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, opreneurs 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 commonlaw 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 fastestgrowing, 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 franchisor, 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 microbusinesses. 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 copreneurship. 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 copreneurship. 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 maritalcoupling 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 dualcareer 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.