How I survived the first 5 years of my wife being self-employed

By Nick Marsden

Sometimes, someone at work will casually ask me what my wife, Magdalena, does for a living.

I tell them that she’s self employed and runs baking and chocolate making courses and parties, working mainly from home and operates under the name Cocoa & Heart, which she set up four years ago. She also sells her own handmade chocolate on line at a food fairs and farmers markets.

Oh, and she also owns WowThankYou, an online UK craft shop with over 600 active sellers. When she’s not doing all of that, she works as a creative business coach, specialising in advising small businesses with website design, content, layout and helping them to promote their products through SEO.

Then I pause for breath.

‘Wow’ comes back the amazed reply. ‘What’s it like living with someone like that?’

Well, I guess the answer to that question is what this blog is all about. The ups and downs of living with a partner who’s self employed and works from home.

Just under five years ago, Magdalena left her job as a Managing Director of a Social Care company, running residential homes and sheltered housing for the elderly, and took voluntary redundancy following a extensive and exhaustive re-organisation.

At the time she was earning more money that me, in my middle managers’ job in the NHS. After sleeping for what seemed like a week, but could have been longer, she bought herself a laptop. Then she retired to her craft room and apart from meal times, it felt like I didn’t see her again for the next three months.

As a hobby, she’d always run a stall at local craft fairs, selling handmade gifts and chocolates. I’d helped out with the stall – what husband doesn’t like handling his wife’s money? But this time, with no other money than her redundancy cheque, it was for real and Cocoa & Heart was founded.

I get paid the same amount every month – no matter how hard I work.

Like any self employed business owner, some days Magdalena gets paid and other days she doesn’t.  We might be watching a film on her laptop and just before I go to bed she’ll say, ‘I’ll just have final check on emails and the website.’ And sure enough, she’s got a sale, or an order, or a booking for a course or a party. So, we now joke that a day without any orders isn’t actually over until midnight.

And orders can come through at any time. One year, someone bought a gift voucher on Christmas day. Another time, we were in holiday in Wales when Magdalena pulled in a lay-by to take a call from a total stranger which resulted in a booking!

How does working from home affect our day to day life?

Well, sometimes space is at a premium. The kitchen needs to be spotless for any baking or chocolate making and also when courses are being run from home, things have to be tidied up and put away. Once I came home and put the oven on, without checking beforehand if there was already anything in it.

When I came back to put some food in, I found that I had toasted the toaster! It was the only free place Magdalena had found to hide it away. [pullquote]When I came back to put some food in, I found that I had toasted the toaster! It was the only free place Magdalena had found to hide it away.[/pullquote] I’d burnt the wires and we definitely got our wires crossed. Don’t ask what gets put in the washing machine, however temporarily.

And what’s my role in all this?

It’s not all about being a sleeping partner! From sounding board to ironing board is a good summary. Early Saturday mornings are usually spent ironing Cocoa & Heart aprons ready for the courses, which start at 10.00am sharp. And, of course, there’s always a chocolate mountain or should that be fountain of washing up to get through. I don’t lick the bowls, I wash them!

I help Magdalena with parties. I’ve been the honorary man at Hen parties for 20 and WI chocolate demonstrations for over 70 guests. We joke that after over 16 years, I still haven’t finished my apprenticeship yet. Sometimes, I think that I’m more of a hindrance than a help, but Magdalena does need another pair of hands with the larger groups to hand out samples, take chocolates to the fridge and generally clean and clear up. Recently, I’ve been promoted to melting chocolate mixes while Magdalena’s busy guiding a group in the art of truffle making techniques. It can be nerve wracking at times as I try to follow what Magdalena’s doing and help prepare for the next stage.

I’ve always enjoyed helping out on the stall – and not just taking the money. This can be at garden centres, shopping centres or Kent castles. Like any business owner, Magdalena knows exactly how she wants the stall to look like and how each item should be displayed. I feel I should have grasped the basics by now, but it always seems to have changed from last time or I haven’t listened carefully enough to the instructions in the car on the way down! And where did we pack that extension lead?

Sometimes, Magdalena gets double booked and I’m my own boss on the stall for a day or two.

At first, she was very protective, tipping off other stall holders, asking them to keep a watchful eye on me in case I needed help. In fact, I really enjoy such occasions, such as the annual Bexley Hall Place Christmas fair where there were over 2000 visitors on each day.

Magdalena was at another market and we had a friendly rivalry as to who could sell the most. The texts soon stopped when the chocolate buttons started to fly off the shelves.  It pays to be busy.

Magdalena tells the story of a husband and daughter who set out a picture framing stall on behalf of the wife, who couldn’t be there. When he had finished, the proud husband texted her a photo of the stall. A few moments later she replied along the lines of ‘thanks, darling, but when you get a moment, you might like to make a few changes.’ Both the daughter and Magdalena, who had the staff next door, looked at each other and said simultaneously, ‘What she really means is change it right now!’

I know how he must feel!

Magdalena’s trusty laptop is never far from her side. And that goes for any holidays, too. The self employed are always self employed thinking about their business whether actually working or not. Just like their websites, they are always open 24/7 for new business. Whenever we go out for few hours on a Sunday afternoon, a pen and notebook is the first item in the backpack, in case an idea strikes or to capture a potential business opportunity during our walk and talk trips to the Kent countryside.

And then there’s the hours of work to bear in mind. Just because your partner works from home, doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily work 9-5 like you. Magdalena’s never been a morning person by choice which means that when I come home at 6pm, she’s ready for a quick bite to eat and a break, before knuckling down to a evening session which can go on until the early hours.

A lot of her business is done on line or by Skype. So, if she hasn’t actually seen anyone that day, when I come in and casually ask how the day has gone, I can be standing listening to her for half an hour or more before I realise that I haven’t changed out of my work clothes yet.

How does this affect our relationship? Do we argue?

Yes, of course. Never ask a man about a new colour scheme for the website. Or ask him to be instinctive when he thinks all the choices like fine! Funnily enough, we argue a lot about grammar and writing styles. (She’ll probably edit this blog!) Proof reading is proof that there is no right answer sometimes. Or it just feels like that. The English language is as flexible as you’re prepared to make it!

Money can be be a thorny subject

And the friction’s not just over diction. There’s the little matter of money to consider as well. How do you tactfully ask ‘Darling, are you actually making any money?’ [pullquote] How do you tactfully ask ‘Darling, are you actually making any money?[/pullquote]’ after you’ve just taken delivery of several huge bags of chocolate. Any self employed business owner will tell you that activity doesn’t always equate to income. And business owners – do you ever sit down and discuss how much money you made at the end of the month with your salaried partners?

Is it better to share too much information or too little? Does your partner really want to know about the sale you had for £3.95 on which you might get 20% commission less Pay Pal fees? On the other hand, might they stop reading their tablet at dinner, when you tell them about the booking for a birthday party for 20 guests worth over £800?

So, what have I learnt from Magdalena?

Well, I’ve learnt to admire her tremendous work ethic, talent for innovation and dedication to her business. She’s always searching for new ideas, or has the ability to follow instruction manuals like a recipe book. Sometimes, though, she does need to slow down a bit – if only so the rest of us can try to catch up. I‘ve also learnt that when I come home from work, whatever’s simmering on the hob, or in the oven, however lovely it smells isn’t likely to be dinner.

So, there you are, that’s my side of the story! What’s yours? Any long suffering partners of self-employed entrepreneurs?

I do hope, I’m not the only one!