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We Found Love In A Perfect Workplace: Dialog

Working with your partner is not supposed to be the done thing. It’s bound to ultimately end in both personal and professional disaster, right? This week, to tie in with Valentines Day, we’re profiling three businesses who prove that theory wrong. For these couples, mixing business with romance is a match made in heaven. 

Today, we join Rachel Gilbert-Burns and James Gilbert. Partners since 2011, and married since 2015, they have an 18 month-old son together and are based in the North West. They founded Totem, who create site-specific software and experiential design in 2013, alongside another business Studio Contents. They will rebrand as Dialog this Valentines Day (appropriately!). 


How did you come to start a business together?

James: We were both self-employed when we met – Rach as a software developer and me as a designer. I was working from home, Rach had a desk space with a group of freelance developers in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. I’d meet Rach after work or for lunch and I ended up also forming friendships with the guys in her studio space. Inevitably I ended up taking a desk space in the same place.

Rachel: Even then, it took a while for it to occur to us to work together. But once our relationship got more serious, it quickly became a no-brainer. I already worked with designers and James with developers, but if we could offer our services as a team, that was ultimately more attractive for clients and meant that we could manage their budgets more efficiently.


How do you divide each other’s roles and responsibilities?

Rachel: Usually we start a project together working on the creative concept and the R&D phase as a duo. Once we have an approved idea, we split into a design team and a build team. We don’t employ any full-time staff, but depending on the size of the project, we might assemble teams from our database of trusted collaborators.

James: It’s good to think of business in less traditional ways. Treat it as we would treat any other project. There are no rules— what do we want to achieve?


How has the business grown in your time together? Have there been any particular milestones?

Rachel: We aim to improve and grow creatively and professionally with each project we work on, so you could say that each project is in itself a milestone. But if we have to get specific, perhaps the most significant milestone was in 2016 when we moved from Manchester to Cumbria. We now live and work from a 200 year old watermill in the middle of nowhere.


How do you separate your professional and personal lives? Do you ever feel that you get the balance wrong?

James: We get the balance wrong all the time! But I think that’s natural and we’ve developed systems to combat that. We have an 18 month old son so we are lucky that being our own bosses, we don’t have to stick to defined work hours. We are fluid and responsive with the way that we manage our time.

Rachel: Don’t get me wrong, it’s not chaos, it’s just being open to things changing and being reactive to that. It requires a few more discussions along the lines of “we need to do X…” “Ok, well lets shift this to here and this to here”. We also tend to work nights a lot. It’s not for everyone, but we’ve managed to find balance by integrating a fluid calendar and night shifts into our working week.


How do the highs and lows of business impact on your personal life?

James: We’ve been doing this long enough now that I think we can keep the two fairly separate. Whilst we love the work we do we also have to remind ourselves every so often that ultimately it is our job.

Doing things as a family, catching up with friends, and making time for hobbies are all important. I think the highs and lows of business are easier to deal with if you can step away from them, do something else and then step back with a clear mind.

James Gilbert Co-founder, Dialog

What do you love about working together? And what don’t you like so much?

Rachel: We love that we are our own bosses, and ultimately in control of our own time and making our own decisions. But it’s also nice to be able to share that experience with your partner. Plus you know you can trust your partner!

James: I do sometimes feel it would be nice to have that “what did you do today” conversation, or the feeling of looking forward to coming home from work to see your partner… but they’re small things!


What advice would you give to other couples thinking about starting a business together?

James: If your skills complement each other, brilliant. Make defined roles and stick to them. It’s not always easy, but nothing worth anything ever is. One thing we’ve had to learn is to know when to disconnect from ‘day­to­day relationship’ mode and engage into ‘working relationship’ mode. And vice versa!

Rachel: It can be hard because ultimately ‘day­to­day’ mode is more emotional, while calm and ‘work’ mode is more analytical and serious. Essentially all that means is for the next X minutes/hours, be more or less serious. It’s not always easy to break from one mode to the other and it takes some learning.


What’s the biggest priority in your life: your partner or your business? 

Rachel: Of course, it’s partner! Without each other, we wouldn’t have either.

James: I don’t think our business would survive if our relationship broke down, but I’m sure our relationship could survive if our business collapsed.


Do you run a business with your partner? Share your story in the comments. 

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