During WordCamp San Francisco, I was honored to share the stage with inspiring friends and fellow agency owners Alex King, Shane Pearlman, and Brad Williams, along with our moderator, WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg. Even as we pushed our time allowance to 45 minutes, it seemed to me that we only scratched the surface, offering high level insight into the agency consulting model.

The moderator led conversation was at its best when each of us championed a different team engagement model. This panel was intentionally designed to showcase leaders with informed, strongly held, and most of all, very different philosophies on team architecture. I’ve debated the efficacy of distributed teams with Alex, who advocates passionately for centralized offices. Shane and I have argued respectfully for and against his 100% contractor model (as opposed to 10up’s salaried model), where the team is often paid a premium, but only as billable work is available. Even Brad, closest to me philosophically, differs on employment policy. Our successes demonstrate that there isn’t a “right answer”, making this an introspective choice for would be entrepreneurs; I would love to dig deeper into this topic at some point.

While a question proposing total company transparency – an “open source agency” – struck me as naive, it resulted in dialog that struck at the heart of an owner’s “burden”. Brad’s confession about payroll fear will ring true for any small business owner. Even those of us who don’t fear imminent payroll problems, still fear failure; as suggested in response to a question about fluctuating project cycles, “there’s never a guarantee.” I would argue that an ableness to live with, plan for, and thrive under that existential fear – “could I publicly fail this team I’ve assembled?” – is the characteristic that defines a business leader. Fodder for another post. Also: for those – justifiably – wondering just what I was babbling about Steve Jobs in response to this question, you can read about his failed Open Corporation experiment at NeXT.

Good leaders often put their financial position low on the priority list: most pay themselves a lower base salary than their best employees.

One more thing: if you blinked, you might have missed Matt’s observation that each panelist is married. In the beat that followed, I didn’t find a clear way to articulate my reaction: “that’s not surprising.” Ownership comes with considerable fiscal turbulence and risk, especially at the outset. When one doubts an ability to rise to such an occasion, a loving spouse can be a reassuring vote of confidence. Good leaders also put their financial position low on the priority list: most pay themselves a lower base salary than their best employees. It’s not unheard of for good CEO’s to refuse pay at times of corporate financial strain. A second family income affords stability that enables greater risk taking.

There’s another reason: sometimes owners desperately need a lift, too: losing a client, the resignation of a cherished teammate, or maybe just slogging through an overwhelmingly stressful month. And yet, in these moments, we are the face of reassurance and inspiration, even, in some measure, for our most trusted and senior leaders. In short: for those of us that don’t choose a partnership business model, ownership can be painfully isolating. A spouse is the ultimate trusted counselor and partner, a stabilizing counterforce to the rollercoaster ride.