrepreneurship Theory and Practice 19:49-69.
- Marshack, K. J. 1998. Entrepreneurial Couples: Making It Work at Work and at Home. Palo Alto, CA: Davies-Black.
- Ponthieu, L. D. and Caudhill, H. L. 1993. “Who’s the Boss? Responsibility and Decision Making in Copreneurial Ventures.” Family Business Review 6:3-17.
- Rowe, B. R. and Hong, G. 2000. “The Role of Wives in Family Businesses: The Paid and Unpaid Work of Women.” Family Business Review 13:1-13.
- Seymour, N. 2002. “Copreneurs.” CELCEE Kauffman Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership Clearinghouse on Entrepreneurship. Education Digest No. 02-03.
- Smith, C. R. 2000. “Managing Work and Family in Small ‘Copreneurial’ Business: An Australian Study.” Women in Management Review 15:283-289.
- Tompson, G. H. and Tompson, H. B. 2000. “Determinants of Successful Co-preneurship.” Paper presented at the ICSB World Conference, Brisbane, Australia, June 7-10.